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Kumar Ketkar

Time for the liberals to unite

In most former socialist and also in liberal-welfarist countries in Europe there appears to be a massive swing towards Right and xenophobic mood. The latest example is that of Hungary. Viktor Orban who won by two-third majority for the third consecutive term as the Prime Minister, belongs to the Right Wing Fidesz Party. He is not a new convert to the Right. But does he really represent the Hungarian people? Already protest marches have begun, accusing his party of rigging the election or results.
In the election campaign, Orban’s Party projected the “Islamic” threat, by hyping on Muslim migration. He used to say that soon Islam will take over Europe! The Christians must fight for their “sons of soil” rights, for their religion and for Hungarian Nationalism ! (Doesn’t this sound familiar? Narendra Modi and the RSS and the VHP had raised similar slogans in Gujarat elections. The policy of polarisation continues even today.) Because of this Right Wing fundamentalist and neo-liberal onslaught on the inclusive welfarism, not only the Left, but also Liberals are alarmed.
The world over the Liberals are defensive.  In the last thirty years they have lost their political space to all kinds of extremists, fundamentalists and egotists. They have surrendered their intellectual space technocrats, bureaucrats and corporates. They have allowed the discourse to be conducted on TV debates not like “argumentative Indians should” but more in the jingoistic manner. or in the Think Tanks mostly work on a brief handed to them and not on options available. The anchors want to win the argument rather allow debate.
Those liberals who do not want to get trapped in such predicaments are afraid that if they take a position on any issue, they will cease to be liberals! Many of them have defined liberalismas being totally open ended. Some others think that everybody is right from his/her own points of views or their personal or social situation. And there are those who have “philosophically”  concluded that there is nothing like “correct” or “morally right” position and hence it is free for all. Some of them are post-modernists who have brought liberalism close to opportunism or to philosophical anarchy.
This was not so in the turbulent Sixties and early seventies. All liberals, irrespective of their political hue, cultural background, religious persuasion or profession were against the war in Vietnam, for withdrawal of the US forces from the Southeast Asia, were critical of an oppressive state as well as dominating corporates. Nobody  felt that there was a case for President Nixon. Nobody among them wanted or defended communism as an ideology. Yet they were opposed to the US involvement in a war.
Neither The New York Times nor the students or teachers on the university campuses were against the free market economy. From Jean Paul Sartre to Bertrand Russell, from Osho Rajanish to the Beatles and hundreds of rock music groups, from Steve Jobs to astrophysicist writer Carl Sagan all were anti-war. None of them was Socialist or thought that Vietnamese communism was better than American capitalism. In every respect they were different from each other and yet they took a firm position against war and against US involvement.
They were the liberals in true sense. They belonged to the philosophical tradition of liberalism which had its roots in the Enlightenment. And also European philosophical trend in the 17th and 18th century which emphasised reason and individualism, life and liberty. Indeed, the American war of Independence in 1776 and also the French Revolution in 1789 were the expression of that Enlightenment.
The baton of that liberalism was passed on to the Indian resurrection. In fact, just when the Europe was witnessing the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, Indian Freedom Struggle was giving rise to Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. They differed with each other, sometimes strongly, but never gave up their true liberal values. They could distance themselves from the regressive Indian tradition and yet could integrate progressive Eastern values with the Western Enlightenment thought.
Mahatma Gandhi described himself as a proud Hindu and yet could assimilate not only Christian thought of the Bible but also the ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. He evolved a philosophy of Pacifism and global humanism at the time when many ideologies, from communism to fascism and from aggressive nationalism to expansionist capitalism were advocating and practicing violence to achieve their objectives.
Reviled and ridiculed initially, Gandhiji soon became a symbol of the Enlightened Liberalism who advocated the right to life, liberty and fraternity among all religions, nations and societies. Without giving up the “religious” foundation of his philosophy, he could bring together people of all religions. He emphasized that the Freedom Movement was not against the British people but only against the British Raj, their Rule and their laws.
The hallmark of the Liberal value is tolerance. Gandhiji personified that value. Pandit Nehru,  was committed to the ideas of science, secularism and liberal democracy— an ideological residue of the Enlightenment. He always said that to his Western friends, he appeared completely Indian and to his followers in India, he was regarded as a thoroughbred Westerner. To him, that was a badge of Liberalism.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the architects of the liberal Indian Constituion, was in the forefront to implement the truly liberal programme–not only in the political sphere but also in social and personal life.  He founded the Republican Party of India. He believed in the Republican values which were the product of the Liberal traditions of the West. Dr Ambedkar could integrate Mahatma Phule, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Abraham Lincoln.
Panditji could bring together the reformist tradition of our own past. Gandhiji could be philosophically at home with both Tolstoy and Tagore. The Indian Liberalism has been truly global in its content.  The regions of Bengal and Maharashtra had the glorious traditions of the social reform movement. So it was not difficult for the Mahatma to weave in the freedom struggle both the social reform movement and the idea of renunciation of the material riches.
The liberal, secular, democratic and federal Indian Union is based on this Indian liberalism, and not only on the foundation of the European tradition of the Enlightenment. But in the past thirty years, slowly but surely, the Indian liberals have begun to shed their values of tolerance, reason and dialogue.
The rise of Hindu Fundamentalism in the eighties, and growing global Muslim identitarianism, stridency in socio-political discourse and taking recourse to Post-modernist individualism are indications of the decline of Liberal ethos in India. In fact, the rise of caste identity in the name of Mandalisation, The Whipped up pride in the linguistic chauvinism and provincial consciousness have begun to influence media so much that it has ceased to remain an independent voice.
Now the liberals are either Left Liberals or the Right Liberals, the Hindu Liberals or the Muslim Liberals, Global Liberals or the Patriotic Liberals. Their position is determined not by values and reason but by exigencies.This is not only a threat to India’s secular democracy, it is a threat to the Argumentative Indian who kept the intellectual and philosophical vibrant liberal tradition. It is time for the Liberals to unite, because they have nothing to lose but their freedom!

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