How India needs to rescue its liberals from the Left

We need to break away from a didactic ideology, which resists change and brooks no dissent.

 |   Long-form |   07-08-2015

"If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 30, you have no brain."

Writing in Bloomberg Business, Avi Tuschman added:  "Variations of this saying have been attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Aristide Briand, and Winston Churchill. The thought first came, in fact, from a French statesman, François Guizot (1787-1874). Regardless of its origin, the adage raises a fascinating question: Do the young really lean Left because of passions and idealism? And as people age, do they incline toward the Right because they become more realistic or cynical?"

But more of Tuschman's theory later. Who exactly is a liberal? The first rule of liberalism is tolerance to different points of view. The second rule? Openness. The third: rejection of feudalism, casteism and communalism.

How do our politicians and opinion-makers fare when we apply these criteria? Most Indian Left-leaners call themselves liberals. But the Left is a didactic ideology. It resists change. It brooks no ideological dissent. India's Left politicians still hanker after the Soviet economic model which has been discredited by every country except North Korea. Even China, the Indian Left's old lodestar, has embraced free markets since 1979 when Deng Xiaoping changed the course of Chinese economic history.

In 1979, still under economic controls, Chinese GDP was $ 182 billion. Indian GDP in 1979 was $ 227 billion.

Cut to 2015.

Chinese GDP is $11.21 trillion, Indian GDP $2.31 trillion.

China transformed itself from an impoverished country into a middle-income nation in one generation. India, despite start-stop-start economic reforms since 1991, has remained an impoverished economy, albeit with oases of wealth.  

The Left in India damaged West Bengal almost beyond repair during its 37 years of regressive governance. Is Left-liberal therefore an oxymoron? Clearly, a sharp distinction has to be drawn between economic and social policies. Liberal economic policies mean open, transparent, accountable markets with robust regulatory institutions administered with a light touch. In short, a regulatory system that is principles-led and rules-based.   

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Liberal economic policies enlarge the economic cake. Leftist economic policies shrink the economic cake. What about equitable distribution? Here's the mistake political parties on the economic Right (like the BJP) make. While it's important to be Right-of-Centre on economics, social liberalism requires a shift to the centre. Distribution of wealth is as important as creation.

Just as liberal policies reward open, accountable market-led economies, social liberalism demands a specific set of values. Tolerance and openness again are the key. Social liberalism accepts diversity in all its forms - gender, sexuality and community. You can't be liberal-Right on economics and reject, for example, the civil rights of gays to lead their lives with the same respect their peers do.  

And you can't be secular if you embrace minoritarianism to win votes. The real liberal will tell Muslims the truth: you need modern education with science, math and literature, not madrassas that lay stress on religious teaching at the expense of real education.  Those on the Right similarly can't have it both ways: economic liberalism and social regressiveness. A progressive Centre-Right movement must embrace modern attitudes to gender equality, sexual diversity and real secularism that puts "Bharat Shastra" ahead of "Hindu Shastra". Stress the value of ancient Indian texts but don't neglect contemporary knowledge.

One of the reasons our intellectual discourse is still dominated by Left-leaning academics, historians and journalists is that both the Right and Left have fallen behind global economic and social changes. Colonial and Marxist ideologies have run their course worldwide, except in India, because they have failed the litmus test: improving people's lives and creating a fairer, more equal society.

Those countries which are socially illiberal and politically feudal - Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example - will remain steeped in backwardness. In India, the tussle between the Left and Right is largely a theoretical middle-class exercise. The poor are neither Left nor Right - just poor. To lift them out of debilitating poverty, Right-of-Centre economic policies with pragmatic (but not paternalistic) welfare distribution and progressive social policies are the way forward.

Most young people who are Left-leaning trend to study humanities. Few venture into science and mathematics. As a result, historians, journalists and sociologists - all humanities subjects - dominate public discourse. Those from the IITs and the pure sciences have specialised knowledge but lack linguistic and soft skills. The battle is often unequal. Age, gender and psychology all play a role.

Here's what Tuschman says: "A 2004 study by psychologists Robert McCrae and Jüri Allik in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology of 36 cultures across Africa, Europe, and Asia discovered that openness and conscientiousness differ between 18- to 22-year-olds and older adults. If an individual's political personality hasn't changed by the time of his or her 30th birthday, however, it's not likely to differ all that much at 40, 50, or 60. This isn't to say that all teenagers are liberal and all older people are conservative. In any age group, people are distributed along the Left-Right spectrum on a bell curve. The entire curve, however, moves somewhat to the Right during the mid-20s.

"There is one life event, though, that greatly accelerates a person's shift to the Right, and it often occurs in the 30s: parenthood. Its political impact is easy to see among a cohort of Canadian college students studied by psychologist Robert Altemeyer. Their scores on an ideology test at age 22 grew more conservative by an average of 5.4 per cent when they were retested at 30. But among those 30-year-olds who'd had children, conservatism increased by 9.4 per cent.

"Why did having kids push people to the Right? Parents stay on the lookout for possible sources of danger that nonparents can ignore. This shift in perception is so strong it creates an illusory sense of risk; new parents tend to believe that crime rates have increased since they had children even when actual crime has dropped dramatically. Because 'dangerous world' thinking is associated with political conservatism, parenthood pushes people to the Right, and more so when they have daughters."

Self-styled Left-liberals in India are incestuous, promoting one another while discrediting those with opposing views. India needs a powerful new economic-Right, social-Centre intellectual ecosystem that is not a colonial, Marxist or feudal derivative. The media can be an important component of this ecosystem.

The Economist, for example, says its journalism falls into the "radical centre". It explains its liberal editorial policy thus: "We like free enterprise and tend to favour deregulation and privatisation. But we also like gay marriage, want to legalise drugs and disapprove of monarchy. So is the newspaper right-wing or left-wing? Neither, is the answer. The Economist was founded in 1843 by James Wilson, a British businessman who objected to heavy import duties on foreign corn. Mr Wilson and his friends in the Anti-Corn Law League were classical liberals in the tradition of Adam Smith and, later, the likes of John Stuart Mill and William Ewart Gladstone. This intellectual ancestry has guided the newspaper's instincts ever since: it opposes all undue curtailment of an individual's economic or personal freedom. "But like its founders, it is not dogmatic. Where there is a liberal case for government to do something, The Economist will air it. Early in its life, its writers were keen supporters of the income tax, for example. Since then it has backed causes like universal health care and gun control. But its starting point is that government should only remove power and wealth from individuals when it has an excellent reason to do so.

"The concepts of right- and left-wing predate The Economist's foundation by half a century. They first referred to seating arrangements in the National Assembly in Paris during the French Revolution. Monarchists sat on the right, revolutionaries on the left. To this day, the phrases distinguish conservatives from egalitarians. But they do a poor job of explaining The Economist's liberalism, which reconciles the left's impatience at an unsatisfactory status quo with the right's scepticism about grandiose redistributive schemes. So although its credo and its history are as rich as that of any reactionary or revolutionary, The Economist has no permanent address on the left-right scale. "In most countries, the political divide is conservative-egalitarian, not liberal-illiberal. So it has no party allegiance, either. When it covers elections, it gives its endorsement to the candidate or party most likely to pursue classically liberal policies. It has thrown its weight behind politicians on the right, like Margaret Thatcher, and on the left, like Barack Obama. It is often drawn to centrist politicians and parties who appear to combine the best of both sides, such as Tony Blair, whose combination of social and economic liberalism persuaded it to endorse him at the 2001 and the 2005 elections (though it criticised his government's infringements of civil liberties).

"When The Economist opines on new ideas and policies, it does so on the basis of their merits, not of who supports or opposes them. Last October, for example, it outlined a programme of reforms to combat inequality. Some, like attacking monopolies and targeting public spending on the poor and the young, had a leftish hue. Others, like raising retirement ages and introducing more choice in education, were more rightish. The result, 'True Progressivism', was a blend of the two: neither right nor left, but all the better for it, and coming instead from what we like to call the radical centre."

The intellectual centre of gravity in India too is clearly shifting. A new generation of opinion-makers is emerging on the economic right and at the socio-cultural centre. That is the liberal future.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations