What ails liberals in India?

Makarand R Paranjape
Makarand R ParanjapeAug 01, 2018 | 12:02

What ails liberals in India?

All over the world, liberalism seems to be in tatters. What is more, the crisis of global liberalism seems mostly of its own making. What has caused this drastic decline, this twilight of liberalism? I often ask such questions being a liberal myself. But here’s the rub: what does “liberalism” really mean? What sort of a liberal am I if I do consider myself one? To answer the last question first, I would call myself a dharmic liberal. This, to me, is a uniquely Indian version of liberalism.


Clash of ideas

One of the pioneers of dharmic liberalism is Hari Kiran Vadlamani (HKV). In addition to being a serial, I would add serious, entrepreneur, he is also a cultural and civilisational visionary. According to HKV, there is often a clash between classical liberalism and social liberalism. The former stands for economic, cultural and social freedom, while the latter has tended to be more interventionist and regulatory, focusing on justice and equality, rather than liberty. Dharma is the “plus” that allows a link, rather than clash, between the two sides of the liberal spectrum. Dharma shifts us from rights to responsibilities.

To me, HKV is following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi who not only found a way to bridge the gulf between Right and Left, liberal and conservative, moderates and extremists, but also between capitalism and socialism. Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship is, to me, one of the best, if under-tried experiments, in duty-based liberalism. Gandhi was not at all statist; paradoxically, like Marx, he wanted the state, if not to wither away, to be minimally interfering or regulatory.

Today, however, the state is everywhere. Politics, in fact, has become the art of capturing the state for private, community, or party gain. No side or shade of our political spectrum, in that sense, is truly liberal; they are all statist, pushing for bigger and bigger bureaucratic and political control of our lives. Our sorrow, in fact, is that instead of being increasingly independent and self-reliant economically, socially and culturally, we are getting more and more politicised and politics-oriented, which in turn is more statist than "swarajist".


But the real reason for the failure of liberalism is not its inability to reconcile rights with duties or freedom with justice. Liberalism the world over has failed because of one deadly disease: hypocrisy. Liberals are, unfortunately, quite an illiberal lot. They seem to dislike and despise those who disagree with them. Instead of free-and-fair debate, they are more interested in rigging or sledging outcomes and decisions.

Liberals, it is evident, no longer want the best ideas to compete for public attention. Instead, they wish to dominate by exercising unearned privileges. Not discussion, but hegemony seems to be their object. When they are thwarted, they become extremely upset, even violent.

Photo: Indiatoday.in

The apologists

In the heyday of Communism, many Western liberals colluded, even spied, for the Soviet Union. How could they justify such a betrayal? The answer is simple. A combination of ideology and expediency. Today’s liberals are also seen supporting or apologising for radical Islam, which, though in a different manner and register, is as intolerant as Soviet-style socialism used to be.

Many liberals lack the integrity to admit that they are compromised in supporting illiberal causes, such as the veil, which for most is so obviously a patriarchal theological imposition rather than a choice. Liberalism is in a sad state today precisely because liberals themselves have betrayed it.


I see similar patterns of hypocrisy, chicanery, expediency and, ultimately, rage being played out in India when the older entrenched and entitled liberals are being shunted out by the new regime. Not only are these liberals not dharmic in the sense of not being ethical, but they also have hardly any knowledge or understanding of dharma, that is, of Indic civilisation. On a little sliver of derived and borrowed knowledge, they have lorded it over the “unwashed masses” for decades.

Personal experience

I’ve had ample personal experience of this over the years, but was once again surprised by its virulence in the last few weeks as the co-curator of “Bharat Shakti: The Pondy Lit Fest”. Its first edition scheduled to kick off from August 17-19 in Puducherry, “Bharat Shakti” has become subject to relentless attacks. Some have called it a festival of “BJP bootlickers”, others have complained of the “saffronisation” of literary festivals. As if one side has a monopoly to hold them!

Personally, I do not subscribe to the Left versus Right bi-polarity or uncivil war that is dividing our public sphere. Opinions of all colours and stripes should engage and vie for attention. That is the great Indian way, which I call intermedial hermeneutics. But what is the cure or counter to entitlement combined with intolerance?

Our festival is clearly inspired by Sri Aurobindo who exhorted the national mind to “turn new eyes on past culture, reawaken to its sense and import, and see it in relation to modern knowledge and ideas” so that “out of this awakening, vision and impulse the Indian renaissance may arise.” To this end, we have tried to invite outstanding thinkers, writers, and artists to propose new, creative solutions to the many issues that confront us today. I consider the Pondy Lit Fest, thus, to be an example of dharmic liberalism.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: August 02, 2018 | 12:54
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