Review of The Dilemma of an Indian Liberal by Gurcharan Das: Keeping the faith

In trying times, is it possible to embrace liberalism? Gurcharan Das refuses to give up

May 03, 2024 09:00 am | Updated 09:00 am IST

Gurcharan Das

Gurcharan Das | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

To say the world around us today is in tumult would be an understatement. At a time when almost every sphere of public life seems so deeply riven by an unprecedented degree of polarisation and intolerance of the other point of view, anyone deeply passionate about the liberal ideal is bound to find oneself enveloped by existential angst. Gurcharan Das, the Harvard trained philosophy graduate who went on to head the global consumer goods major Procter & Gamble’s Indian unit before switching from life in the corporate fast lane to a career as a successful and celebrated writer and public intellectual, finds himself today on the horns of on existential dilemma.

A life-long liberal, sworn to abide by the cardinal precepts of ‘openness, mutual respect and a concern for others’, Das is deeply troubled by the rising tide of illiberalism worldwide, and even more so in his home country.

‘A slippery word’

In his latest book, The Dilemma of an Indian Liberal, originally conceived and delivered as a lecture at the Third Annual Liberals Lecture, Das sets out to use his personal journey in quest of a moral meaning to situate his understanding and embrace of liberalism. Over the course of seven chapters, Das lays down the framework of his understanding of the liberal credo. The author traverses territory seamlessly from the definition of what he terms “a slippery word” and its accompanying ideology, to the long-running Indian connection with the liberal temper manifest in the land of “330 million gods where none can afford to be jealous”.

The struggle to reconcile the liberal idiom with various events and experiences of life in India across the decades — from Partition and Independence to the present day tribalistic version of nationalism — raises uncomfortable questions. Das is at once eloquent and easily relatable when he uses anecdotes from contemporary events, ‘milestones’ as he terms them, to string together ‘The Making of an Indian Liberal’, an autobiographical reflection that parallels India’s “struggle to become a liberal democracy.”

Inner struggle

But the last two chapters, where he endeavours to point to ‘Liberalism’s Shortcomings’ and the book’s eponymous final chapter listing out what he sees as the “dilemmas, ironies and paradoxes” suffusing contemporary Indian society point to the writer’s deep inner struggles to try and come to terms with a world view that is unravelling at warp speed. Here, Das turns to thinkers through the ages — exhorting liberals, for instance, to remember Aristotle’s maxim that a human being is a political and social animal, who necessarily must learn to value fraternity or collective life alongside liberty and equality, or risk seeing the rise of tribalisms espoused by populist demagogues. Elsewhere, this student of John Rawls bemoans the lack of fairness and tolerance on the part of ‘secular’ Indians that is as unacceptable to him as “the bigotry of the Hindu right”, making it difficult to be ‘a liberal Hindu’ in today’s India.

It is in the political conclusions he draws, that Das turns despondent, observing: “the liberal in India is neither electable, nor is there hope for a true liberal party. Worse, I have no one to vote for. I am thus on a lonely road.” And despite his best efforts to end on a note of optimism for liberalism’s prospects, citing the long arc of history, the reader is left with the feeling that the author’s abiding conviction in the primacy of markets and capitalism leaves him with a blind spot to the widening inequality worldwide that is in large measure propelling the rise of illiberalism.

In another class

For the true Gurcharan Das fan or any one seeking to understand the man behind the words better, his memoir from 2023, Another Sort of Freedom, is altogether in another class, and a must read. The narrative takes one on a fascinating journey across time and space, across multiple continents and countries, and is laced with wit and a disarming candour that sucks one into the life of a man in search of ‘moksha’. The book’s enduring and endearing leitmotif is the lightness of being or ‘Laghima’ that Das keeps returning to in moments of profound personal insight.

The Dilemma of an Indian Liberal; Gurcharan Das, Speaking Tiger Books, ₹499.

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