Great expectations, liberalism in dark times

There is some hope in the idea that democratic forces always remain alive, striking at the right moment at the roots of any antagonistic political aberration

Updated - July 03, 2024 12:43 pm IST

Published - July 03, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘The voter in India stands tall in stridently conveying her indignation at the rise of creeping insidious authoritarianism and sullied politics’

‘The voter in India stands tall in stridently conveying her indignation at the rise of creeping insidious authoritarianism and sullied politics’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The object of politics, as of philosophy, is to perceive unity in diversity, where contradictions meet and merge in a multi-racial society. To rise to that highest knowledge of widespread concord is to reach to the intellectual equivalent of an intimate structure of a subjective and idealist state that works on the ideology of coexistence and welfare of all. But the compelling global history of the fate of democracy leaves a glaring blemish on the very idea of liberalism which faces threats from across the spectrum.

The battering of liberalism, a political order that keeps power in check and safeguards our fundamental rights, is nothing new. The pressing issue before the state in times of rampant sectarianism has always been: Who has the ‘rights to have rights’ — a question that defines civil discrimination, racist politics and xenophobic bigotry. The growth of right-wing nationalism, the global problem of refugees and migrants throws light on the fissures that vividly exist in societies and in ideologies.

Electoral outcomes

In the context of liberalism facing an existential crisis, the recent swing towards the right in the European Parliament, points towards public opinion veering in favour of climate scepticism, anti-migration sentiment and the rising tide of divisiveness as a result of fervent nationalism. A similar victory of the right-wing conservative forces seemed to be the logical outcome in the recent general election in India. But the awakened and alert electorate took on the challenge and sent an unambiguous message to the world that the voter in India stands tall in stridently conveying her indignation at the rise of creeping insidious authoritarianism and sullied politics.

The outcome has redeemed the very forte of democracy by rightfully checking the overwhelming avalanche of smothering oppression combined with unbridled communalism that had brought the Muslim community under a cloud of fear and insecurity. Though one wavers between moods of hope and despair, one could optimistically look towards a robust Opposition with the government in power ready to listen and debate. One only hopes that existing democratic institutions will continue to facilitate the procedures of the defence of our fundamental rights and the promotion of a diverse civil society.

A new way of connecting to each other by understanding the distinctions between private religious faith and public, politicised way of life, will not diminish any one.

It is in such a political milieu that a conversation has to begin between the overzealous conservatives and the beleaguered left. Readiness to legislate and execute with rationality and justice, and having the responsiveness to intervene in the dilemma of the marginalised, hungry, unemployed masses is all that the polity of a country longs for. Human rights that are bestowed by the nation-state on some, while excluding others through forced assimilation, ethnic cleansing or even genocide, principally explains the origins of many of today’s crises. The Indian voter has indeed woken up and given a resounding blow to the indomitable regime that set out to create a toxic imbalance between various political parties in an environment despondently sunk in hatred and ethnic violence. It is indeed heart warming to see the emergence of a collective effort to forge an opposition that, hopefully, will keep the now downsized government on its toes.

Verdict and the advent of hope

This is a splendid verdict when the primacy of democracy is gradually fading away as nations weave their way in the labyrinths of lies, deception and deceit couched in the most debased language one can think of, particularly, when used as a histrionic craft of rhetorical hypnosis that leaves many in a state of discombobulation. Crapulously drunk on power, bragging about its performance and its omnipresence, the ruling right-wing dispensations across the world throw rationality to the wind, ready to issue opprobrium on all who speak truth to power, all who dare to divulge the non-constitutionality of the subtext of a political statement. As is expected within civil societies, political speeches must show some form of dignity and eloquent reasoning, not expediently perpetuate an environment of authority and oppression through the intimidating use of media and the state apparatus. I only hope that the ruling dispensation begins now to discreetly embrace a tempered liberalism, leaving behind its illiberal tactics. And, I hope that the Opposition alliance comes up to the expectations of millions and charts a road map that celebrates humility, pluralism and modesty.

Take for example the clash between the natural order and the civil. As the philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the maturest of his writings on liberal and democratic hopes, the natural order allows you to “consult only your own advantage, and determines who is good or bad according to your own fancy”. On the other hand, in a civil setup, “each one holds himself responsible to the state” and is therefore held guilty of acts that spread “hatred, anger, treachery, or, in general, anything that appetite suggests”. The lawlessness of nature is clearly pitched against the predetermined order of the state, where only law and morality prevail merely because we live in a state governed by accepted beliefs and rationality, a common recognised system designed collectively.

Spinoza, therefore, has in mind the workings of the natural order where all are free to act unlike societies that evolve into organised arrangements where it is imperative to go by the book and abide by a moral order. Living in a social system, therefore, demands that no human reverts to the disorder of nature, thereby permitting the rights of the state to capriciously metamorphose into the ‘might” of the state. Such has been the tragedy of history that allowed the rise of anti-liberal tendencies. Reflection on such an eventuality becomes necessary at a juncture when democratic institutions across the globe stand bruised by a leadership that cares little for political wisdom necessary for shaping its attitude towards the world.

Like many of us, India too tantalisingly swings between hope and scepticism in the face of the unfathomable results of its general election. It is a moment or a mood that will dictate the trajectory of its democracy in the coming years as well as trigger and sustain philosophical reflections on the lack of political astuteness and dignified statesmanship that seems to be the most conceivable malaise infesting our world today. Cohabitation and reaching out to opposing political players is an abiding expectation.

I write with a sense of anguish at the return of McCarthyism, giving many a taste of the ordeal of the depression of a disenchanted and overbearing world. But there is some hope in the idea that democratic forces always remain alive, though often latent, and, at the right moment, strike at the roots of any antagonistic political aberration that may hinder the regeneration of institutions and full-bodied political thinking for the empowerment of each individual and his rights, underpinned by a sustainable consensus. The very complexion of Indian politics must change to show to the emerging hard right wing that democratic forces are up and kicking when human dignity is in question. Our impetus into the future is not only about personal liberty or democratic self-rule based on our Constitution; it is also steeped in moral significance.

Shelley Walia has taught cultural theory at the Panjab University

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