India, liberalism and its crisis of legitimacy

If there was ever a time to articulate a reformed and expanded idea of Indian liberalism, it is now

Updated - May 30, 2024 10:51 am IST

Published - May 30, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘In India, liberalism is facing a crisis of legitimacy, with attacks from both the left and the right’

‘In India, liberalism is facing a crisis of legitimacy, with attacks from both the left and the right’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Amid the heated rhetoric that is already consuming most of the space for ideas in this acrimonious and protracted general election, there seems little space for engaging in a more serious discussion about political values. Just over three decades ago, after the elections of 1991, India embarked on a tryst with liberalism, then regarded as the apex of ‘mankind’s ideological evolution’ and ‘the final form of government’ (to quote Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay “The End of History?’). In the years since, liberalism has faced trenchant criticism from both the left and the right, in India and across the world. The alarming rise of populist and authoritarian strongmen across the globe has reflected a discernible retreat of liberal democracy from its post-Cold-War heyday to just 34 countries (as on 2022).

The appeal of the core liberal idea that democracy, planted in the fertile soil of a free land and watered by capitalistic economic affluence and rule of law, would flourish around the globe, is waning. As the phenomenon of “democratic deconsolidation” attains an unprecedented pace, public dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and liberal values has been plummeting for some time now. Worryingly, support for alternative models is increasing: a Pew survey last year found 85% of respondents in India indicating a preference for authoritarianism or military rule, alongside a decline in those who believed that representative democracy was a good way of governance. Similar trends are apparent even in the West, though at more modest levels, enabling Russia’s Vladimir Putin to triumphantly declare “Liberalism is dead”.

Attacks by the left and the right

In India, liberalism is facing a crisis of legitimacy, with attacks from both the left and the right. For those on the left, liberalism (and neoliberalism in particular) represents a dangerous elitist doctrine, prioritising the interests of a handful of privileged individuals over the needs of the collective, and promoting an individualism that has resulted in the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, the primacy of corporate interests, and the further marginalisation of the disadvantaged. The left sees an untenable contradiction between a commitment to egalitarian democracy on the one hand and an individualistic market capitalism on the other.

The right sees different dangers in liberalism, particularly its emphasis on individual freedom. Tagore’s was an authentically Indian liberal voice of freedom, insisting that every individual be free to pursue his destiny: “Give me the strength never to…bend my knees before insolent might,” he prayed in Gitanjali. But in today’s India, insolent might commands the stage. The right garbs itself in the social values that emphasise the needs of the individual over the ideals of community, identity and tradition. They dismiss liberalism in India as a western colonial import that has no connection with our traditional values and way of living. To both right and left, liberalism today is synonymous with elitism, privilege and an outdated westernised world view.

But if there was ever a time for us to articulate a reformed and expanded idea of Indian liberalism, it is now. The current legitimisation of illiberal alternatives and the erosion of trust in egalitarian democracy, the surrender of individual liberties to the hands of a ruling dispensation that has consistently exceeded its constitutional powers, the rampant undermining of institutions that were meant to check executive overreach, and the mainstreaming of bigoted and chauvinistic narratives that seek to ‘otherize’ entire communities, all point to an urgent need to offer a reimagined idea of liberalism to counter the systemic rot that plagues our democratic system.

Ingrained in Indian society

Far from being a western import, as thinkers such as Amartya Sen have pointed out, the key values of liberalism — an emphasis on individual liberty, freedom, social justice and societal harmony — have been deeply ingrained in Indian society since ancient times. Liberal values can be found in our civilisational traditions and cultural beliefs, representative ruling institutions of the past and in the articulations produced by an array of makers of modern India, with giants such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, M.G. Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gurudev Tagore and B.R. Ambedkar situating their critique of colonial rule within a liberal framework. Of course, this in itself did not rid or absolve Indian society from the horrors of discrimination, caste oppression and marginalisation but, as more radical liberal thinkers such as Jyotirao Phule and Ambedkar argued, progress could be achieved through better (and more representative) political instruments rooted in liberal ideals.

It is imperative to respond constructively to the charges of elitism and misguided thinking that are levelled at liberalism in India. What is needed is a more syncretic and democratised idea of liberalism, one that is able to remain inclusive and absorptive of ideas from either end, without betraying the core ideals of freedom, dignity and representation that have underpinned it since its conception. We suggest that Indian liberalism will need to undergo four sets of evolutions for it to address the challenges unleashed by its current critics.

First, evangelists for syncretic liberalism will need to engage with the ideas of tradition and identity in a more comprehensive and sustained manner. These are fundamental emotional and cultural concerns that animate the functioning of individuals and communities in our country but have often been overlooked by liberals who prioritise the individual without engaging with the larger forces that drive the communities they belong to. Populists have enjoyed tremendous success in weaponising the feelings of being marginalised or overlooked that have resulted from the more modernist and cosmopolitan approach of liberals. Engaging with these topics, coupled with a recognition of avenues of systemic oppression and discrimination that have proved resistant to liberalism, is a key first step to take liberal thinking and values from an elite concern to a mass conviction.

Second, liberalism will also need to adopt a reformed approach to economic activity and markets, one that is able to look beyond neoliberal thinking and develop a more inclusive and socially just approach. The magic of the market will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace. Liberals must encourage free enterprise but also commit themselves to distributing the increased revenues that accrue to the state from economic growth. Reformed liberalism will need to be capable of balancing both the unleashing of private enterprise alongside an equally strong commitment to social justice through welfare. The tide of good economic governance, as the United Progressive Alliance era demonstrated, can lift all boats, but some need more help to be able to participate fully in the market economy and to fulfil their aspirations.

Third, for a more democratised and harmonious version of liberalism to succeed, both political reform and a revival of representative institutions will be needed. The centralisation of power in an overweening state, the lack of trust that individual citizens have in our institutions, their inadequate representation in decision-making forums, and the overreach of government through its surveillance of, and interference in, the daily lives of citizens, have all contributed to an overall erosion of public confidence in Indian democracy that must be rectified.

Evolve consensus

Fourth, and finally, though one would normally take this for granted, it is imperative that liberals develop a basic consensus among themselves. Given the divergent views on liberalism as well as the laundry list of criticisms essayed by its detractors, a minimum common understanding is key. Liberals’ “circular firing squad” — to borrow Barack Obama’s analogy — currently spends too much time contesting each other’s political commitments rather than focusing on their vast areas of agreement. In the face of graver threats to our democratic systems, that energy would be more constructively spent in working together.

Indian liberalism is in need of reform and revival. The time to start the process is now.

Shashi Tharoor is the third-term Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (Congress) for Thiruvananthapuram, and the Sahitya Akademi award winning author of 25 books, most recently The Less You Preach, the More You Learn (co-authored with Joseph Zacharias). John Koshy is an independent consultant and former Chief of Staff to Shashi Tharoor

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