The rise of the liberal-right intellectual

Professor Romila Thapar in a >recent article (“To Question or Not to Question? That is the Question”) laments the decline of public intellectuals in India. She accuses them of remaining silent in the face of authoritarian governance and narrowing liberal spaces, noting that “...books are banned and pulped...syllabuses changed under religious and political pressure...Established publishers are beginning to suffer from a paralysis of the spine. Why do such actions provoke so little reaction among many academics and professionals?” Public intellectuals for Professor Thapar are a moral and rationally driven group who question and challenge authority. Professor Thapar’s public intellectual is not a Socratic or Christ-like gadfly with a raging death drive, but is embodied in the figure of the Buddha. To revive our currently dismal state of public intellectualism, she insists that we turn to our own historical resources to acknowledge the presence of critical, rationalist schools of thought such as the Carvakas and the Buddhists.

Professor Thapar’s public intellectuals are inspiring, but her analysis of public intellectualism in India is only partly true. What she points out as the decline in public intellectualism paints only half the picture. The decline is not of public intellectualism in general, but of the left-liberal variety of intellectuals only. What she does not discuss in her analysis are two points: first, the revival of the liberal-right in India post-Modi victory, and second, changes in the neoliberal market for public intellectuals after 1991. Hence, to properly analyse the state of public intellectualism today, we have to account for three conditions: the decline of the left-liberal, the revival of the liberal-right and the broader neoliberal academic conditions that underscore these changes.

Renewed self-consciousness

Public intellectualism post-Modi is marked by the rise of the liberal-right. This is best illustrated by two recent articles: Shekhar Gupta’s “Saving Indian liberalism from its left-liberal elite” and the other is the launch of Swarajya magazine, the rationale of which was articulated by Sandipan Deb, Editorial Director of Swarajya, in an interview with The Hindu (“ >In the cause of right-wing liberalism ,” January 29). Reading these two together, it will not be an exaggeration to suggest that this liberal-right aggregation has gained a renewed self-consciousness. It has given itself a historical narrative, and has constructed a self-recognition based on its opposition to the left-liberal camp. It proclaims its “rightful” place in India’s future, the “vanguard of a new Indian renaissance.” The post-independence history of the liberal-right, it suggests ironically, is one of repression by the elitist lefties. Along with the poor and marginalised, it too is laying claim to being the intellectual minority, whose aspirations were apparently thwarted by the left. The liberal-right’s liberation theology seems to be based not on Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru or B.R. Ambedkar, but on C. Rajagopalachari and Narendra Modi. Invoking Rajaji’s Swatantrata Party, “where much of the old Congress-right collected,” Mr. Gupta notes that this party was ultimately pushed out by Indira Gandhi in the late 60s. Mr. Gupta says the “right was purged, artfully by Nehru and then crudely by his daughter.” As per this narrative, the right was repressed by the Congress-backed elitist lefties, reducing “liberalism to a left monopoly... [while the] right merged into saffron.”

Our universities and intellectuals, dominated by the left, are implicated in these accusations and are accused of being pro-Congress. Mr. Deb suggests that the economic ideologies of the right-liberals are not guided by cultural or religious politics, but are divorced from Hindutva and other external circumstances. This may be their ideal but is historically untrue given that the liberal-right has always been pitted as anti-Congress, and is now avowedly pro-BJP, as is evident in some of Mr. Deb’s own writings.

Professor Thapar notes the turn to neoliberal India as a cause for the decline of public intellectuals. But again this is only partly true. More specifically, the neoliberalism of the 90s transformed the left while also providing the conditions for the revival of the right. The following section briefly discusses the larger conditions that are determining the nature of public intellectualism in India. Public intellectuals are not just morally and rationally driven voices. They are especially not to be romanticised as Socratic figures rendered outcast and embracing martyrdom for the sake of higher truths. Rather, they are creatures determined by demand and supply market forces. Richard Posner suggests that public intellectuals have to be seen as “symbolic goods” in the market place, “goods, the principal content or function of which is expressive or informational: art, propaganda, journalism and scholarship are all examples.” These intellectuals are “information goods,” “solidarity goods” as well as “entertainment goods.”

Ethical appeal

In India, the media has been substantially growing since the 1990s. With print media, television, websites, blogs, twitter and a competitive publishing industry, there is a growing demand for opinions and comments on matters of public concern. Television channels are criticised for giving more opinion than reporting facts. Opinion pages in newspapers have an extremely wide readership, in print and digital. There is a growing demand on the Internet for alternative media, and blogs are becoming influential platforms for critique and dissent.

The public intellectual market is only partly about the content; it’s a lot more about reputation and credibility. Mr. Posner refers to the Aristotelian category of “ethical appeal” in the public intellectual rhetoric. Ethical appeal is an appeal to authority, credentials and character rather than the merit of the argument. For instance, some Nobel laureates who would’ve spent much of their lives in isolated research in laboratories, suddenly, on winning the prize, find a voice to comment on peace and social welfare. India has some famous ‘IIT-IIM graduates turned novelists turned public intellectuals’ who do the same. The same logic also grants legitimacy to the several IT moguls and business tycoons to impose their ideas of politics, welfare and justice, even when the content of their arguments deserves no merit.

This raises two important considerations. One is that we need to understand the special nature of this neoliberal demand in order to think about the skewed nature of supply. The nature of this demand is so highly commodified and overwhelmingly materialistic that sometimes the intellectual class resists acting in bad conscience, refusing to be objectified by such a market. The demand for intellectuals in mainstream media is not for a critical or radical politics, but for tacky commentary.

The second point is that younger academic intellectuals are yet to grapple with their identity in these growing, private and wealthier academic spaces. The dilemma is between our cultural baggage of the ‘jhola carrying left-liberal professor’ imagination, vis-à-vis the privileged, consumptive careerism in private universities and think tanks, travelling for international conferences. Until we grapple with this dilemma of identity and location in the academic markets, our actions will continue to be confused and fickle. The silence of scholars that Professor Thapar laments is due to the staleness and failure of the left-liberal scholars to stand up and face these new challenges.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 8:07:00 PM |

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