Liberals can go ahead and pour scorn on Modi. It will only strengthen his base and reaffirm the myth of victimhood.
It would probably have been more apt if I had headlined this the Ayatollahs or Archbishops of the Liberal Pulpit. Because, for all the sermons they deliver, the Shankaracharyas do not issue fatwas or encyclical bulls. But you have to be careful these days. If I had done so, I’d risk being targeted by both, the conservatives of these faiths and the “liberals”, equally for profiling minorities. Better, therefore, to mess with my own fellow Hindus.
This argument, though, isn’t about any of these great faiths. I’m addressing the latest religion to emerge in the history of humankind (see, I didn’t say mankind): The Order of Liberalism. It’s new, so it is yet to develop a diversity of strains. It won’t tolerate any deviation from its own Holy Book. No Shia/Sunni, no Catholic/Protestant, no Vaishnavite/Shaivite. If you belong to my Peeth (or order), you have to conform fully. There are no exceptions here, no exemptions, no straying, not even a weekend’s furlough. You are either with us, or against us. Now, we’ve heard that line before, from George Bush Jr., and he was no liberal.
I might ask though how can you be liberal and yet have a vacuum-packed book of rules, behaviour and speech?
Nevertheless, let me first try summing up the minimum code of conduct you set for the rest. The first is, be secular on my terms, so dump your religiosity and gods. Second, accept free-market, globalisation and deregulation are toxic, neo-liberal abominations. Accept the state as your holiest deity and just help us make it perfect. Say that all corporates are thieves and don’t ask me who, if not corporates and robber barons, funds the holiest foundations, Ford, Rockefeller, Bill & Melinda Gates, MacArthur, Inlaks, Tata that sensibly funds me in turn. None of your neo-liberal business.
You must also oppose all dams, power generation, mining and pesticides. Accept Trump is the devil elected by stupid American Rednecks, but Putin and Xi Jinping may be not so. At least you can’t blame their people for installing them. Government is great but NGOs better, science is dangerous, especially when controlled by the private sector, and the greatest threat to humanity is genetically modified foods. Any deviation, any violation of this Shariat, and you are an illiberal pig in the pay of evil corporates and Amit Shah, or both. The short message: Be liberal, do it my way. Just, exactly as I say.
Amit Shah, did we say? So, get off my virtuous kerb if you describe the Judge Loya story as “controversial death of Judge Loya” and even seek a fresh and fair investigation. A true liberal would use the “correct” language: The Judge Loya murder. And why waste time probing how he died? You know he was murdered and also by whom. Just find a few threads to tie it all up and hang Amit Shah. You stray from this, and you must also be in Amit Shah’s dread.
The rest follows naturally. If you are a public intellectual or what the social media calls “influencer”, every word you speak can be evidence against you. And finally, if you are an editor, you are on trial over each newsroom call you’d make. The liberal Shankaracharya, the holiest of the self-styled holy, is watching over you.
We published on ThePrint.in this Wednesday, an article by Mumbai-based Rupa Subramanya. She’s an economist and a formidable Twitter warrior. For five years, she has been among Narendra Modi’s most ardent supporters and brutally unforgiving of anybody criticising him, this writer included. She now offered us a piece saying why she was disillusioned with Modi, that she had backed him on his promise of economic reform and wouldn’t put up with bigotry and economic statism in its place. It’s a very well-argued piece, if a mea culpa.
As expected, it drew a barrage of abuse from the BJP lot, on her for being a “renegade” and to us for “using her betrayal to fulfil our agenda”. Unexpectedly, it also angered the self-avowedly liberal opinionators. Just how could we offer our platform to a once Right-wing “troll”? Why were we dignifying her and diminishing ourselves? The argument that a newsroom isn’t a court or police station didn’t wash because she hadn’t “as yet apologised for her past indiscretions and won our forgiveness”.
Now, this is confusing. You would think the definition of liberalism is to not set rules for others and insist these be followed, or else. If you set rules for me, define a code of good conduct and acceptable (to you) behaviour, you aren’t liberal. Maybe you are virtuous, more righteous than me, and most probably holier than cow. But liberal, no. You are an Ayatollah, pontiff or Shankaracharya, take your pick, ordering others how to behave, what to say, who to publish. It’s a challenge for those of us who’ve believed in a different “ism” altogether: Journalism, which in turn is based on scepticism and (political) agnosticism.
Just about three years ago, an American undergraduate won a small battle for her version of liberalism but lost the war for her faith. Please Google Halloween and Silliman College, Yale University. Briefly: Some students at this residential college complained to their master and his colleague and wife that they were being given too many dos and don’ts (don’t dress like this or that so as not to offend a community) for Halloween. Prof. Erika Christakis wrote a cheery email to all, basically asking them to chill and not bother being overly politically correct. It led to angry protests from the liberal group of students. One was caught on camera asking Nicholas Christakis, the master, “…why the f..k did you accept the position?! Who the f..k hired you?! You should step down! You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”
The 1:20 minute clip ran in loop on Fox News. It fuelled the already rising white American anger what they saw as exaggeratedly liberal political correctness. It didn’t help that it was at a “notoriously” liberal East Coast campus and the angry student was a young woman of colour. It may be too much to say this swung the election for Trump. But surely, it didn’t hurt. Please read also the op-ed Erika Christakis wrote for The Washington Post. “My Halloween email led to a campus firestorm—and a troubling lesson about self-censorship,” she wrote. “The right to speak freely may be enshrined in some of our nation’s great universities, but the culture of listening needs repair.”
Go ahead and pour scorn on Trump now, in seminars, pubs, coffee shops, op-eds, on Twitter, Facebook or on your T-shirt. Win instant applause by hurling abuse at him in public like Robert De Niro. You can do the same with Modi here. The result will be the same: Their base will only become stronger. Because, your actions will reaffirm to them the myth of victimhood that the illiberal Right has successfully built, with some help from you.
In polarised democracies, who gets the power is determined not by the conversion of true believers on either side, but by those in between who might go one way or the other. If you judge them all as brainless, uncultured, illiterate, illiberal philistines, they will see no difference between you and the other side. You will lose them, as the other side will also come laced with unapologetic nationalism and a convincing discourse of mass grievances.
Therefore, those who call themselves liberal must expand and share their space rather than dig in, build walls and let the island erode. Most of all, as Erika Christakis said, repair that culture of listening.