Saturday, 2 July, 2022
HomeOpinionHow India’s liberals and opposition can start winning the battle of ideas

How India’s liberals and opposition can start winning the battle of ideas

We failed to make a case for Articles 35A and 370. If you don’t make a case how do you win?

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As Amit Shah announced the dismantling of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the opposition was split. Some of them knew it would be foolish to oppose a move that came with the force of nationalism.

Perhaps, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was taken into confidence by the BJP, but a party like, say, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was certainly not. Many in the Congress, particularly those who have to soon face the voters in state elections, publicly broke ranks with their party to support the move.

Before announcing the decision on Article 370, Narendra Modi and Shah must have asked themselves this question: Will the move get popular public support in India? The answer, we can now be certain, was yes.

Until it actually happened, doing away with Articles 35A and 370 seemed unthinkable. How did it become so mainstream that the government could do it with the stroke of a pen?

A policy expert in the US, Joseph P. Overton, came up with a theory of how ideas move in public discourse – from being unthinkable to policy. This theory came to be known as the Overton Window, and was consciously used by Donald Trump in the run-up to his 2016 election campaign.

A further refinement of the theory spelled out the journey from Unthinkable to Policy:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

The discourse on dismantling of J&K has also followed the same strategy. Hindutva’s views on Article 370 have always been well-known. The problem was always framed as ‘Why should Kashmir have something special that we don’t?’

Until Modi became the PM in 2014, most people thought it was Article 370 that prevented them from buying land in J&K. After 2014, the BJP and its allied noise-makers started a campaign against Article 35A. Over a period of five years or so, the ‘unthinkable’ slowly became ‘policy’.


Also read: Art 370 killed because Hindu Jammu, Buddhist Ladakh & Muslim Kashmir only benefitted Pakistan


The battle of ideas

Liberals and opposition parties alike will have to stop the unthinkable there itself. Unfortunately, both are too overwhelmed by Modi’s non-stop googlies. They all are out, with few runs on the board. (When I say liberals, I include politicians and parties that may consider themselves so, and anyone who is opposed to Hindutva.)

Those who are opposed to Hindutva and its objectives will have to win the battle of ideas. In a democracy, whether or not run by a majoritarian government on a given day, ideas compete with each other on several planes. American historian Garry Wills said there were four main ‘markets’ where ideas contested with each other: the economic, the political, the moral and the intellectual.

In his book The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu takes the idea further and says that in the information age, these battles are not won on merit alone. They are also won by grabbing attention. People don’t have to buy an idea, only get used to it. For example, the publicity and hype over a Bollywood movie make many Bollywood fans watch it even though they suspect they may not enjoy it.

Liberals are certain they are on the right side of the good ideas even if they are on the wrong side of history. But even Hindutva followers think they are fighting the good fight, and they have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time.

The attention contest

It is the attention battle that liberals have been losing. Modi-Shah sprang a surprise on Kashmir, or maybe it wasn’t a surprise. It is what Hindutva forces have wanted to do forever. When was the last time you heard a cogent argument in defence of Article 370, or Article 35A, or the special status of J&K? If nobody is going to argue a case, expect us to lose it.

Sure, you could read constitutional expert A.G. Noorani, whose book Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu & Kashmir will open your eyes on the subject. But who will convert the book into two-minute videos for social media? Who will spread the book’s ideas through WhatsApp? Or before that, who will create a million WhatsApp groups to politically engage the masses?

The main responsibility to do this doesn’t rest with the liberal intellectuals, but with the political parties. And the main one, the Congress, has been failing badly at the job. But even liberal intellectuals and artists have a problem that they often don’t want to communicate with the masses. They consider it beneath their dignity. This has begun to change, for instance, with stand-up comics and viral liberal YouTubers.


Also read: Modi’s Kashmir move is biggest test for Indian democracy – and for the silent liberals


The good news

There can’t be a better example of this problem than the idea of secularism, last sold to the public as a campaign in 1988 with ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’. If secularism can’t be sold to the people as a campaign beyond English-language op-eds, don’t be surprised if Amit Shah soon stands up in Parliament and declares India a Hindu state.

What do liberals (anyone opposed to Hindutva) propose as a solution to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, which is currently being heard by the Supreme Court? Rebuild the mosque, build both temple and mosque, freeze status quo? Before the Modi government springs up the issue of Uniform Civil Code, liberals must participate in the debate on it and make a strong intervention that shapes the final outcome. If one has to read the Economic and Political Weekly to know the answer, it’s a lost cause.

The silence over such issues is pusillanimous, and amounts to conceding the argument. There has to be a pushback, before ‘unthinkable’ becomes ‘policy’.

One way to push back is to do a reverse of the Overton Window, and it does work for liberal issues just the same. The best way to oppose bad ideas is to propose better ones. They may be considered unthinkable in today’s majoritarian environment, but give them a few years.

Source: Commons

For instance, decriminalisation of homosexuality was considered unthinkable in the last century, but happened in a matter of years once it was taken up. Another example is the rural employment guarantee law, which was vehemently opposed by the economic right and a vocal India Inc (yes, it had a voice once). Today, NREGA is so mainstream that Modi can’t dismantle it even though he’s not a fan.

There was one great liberal who walked this land and knew how to set a liberal agenda and often managed to have his way.


Also read: Modi’s fear of narrative is our insurance against his excesses


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26 COMMENTS

  1. My issue with so called liberals is that they cannot fathom the change that is being brought about in the country. India is being transformed into a self confident and aspirational republic, that wants to become a leading power. This calls for change in mindset. Something that the liberals can not grasp. Come up with counter aspirational narrative that will appeal is the way to go!!!

  2. very bad comparison by writer. For example ” liberals (anyone opposed to Hindutva) “. This means communists and islamists are all liberal. May be writer should ask webster to redefine the liberal.
    Obviously, pretty silly (or is it shitty) article. Hope theprint does not pay this writer.

  3. It is better to say that a chaiwala knows the groud reality of hardship than a person from dynasty, who would have not walked to school any time his life. Congress party is in conundrum, right now.

  4. So everything that Nehru and ghandhis did is right and everything Modi is doing is wrong? This mindset itself is what harming pseudo liberals. If Modi fights corruption even then you will declare corruption is sometimes important for nation to progress.

    You didn’t say how 370 was better for Kashmir. Noone till now has said convincingly. All are just saying it was promised so it has to be kept and that the manner in which it’s removed is wrong.

    Can you tell how UCC is not good? How can one religion allowed to marry 4 women and another just 1? Isn’t it injustice to women? But you are not against these you are just against Modi Shah.

    Live in your AC rooms and keep quoting US authors. Good for the country.

  5. Another Excellent article Mr Vij.

    also I saw someone’s comment saying the cat is out and Liberalism simply mean Anti Hindutva so on that the answer is No.

    Hindutva is a regressive oppressive and communal idea and being that it automatically become anti Liberal.

    also are you on Twitter ?

  6. Liberals don’t make policy recommendations because they have none. they have hate, opposition for sake of it and preaching in their quiver. The people respond to emotions that they feel everyday not to preaching. but then again, a chair, an a.c. and a laptop never made anything substantial, except of course taking the “moral high ground”.

  7. Liberals sits in a 1000 sqft area and shits about environment, politics and blah blah. Think they are the only who knows everything. Come out morons.

  8. Liberals sits in a 1000 sqft area and shits about environment, politics and blah blah. Think they are the only who knows everything.

  9. Dear MR Viz, you may not believe it but i am actually fond of your writing but i sometimes fail to understand your mindset. I agree with you when you implicate that ultra right wing is as bad as ultra left or when u talk about ultra nationalism but with this article and your previous articles on 370 which were borderline fearmongering, you have put someone like me in a puzzle. So please try to explain us what is Hundutva as mentioned in your article and why are you not ready to accept a simple fact that the road of dialog et el has not produced any results so lets give some space to this govt and see what happens. This may sound impassionate or cruel but the rude fact is lives are loosing in Kashmir everyday, perhaps this can at the least reduce that.

    BTW i am neither a BJP member or a bhakt but a proud Hindu who believes in religion is a private matter to be practiced at home. I am not ashamed to call myself a hindu as perhaps u do, but at the same time i honor my best friend when he says ‘Jumma padhta hu, fir khana khayenge’

    Hope you do anser me.

  10. Mere dost, mere bhai. You seem to be totally out of touch with ground realities. We liberals are living in our bubble. A common people see liberal arguments as treasonous. Bloody fact. This is what we have come to. And we have only ourselves to blame for this. Initially you too opposed this government 370 decision, now you are changing tune!! Why? Simply because we liberals have lost “pulse” of the nation. If we keep doing things mindlessly, does not re-calibrate our ideology and understandings – we will become totally irrelevant.

  11. The cat is out of the pseudo-liberals’ bag – liberalism simply means anti-Hindutva. That’s it. Thanks, Shivam, for admitting your position.

  12. Dear Shivam, your analysis on idea life cycle is on point… but you are blind to few realities…
    1. India wants change and current so-called liberals are fans of status quo.
    2. Decriminalisation of homosexuality was done by judiciary, BJP did not oppose it (hence supported it). Congress on the other hand, didn’t take it up when the Delhi high court’s order was struck down. Your liberal flag bearing party didn’t come to the rescue because their minority base was not approving homosexuality. Don’t count it as liberal’s win. (I support decriminalisation)
    3. Don’t insult your readers by grouping/trying-to-group them as liberals and otherwise. We are capable of taking a side for each issue/idea and fall on both sides of your definitions.
    4. Your hero is anything but liberal. Putting gun to one’s own head (read hunger strike), threatening suicide if he doesn’t get HIS way is violence, no matter how good or bad the ideas are. Looks like you are well read, and if you believe that one man got us independence & democracy is naive.

    • He may or may not be very well read but sounds very semi-intellectual. Keeps pushing same ideas in different words. At times he comes across as the kind of writer who tries too hard. Unlike Shekhar Gupta who evolved into a top journalist seamlessly and by writing dispassionately (even opinion pieces) and reporting objectively (many times from the field), this guy Vij seems more leather chair / laptop category.

  13. finally a sensible article from shivam vij instead of the mindless modi bashing. if liberals want their views heard they need to explain properly instead of always framing it as “bjp supporters are ignoramuses who need to be preached”. this is the same mistake the liberals in US keep making.

  14. I skipped the article after seeing th author name and came to the comments, I am not disappointed 😂.

    Shivam Vij has the same twisted sicular mnd, but deluded himself to be some sort of genius. Congis and Commies, JNU types should listen to Shivam Vij. Like he has won the hearts of his readers😂.

  15. Concern is being expressed in the United States House of Representatives and Senate over recent developments. First the categorical administration denials, clarifying that the US was neither informed nor consulted in advance. Now references to respecting human rights and civil liberties. The U N Secretary General in New York, its Human Rights set up in Geneva, are expressing concerns. Any loss of life on a large scale would complicate the international dimensions.

    • Blah blah blah.
      Ashok= Voice of Pakistan in The Print

      There are always one or two US senators to issue statements if you lobby hard enough. France will veto in the UNSC and others will pretend they didn’t notice it.

      It is too obvious you are angling and hoping for large scale loss of lives.

      • Veto what? nobody is going to move a motion in the UNSC for anything. Pakistan themselves has violet the UN agreement in 1950 itself so they have no ground to stand on. Yes, they will increase, multifold, the terrorist and Jihadi attacks.

    • Oh My God. The United States is upset!!!! India will have to give up Kashmir without Pakistan giving up anything. I am ashamed of being an Indian because senators in the United States are upset. They have stopped discussing their gun laws and now discussing only Kashmir. They communicated their concern to shri ashok JI.

  16. 1. Shivam’s articles are now becoming so heavy (read boring) that you need effort (read – a cup of coffee or tea) to read it.

    2. He has given all examples/reference are from US because (sarcasm) Indian will accept any thought as authentic only if it has been said by some VIDESHI. (why Khan Market is buzzing in my mind !!!)

    3. According to his definition of liberalism – unless you don’t accept that “Sab kuch theek hai aur sab chalta hai” you are a non-liberal.

  17. Those Indians who have the label as “Liberal” are the most illiberal, divisive, hate-mongers, dishonest with double standards – one for them and another for others. The so called liberals self-assume many things and want things to happen that way. Most Indians now know them very well and ignore them. This is painful to liberals. Liberals are supposed to be intelligent people but the labelled Indian liberals are dumb of first order..

    People know that so called liberals live in the past in closed cells and would never understand the present day India. The rest of us have to bear their nonsense as they continue to occupy space in media like ThePrint.

  18. Liberals in India aren’t liberals at all. They destroyed history, they controlled research funding for political purposes, and, most of all, they denigrated Indian culture. Do any of these traits sound liberal? (And, why shouldn’t liberals support Uniform Civil Code – it was actually a liberal cause to start with).

  19. If anyone opposing Hindutva is liberal. Mr. Writer , what a logic. 😂 These double standards expose your whole hypocrisy.

    • Exactly my point! Leftist-ill-liberals are exposing themselves. Good that people will come to know who stands where.

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