Home Opinion You can’t cancel Modi, RSS: Why US-style identity politics won’t help Indian...

You can’t cancel Modi, RSS: Why US-style identity politics won’t help Indian liberals’ fight

A corrosive strain of American Left-wing identity politics has taken root among the progressive sections of the young, urban elite in India. But it won’t defeat RSS.

A gathering of hindutva supporters | @BJP4India | Twitter
Representational image | A gathering of Hindutva supporters | @BJP4India | Twitter

The Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act primarily targets Muslims. But the spectre of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ also threatens a range of other groups like ethnic/linguistic minorities, liberal Hindus, ‘lower’ castes, atheists, and women. As protests raged pan-India, dissenters debated who was going to be the icon of the movement and who would define its terms?

Activists, both Muslims and Leftists, tried to resolve these thorny questions by transplanting the idiom of the American Left: Muslims alone would decide the terms, and Hindu allies would have no role or voice in the movement except in supporting them.

“Only Muslim voices matter. Hindus can use their privilege to be an ally without condescension if they are able to, but please make more Muslims visible on all platforms, online offline,” a prominent Muslim handle tweeted on the eve of the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha.

These demands are straight out of the American identity politics playbook where only the specific marginalised group can exclusively represent the issues that concern its community. Anything else is “appropriation”. At a Black Lives Matter protest rally in the US in 2016, a leader had asked White allies to “appropriately take their place in the back of this… black and brown resistance march”.

In identity politics, “lived experiences” matter much more than ideology. Thus, ‘upper’ caste Hindus such as human rights activists Harsh Mander and Vrinda Grover and journalist Ravish Kumar would always be suspected of ‘exploiting’ and ‘appropriating’ the issues of the marginalised. Former JNU Students’ Union president and a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Kanhaiya Kumar recently drew flak for being a manipulative Bhumihar who ‘appropriates’ the movements of the marginalised. Similar arguments are forwarded to claim that only someone like Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi and his All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) can truly represent Muslims, not other secular parties.

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Cancel culture

A corrosive strain of American Left-wing identity politics has taken root among the progressive sections of the young, urban elite in India. This politics is defined by purity, where no more than minor differences of ideology are tolerated. Anything more instantly makes you an enemy, fit to be despised or, in the vocabulary of the modern woke Left, ‘cancelled’.

Even the most famous Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, has not escaped being ‘cancelled’ among the Left millennials, where he is considered little more than a misogynist, casteist agent of the bourgeoisie. On Gandhi Jayanti, many Leftists expressed annoyance that ‘mainstream liberals’ were using even Gandhi as a resource to counter the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. While the RSS was busy co-opting Gandhi, the ‘woke’ crowd insisted that the single-most powerful symbol of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood in the popular imagination needed to be shunned because some of his views were ‘problematic’.

In an essay for the Foreign Affairs, political scientist Francis Fukuyama dissected the “exclusive character” of identity politics where “‘lived experiences’ determined who you were”. This created “obstacles to empathy and communication,” Fukuyama wrote. This leads to societies “fracturing into ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action as a whole”.

This strain of identity politics, centred on purity, does not work even in the West, which is roughly equally divided between progressives and conservatives. In India, where the conservative faction is huge, and progressive faction is tiny (one would be hard-pressed to find ‘woke’ people outside Twitter), identity politics has zero viability.

Most Indians, including the ones who vote for opposition parties, are people who are not very politically engaged and/or are poorly informed or misinformed. They will hold all sorts of problematic views on Muslims, women, homosexuals, Kashmir, nationalism and so forth. These are your average voters of the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), etc. If our progressives paint them as irredeemable bigots who are not even welcome to protest with them unless they give up all their problematic views, then they’ll just be left with their friends on social media.

The only way out for Indian progressives is to build alliances. That would necessarily entail some compromises on ideology. But, more than that, it would require a concerted effort of engaging ordinary people holding ‘problematic’ views, listening to them and trying to convince them of your viewpoints, rather than dismissing them as waste-of-time bigots. RSS karyakartas have spent many decades on the ground, working selflessly in small towns and villages, gradually coaxing people towards their ideology. The ideological hegemony that the RSS enjoys today is built on their sweat. Meanwhile, many on the progressive side display little patience to even engage with their family and friends with opposing viewpoints. Indeed, in wokespeak, ‘engaging’ is often considered as ‘indulging’, and is thus deemed as a moral failing.

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Fall of the Western Left

The bane of the modern Western Left has been the muddying of lines between activism and politics.  Politics is fundamentally based on compromise and alliance building, appealing to the broad middle. Activism can be, and often is, strident and uncompromising, and focused on achieving a narrow set of demands. In the age of social media, the more uncompromising (or pure) an activist is, the greater their reach. After all, only the most dramatic ‘hot takes’ break through the virtual world. Activists provide politics with a necessary energy and sense of justice, but when they take over parties, the results can be politically catastrophic, as the Momentum-dominated Labour Party recently found out in the UK elections.

The metropolitan activist Labour politicians simply could not connect culturally with their old working-class voter base. As a result, the Labour Party’s long-standing coalition of small-town, working-class voters in the Midlands and north of England was torn apart and taken over by the conservative Tories. Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, described the rift between the two Labour factions – the culturally liberal metropolitan and the heartland socially conservative – as one side saying “We don’t want to ally with racists” and the other side responding “We don’t want to ally with people who think we’re racists”. Thus, the alliance between these two voter blocs, which could have been preserved by more pragmatic politics, broke down, leading the Labour Party to its worst defeat since 1935. A similar story can be told about how the Democratic Party lost its support among White working-class voters in the US.

There are lessons for the Anglophone liberal-Left ecosystem to be drawn from the defeats of their Western cousins. You don’t persuade by either patronising or condemning, only by engaging. And you deplete your own strength by ‘cancelling’ people broadly on your side, whether historical figures such as Gandhi or even the much-despised elite liberals.

This does not in the least preclude calling them out for their many failings; it only means not to treat them as enemies, and not to look for perfect allies. The RSS is more powerful, by orders of magnitude, than the people resisting them. A persuasive ‘all hands on deck’ approach is needed to put up a meaningful resistance. But liberal Indians are busy critiquing each other for not being perfect and pushing possible allies into the BJP’s waiting arms.