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A piece of advice for India's liberals

June 07, 2014 18:34 IST

Indian liberals' sanctimony is matched only by their inability to think clearly. They need lessons in logic

Growing up in the districts of the central provinces and Berar in the early 1950s wasn't much fun. No toys, no TV, no radio, no bats, no balls, no comics, nothing at all, just your siblings and your parents.

The only way for children to entertain themselves, therefore, was by communing with nature: stupidly climbing up and down the trees on the compound, playing in the mud, wallowing in the public work department's standard-issue moss covered water tank, throwing stones at itinerant animals from the safety of the gates, poking at snake dwellings, getting walloped for it, and, at dusk, hearing the cacophony of the birds.

One particularly entertaining sport was dropping a leaf on the columns of ants that abounded and watching their confusion and disarray. The ants would run around like, if a metaphor may be mixed, headless chickens. But they would regroup in short order and resume their endless Long Marches.

This wholly elevating childhood experience has come to mind when I see our 'liberals' sighing like that waif's grasshoppers. The song has gone from their lips, leaving behind wistfulness for times past and panic at times to come.

Bowdlerising that unforgettable line from Sholay, they all seem to be asking, "Ab apna kya hoga, Kaaliya?" But here's a piece of advice to them: calm down, emulate the ants.

Narendrabhai Damodarbhai Modi has dropped a twig on your columns but he is not about to kick your anthill over. Regroup, lads, and start marching, go on sing along: hup, two, three, four, left-right, left-right, Modi's all blood and gore, we won't take any more.

And worry not, for Sergeant-Major India will keep time.

History's metronome

Indian 'liberals', whose sanctimony is matched only by their inability to think clearly -- and that should serve well as the definition of an Indian liberal -- tend to make the same mistakes as my former colleagues in journalism do: they ignore the long view.

But here's a little reminder for the poor dears: although there is no biological or logical reason why it should happen only at the turn of the century, towards the end of every century there is a rejection of the political ideas of the previous 60-70 years, followed by a brief period of their restoration, before their final rejection a few years into the new century. In the more civilised societies, the change takes the form of a major or minor tweak, but only a tweak; in 'emerging' societies, the change is wholesale.

But regardless of the society, a new century inevitably leads to system upgrades. The old hardware has to be discarded in favour of the new. This is what our 'liberal' ant-ies have to understand.

There is no space here for a full recounting of this metronomic happening. So only a few examples will have to suffice. You can look at Britain, France, Germany, Russia, etc in the last 500-300 years, and more recently the United States in the last 200, and you will find this phenomenon.

So why should India be an exception now when it has not been in the past? Just look at the history of the last 500 years and you will find that, as societies go, we are not unique. The 20-25 years around the -00 year have always been one of systemic change.

21st century liberalism

It is hard to say how it will evolve in other countries -- in China, for example -- but Indian political liberalism will have to reconcile the contradiction between the imperatives of an electoral democracy, which tends to focus on group identities, with the cornerstone of liberalism, the individual.

Think about it and you will see how it is logically impossible to have both at the same time. This logical impossibility means that our 'liberals' can't have different rules for different groups, especially minority groups, howsoever identified.

Nor can they say that the rights of religious minorities rank higher than the rights of castes, all of which are identity minorities by definition but which nevertheless have millions of people in them. And if they say caste is evil -- which it is -- and must go, they must also say religion is evil and must go. Both, after all, represent faith in a divinely ordered system, so who is to say which is better?

Second, political liberalism will have to reconcile the conflict with economic liberalism because political liberalism has a downward productivity bias -- the hai bechara he didn't get the right breaks syndrome -- while economic liberalism has the opposite bias. The notion of disadvantaged groups will have to give way to the more egalitarian idea of disadvantaged individuals as targets of state action. Two hundred million scholarships a year will take care of most of the problem. That, really, should be Smriti Irani's task for over the next five years.

Third, the inherent contradiction between our system of legal justice, which is aimed at the individual, and our system of political justice, which is aimed at the group, will also have to be resolved. Since laws cannot be aimed at groups -- as the United Progressive Alliance tried -- it is easy to see which way this one will end.

If the 'liberals' can change this much in the next decade, they will remain politically relevant. If not, well, it was nice knowing you, folks.

Image: Representation purpose. Photograph: Reuters

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan