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Why are liberals so ineffective in India?

Last updated on: May 05, 2014 10:54 IST

Narendra Modi

'Why are so many Indians willing to compromise their freedoms and those of their compatriots for the cause of economic progress and to see a shining India,' asks Aseem Chhabra.

It is not a good time to be a liberal in India. Sitting in New York I can state that clearly as I watch liberal writers and others -- some friends and many living outside India, slowly go through a depressing phase.

They have tried everything by the book, including the most powerful tool in the hands of polite intellectuals -- signature campaigns, but all indications are India will elect Narendra Modi as its next prime minister, or rather the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance will come to power after the month-long elections are over in May.

Every day it seems there is another article and op-ed telling us about the potential horrors that await India if Modi will become the next prime minister. I believe most of it. Yes, it is good to get my politics out before I continue. But none of that has any impact on what I refer to as the Modi express train.

I recently asked that question from an American writer Thane Richard, in response to his piece in Quartz -- 'India crosses the moral line of no return if Narendra Modi becomes prime minister'. All these arguments are a lost cause I wrote to him on Twitter, just a reflection of the helplessness of the liberals.

In his response, Richard almost talked down to me. "I think resignation to status quo is the worst possible way to handle the situation," he told me. But is it not the case of the liberal voices in India talking to those who already hold liberal ideals? How many minds have they been able to change I wonder? How does an article in Quartz -- an Atlantic Monthly-run site, change the votes in India?

Last week a friend and writer I respect, Zahir Janmohamed, who personally witnessed the Gujarat riots in 2002 and had to save himself by taking on a Hindu name, wrote one more piece against Modi. Janmohammed has been consistently writing for publications reminding whoever will read him about the potential dangers of a Modi government.

I ask Zahir here, how many more articles -- each rightly argued and thoughtful -- will be enough to say, well, this time the other side has won?

The latest in this series of liberals trying to address their fear is the much talked about letter written by artists, writers and others to The Guardian. But how do the voices of Salman Rushdie, Deepa Mehta, Anish Kapoor, Dayanita Singh, Vivan Sundram and Geeta Kapur impact the election scenario in Varanasi where most reports indicate Modi had a clear edge?

The last I read Varanasi's electoral field is layered with a myriad of Hindu castes Brahmins, Dalits, Vaishyas, Kurmis, Yadavs, Bhumihars and then the Muslim voters. They have their own issues to focus on including having to cope with a barrage of electioneering and to accept the fact that their lot will really not change after the voting season is over.

There was another letter by other prominent voices including the novelist U R Ananthamurthy, expressing their fears of a Modi government. The letter states: 'As India heads towards another general election soon we, the undersigned, would like to warn the people of India about the rising danger of bigotry, communal divide, organised violence on and hatred for sections of people in the country.'

Strong, important, urgent words alright, but how many Indian voters would step back and think if they are addressed by the likes of S Irfan Habib, Prabhat Patnaik, M K Raina and again art critic Geeta Kapur (her father was my school principal and I credit him a lot for molding my mind).

One can argue, after all what else can writers do, other than to write, speak to the readers, express their beliefs and viewpoints? All of that is fine, but this election in India is something else. As that other barometer of India's mood -- Chetan Bhagat -- told me in an interview a couple of weeks, there is hardly anyone in India who has not made up her or his mind about who to vote for.

A few voters at this stage can be influenced by promises or by bringing up the case of the Gujarat riots. That was a blot on Modi and his ability to be a fair administrator, but it will stay just that.

Call me a pessimist, but nobody in India is going to take up the case against Modi, not now, not in the near future.

The plight of the liberals is all the more evident as more and more are being plummeted by the intolerance of Modi supporters. Vir Das, stand-up comic and actor, tweeted last week, 'I make fun of everyone, every day. AAP, UPA, BJP. Yet, I only get hours of abusive hatred from Modi's followers. A sign of things to come?'

Yes, Vir Das, Rushdie and Ananthamurthy, these are definitely signs of things to come. And I think little can be done now to make a dramatic change in the mood of the country.

A friend on Facebook posted that the idea of Modi as a prime minister was like a 'black hole.' And she lamented at the fact that so many of her rational thinking friends had fallen victims to that thought, making 'bad judgment.'

I have some sense of what it is like to live under right-wing governments. I lived through eight years of Ronald Reagan's rabid anti-Communist presidency, where laws were broken and criminals like Oliver North were declared national heroes. And I have lived through eight years of George W Bush's presidency when a wrong and unjust war, backed by untruths, was waged on our behalf -- a war that ravaged Iraq, killed hundreds of thousands of innocents Arabs, many young Americans, and brought domestic policing and surveillance to a frightening level.

In 2004 I remember trying to convince a friend, who was otherwise a reasonable man, that a vote for Bush would amount to backing the war in Iraq. And his response was that he felt safe under the Bush presidency. As long as Bush had been the President the US had not witnessed another September 11 type of an attack. To that I said that September 11 also happened under Bush's watch, but that did not help.

Lines were drawn again and again. I was often reminded with this question: 'Are you with us or against us?' And despite my American passport and years of paying taxes, the colour of my skin put me in the camp of the potential enemy.

It was for me to prove to mostly white America that even as a registered Democrat who had paid taxes for years, I was for America, and I still believed in the good values this country stood for.

During the eight years when Bush was President, his right-wing agenda was tailored by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, enriching companies such as Halliburton and Bechtel. But the liberals did not sit back. They protested -- even I joined in a massive march that brought out nearly 500,000 people to the streets of Manhattan -- and geared up their efforts to make a change. That change eventually came in the form of Barack Obama. At least Obama has brought back the liberal social and domestic agenda.

The rise of Modi is not a new phenomenon in India where intolerance has been on the rise for so long. Deepa Mehta and her crew were thrown out of Varanasi when she set to make Water for the first. Salman Rushdie has faced years of death threats and protests because of the publication of his 1989 book The Satanic Verses. The late M F Husain was driven out of India by Hindutva groups for his art that offended them.

I think the time has come for liberals in India to regroup and do a lot of soul searching. Why have they become so ineffective in India?

Why has a nation created on strong secular principles slowly chipped away those essential values?

Why are so many Indians willing to compromise their freedoms and those of their compatriots for the cause of economic progress and to see a shining India?

I just read a report that nearly 30,000 Modi supporters, belonging to various Hindutva factions have shown up in Varanasi to campaign for him. So how do the liberals reach the voters in Varanasi who will probably elect candidate Modi?

I do not have an answer, but surely that cannot be done by writing letters to The Guardian. Surely there has to be another way.

Aseem Chhabra