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What is wrong with the Left-Liberals?

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Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.

The left-liberals are an essential component of Indian civil society and the civil societies of the western democracies. Politically, this mass is rather fuzzy and seems to evade a cogent definition. In this sense they are unlike the Communists who can be identified by their faith in a political prophet – Karl Marx – and the particular assessment of human history he presented in a book – Das Capital. However, if one tries to define the left-liberals after all, they may be termed people who generally stand against giving a full free reign to the market, any form of political authoritarianism and cultural ethnocentrism (the belief that certain types of cultures or ways of life might be superior to others). They are undoubtedly an articulate lot and have a visible presence on our university campuses, in the media houses and, albeit to a limited extent, political parties. They are both urban and urbane and their articulate ways owe to the fact they are generally privy to an education that some of the best institutions in India or the west can provide. Naturally, they are a lot who seek to engage with and interpret the social and political realities unfolding in the country. Yet, of late they have been failing with a disconcerting frequency to predict the outcome of these realities. They, for example, failed altogether to read and interpret the political mood of the country in 2014 and the eventual ‘Modi wave’ it engendered. Again, over the past one week, left-liberals have been eloquently critical, even mocking, of the demonetization of the five hundred and one thousand rupee notes by the government. However, the citizenry of the country, though undoubtedly inconvenienced, does not seem to be sharing their disapproval. The public, for whom the left-liberals claim to speak, have not yet rioted on the streets. In fact, this writer has observed that they are actually quite appreciative of the move. The left liberals, thus, seem to be curiously detached from the very realities they offer to interpret for the benefit of the society they inhabit. Equally striking is their political irrelevance. They are not a constituency the political parties at all bother to court. Why is it so?

There are, in my opinion, a set of salient reasons behind the political irrelevance and the general disconnectedness of the left-liberal public from the prevailing mood in the country. To begin with, the left-liberal engagement is actually not an engagement at all. It is an expectation – that the masses follow and act out what in the left-liberal view is an ideal political and social script. The citizenry, thus, as per this ideal script, must outright reject a political party with even slightly center right economic ideas. Greater liberalization of the economy along with a lessening of government controls and intervention, must be suggestions completely abhorrent to the voters of this country. But it seems like they are not. Again, in the left-liberal la la land, the poor, socially disadvantaged and ethnic minorities must be perpetually restive and disgruntled with the Indian nation state and dominant social mores. But these groups do not play to the script. As a result, the left-liberals fail to explain the universal indifference of the Indian poor and the Dalits towards the Communist parties. Metropolitan left-liberals are also unaware that Hindi is the language of every day communication in far-away Arunachal Pradesh. Yes, it is the locals there who use the language. Most that I meet in Delhi also do not know that remote borders states such as Manipur and Tripura are deeply traditional and conservative Vaishnavite Hindu societies. Agreed that sometimes on the northern margins of the Indian nation state disgruntled folks pelt stones. But I won’t accept that as a substantiation of the often made left-liberal suggestion that the Indian nation state is by nature oppressive towards the margins. That is because the other margin – the North East – today securely regards itself a part of the Indian narrative. I am from the North East, from Tripura.

When the ideal left-liberal political and social script does not unfold, what is the reaction of this lot? Is it introspection? No, not at all. It is mockery of the choices that the people make or, worse, self-righteous indignation. Apparently, a lot of ladies and gents of the left-liberal persuasion seem to believe today that they can oust the present government by simply mocking it on the social media platforms. If that does not work, they simply have to be consistently angry towards it. Presumably, the government in power is bound to be incinerated in the sacred flames of left-liberal ire. Why this mockery and indignation and the absence of even a pretense of understanding as to why the Indian voters made the choice they did in 2014? To my eyes, the left-liberal snooty snigger and petulance indicate an extreme form of elitism which refuses to accept the ethical and political autonomy of the Indian masses – that are in no way beholden to act out a script that the left-liberals regard ideal for them. I have, thus, come to feel that the left-liberal tradition is a form of ‘aristocratic reaction.’ The left-liberals curiously resemble the pre-modern European aristocracy which expected of the poor a certain kind of Christian piety and reacted with indignation and incomprehension when the poor failed to show it. However, it is not that the poor were impious. It is only that the aristocracy stood at such a great remove from the poor that this piety was neither visible nor understandable to them. I feel, thus, that the left-liberals practice the political equivalent of ethnocentrism, however piously they might believe in the equal validity of all cultures.

Nothing captures the left-liberal snooty snigger, so redolent of the ways of a dead aristocracy, than the pejorative use of ‘bhakt.’ Apparently, the ‘bhakts’ nurture an uncritical affection for the Prime Minister of our benighted land and are, hence, worthy of nothing but mockery. The voter turnout in the 2014 general elections was 66%, the number of eligible voters was about 80 crores. This means that about 52 crores actually cast their votes. BJP’s vote share in 2014 was 31%, this means that about 16 crore people voted BJP. Were they all ‘bhakts’? Isn’t it supreme elitism to brand and dismiss such a large number with a pejorative appellation? Is it too much to ask oneself whether they might have been motivated by some social or economic aspirations in making the political choice they did? Are ‘bhakts’ only those connected with the Sangh? I learnt from the internet that the RSS runs about 60,000 shakhas in the country. If it is assumed that each shakha is attended by 200 people, the total number of ‘bhakts’ amounts to about 1, 20, 00, 000 (1 crore 20 lakhs). That is less than 1% of the population of India, and it will be indeed surprising and terrifying if such a small number are managing to steer the country in a direction of their choosing. Perhaps they are, after all, but how? Must not the left-liberal public ask, inquire and understand, equipped as it is with an education only a few are fortunate enough to receive? No, merely turning up one’s noses and engaging in pretty salon talk is not enough. You do not change anything with salon talk. The ‘bhakts’ might be guilty of adoring the government too much, but the left-liberals are guilty of adoring themselves too much. I say this as someone who earned a PhD in a university well known (ill known too) for its left activism. I was also, during my university days, a member of the students’ wing of one of the Communist parties of our benighted land.

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Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.

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