Liberals, It’s Do or Die in an Increasingly Conservative India

Liberals must make the case for revolutionary yet progressive policies for all sections of society.

5 min read

Three years after the regime change at the Centre, contemporary liberalism in India is under political siege. Even liberals have appeared uncertain about what they stand for. Not just liberals, leaders of some mainline opposition parties have been reluctant to articulate a compelling public philosophy that would appeal to the people at a time when large sections of the electorate have quite readily embraced conservative values that would otherwise be repugnant in a supposedly aspiring India.

A study last year by the Centre for the Study in Developing Societies (CSDS) and Konrad Adenaur Stiftung (KDS) concluded that “Socio-culturally, there have been frequent conflicts between the forces of conservatism and liberalism on various issues such as women’s rights, minority rights, decriminalising homosexuality, censorship and freedom of expression, and more recently on the issue of growing intolerance in society.” Alarmingly, more than half of India’s youth (53 percent) feel that “people have become less tolerant”.

Data thrown up by the SCDS-KDS survey show that the BJP is the preferred party for one-fifth (20 percent) of India’s youth. Centrist parties and those on the other side of the political spectrum stand way below the BJP.

Liberalism Is in Deep Trouble

The political and social developments of the past few years – preceding the advent of an increasingly confident right – have shown that liberalism is now in deep trouble. Liberals are divided, uncertain of themselves and their programmes and, today, more than ever before, they have but few answers to the decline of liberal values and the seemingly unstoppable surge of conservatism. Liberal political leaders, if there were in the past or are any now across this diverse country, have failed to confront and in critical respects have contributed to the clear and present problems. In fact, their failures have allowed liberal universalism to come under attack.

At a time when liberals should take to practical politics instead of being “high-minded” and foggy about policy, they must also devise new ways and means that necessarily must evolve in response to the new conditions and based on fresh understandings of how and where they have failed.

There must be a readiness to confront the new politics which have begun to affect freedom, rights, and above all, the direction that power and governance is taking.

Liberalism Strengthens State’s Power to Protect Citizens

Conservatives claim that liberalism is a kind of “weakness” when it comes to espousing and practising freedom, equality, public good and, above all, the exercise of power. But contrary to such claims and the historical experience of liberal democracies elsewhere, liberalism – constitutional and modern democratic – has not only established the means of creating power, but also controlled it.

What conservatives forget is that the practice of liberalism’s “enabling constraints” not only protects citizens from state tyranny, but also strengthens the state’s power to protect them. A system of checks and balances, separation of powers, transparency in governmental decision-making and public accountability, which are being either encroached upon or fast eroding in a “new India”, reduce the chances of capricious, impulsive, over-reaching or self-interested decisions, which when arbitrarily exercised, can be potentially destructive of individual liberty and the rule of law.


Democratic Liberals Need to Reinvent Themselves

In these circumstances, democratic liberals must reinvent themselves if they have to take on the conservative forces across several areas grossly neglected by the former.

On the purely political front, India’s liberal leaders must pull themselves out of the stupor and ‘hit the streets’ or take recourse to disruptive politics as means to reach out to and connect with the electorate.

There is no denying that public deliberation invites ideas and information that more authoritarian leaders do not receive or are unlikely to heed. In other words, keeping silent on major issues that are roiling and will continue to act as shocks to democratic institutions will not work. Instead, liberal leaders must realise that freedom, liberty, equality and rights are more likely to be preserved when civil society themselves have the power to preserve them. This could create a self-reinforcing cycle.


For far too long, social and liberal democrats have cynically disregarded the importance of education and healthcare – preconditions for a good life and making choices in the future – especially when it is common knowledge that universal primary education must follow expansion of franchise. There is no gainsaying that education raises the benefits of civic participation, including voting and organising, and in the process, increases and deepens participation in support of broad-based regimes relative to that in support of authoritarian regimes. Mere support for or touting achievements in securing literacy – which is really nominal literacy – will not do.

It is not surprising that the same CSDS-KDS study quoted above concluded that a “plurality of young Indians also seem to lack a scientific temper since close to half the respondents were of the opinion that religion should get precedence over science when the two clash with each other.”


Liberals Must Work on Reenergising State Healthcare Systems

In as much as access to basic education creates conditions for equal opportunity, liberals must work on reenergising state healthcare systems that will, to some degree, equalise the leave of health between classes and maximise that of the least advantaged. Access to an adequate level of healthcare cannot be left alone to market forces which could otherwise result in a significant proportion of the population without access.

One of the basic indicators of a sound democratising polity is how well minorities are treated. India’s liberal political class has been ambivalent about the rights of Muslims and other minority groups, including gays and homosexuals, especially in the face of recent moves by conservatives to fashion the state in the image of the majority community. Liberals of the reluctant variety have not just failed to challenge this dangerous and potentially destabilising trend but, by their silence, have encouraged conservative forces. They must now, within the constraints of equality and law, fight to carve out institutional and jurisdictional spaces in which minorities can enjoy a measure of autonomy and equality.

In a previous article on The Quint, it was pointed out that India’s conservatives have adopted “nativism, bigotry, grandiosity and coarse speech” to advance an alternative form of politics and governance. Rights of speech and free assembly and mingling are being sought to be curtailed because of the fear of mobs and thugs.

India Cannot Be Long Governed by Divisive Politics

As the largest democratic country, India cannot be long governed by divisive politics, denial, obfuscation and deceit. Costs will mount and grievances will multiply. Therefore, the conservative’s default is the liberal’s opportunity – to rebuild a political majority by showing liberal ideas make sense and by relaunching a dialogue with groups, including the youth, who believe that their concerns, anxieties and aspirations have not been adequately addressed.


As Princeton University professor Paul Starr says:

Liberals ought to contest conservatives for the very ground the right claims as its own: morality and patriotism…Nothing has to be reinvented, yet everything has to be reimagined.

But liberals will have to do more when their very legitimacy is at stake. While constructive ideas for new and bold policies must be revisited, liberals must make the case for revolutionary yet progressive policies for all sections of people. This can be realised by extending the fruits of liberty more widely among the people.

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