Congress’ Liberalism not Secularism Main Opposition to BJP

Published in the Times of India

The results of the recent assembly elections have set off another spate of Congress-mukt Bharat opinion pieces. Indeed the results are sobering for the Party and its supporters – not because the Congress was realistically expected to win any of the 4 big states even if it were at the top of its game but because its loss has significantly shrunk its governance footprint. However, the Party remains the main Opposition in large parts of the country and certainly the only ideological challenge to the BJP in 2019. More than just the secular challenge – which many would-be PM aspirants also claim – to BJP’s communalism, it is only the Congress Party which presents a liberal alternative to BJP’s parochialism and bigotry. For a country which aspires to emerge as a global economic and intellectual leader, this liberal perspective to nation building is key.

By now it is evident that for all of Prime Minister Modi’s rhetoric of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, the primary aim of the RSS-led BJP is cultural hegemony not economic development. On the agenda is a Hindu majoritarian State through regression to theocracy, anti-intellectualism, vigilantism and constraints on personal liberties. Any meaningful ideological response to this cannot be “secularism” without locating it in the larger context of liberalism. However, outside of the Congress, no current or potential challengers can lay claim to this legacy. Preeminent among the challengers to PM Modi is Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar. While Kumar has an admirable record in governance, his breakout idea to transcend state limits is prohibition. The idea is not only profoundly illiberal but seeks to capitalise on legitimate anxieties created by alcoholism without concern for actual feasibility of implementation. A liberal response to this issue would have paid heed to the complex socio-economic causes and looked for a more bottom-up, citizen-centric solution than this moralistic stance with blanket top-down State policed ban. The other Chief Minister positioning himself as a PM contender is Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal as evident from repeated baiting of the PM and full-page advertisements in states across India announcing local Delhi-based reforms. The AAP was certainly the beacon of liberal hope but the framework of most of Kejriwal’s policies is premised on the twin themes of surveillance (CCTVs, stings) and danda (penalty and policing). Certainly the signature anti-corruption plank built to harness anti-incumbency is no liberal plank but under the AAP, even the expansive range of women’s issues have shrunk to questions of “security” alone. The avatar that best fits the Delhi CM is that of a benevolent dictator not a proponent of liberal values. There are other Chief Ministers who may harbour Prime Ministerial ambitions but none can lay claim to liberalism. All of the Chief Ministers with national aspirations have understood the power of welfare politics and the rhetoric of development; however, their centralisation of power and clampdown on media in their states betray their contempt for liberal values of free speech and dissent. Nor incidentally can many of these Chief Ministers claim a secular legacy since there can be no secularism without the rule of law (or liberalism).

Ideologically, it is liberalism and not welfarism or secularism, which distinguishes the Congress from the clutch of one state Parties vying to be the pivot of an anti-BJP alliance. It is also the glue to stitch together a credible forward-looking alliance. Electorally, it is the only Opposition Party  with a pan-national vote base. There is a perception that liberalism is an elite concern and thus unlikely to yield electoral dividends. However, this line of thinking betrays a lack of political imagination to articulate liberal values in a way which would resonate with the people of this country. Our country is overwhelmingly young with 65 percent of the population below the age of 35 years. Personal liberties – the right to dress how one wants, the right to eat (and drink) what one wants, the right to marry whom one desires, sexual freedoms – are liberal planks, which are likely to appeal to the young. They are also secular planks opposed to the communalism of the Sangh. The right to political participation, free speech, dissent, free press, freedom from vigilantism and the rule of law are all liberal planks and are likely to have widespread appeal if communicated with conviction and credibility. The Congress Party already has a well-articulated rights-based welfare paradigm, which is an integral part of its political platform. It must now expand its platform to articulate clearly its liberal ethos and their relevance to nation building in India today. It goes without saying that the Party must fix some pressing organisational issues which hobble its performance in elections and reduce its credibility in the eyes of the electorate. However having done that, there can be no challenger to the bigotry of the BJP more preeminent than the Congress Party in 2019.

Also read: More Than Secularism

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3 responses to “Congress’ Liberalism not Secularism Main Opposition to BJP

  1. Greetings! Well written from a structural standpoint and easy to read, certainly.
    It is fair to say that any Right Wing movement that is based on Hindutva cannot add anything to economics or a larger dialectical paradigm. This we and even the BJP stalwarts and Right-leaning Liberal Intellectuals in the party know. For the BJP is nothing but a Reactionary Liberal party when it comes to doing actual work. Note, that I have used the term Liberal for them as well because there are no differences in the economic policies of either the Liberals or the Reactionaries. When it comes to Welfare policies and their need, both sides pander when it is needed and withdraw welfare and state involvement in Social upliftment where it does not pay electoral dividends.

    My point here is to first of all bust the myth that post 1990s Congress is any different from the BJP or that Jaitley, Chidambaram, and Manmohan Singh could not swap brains and we would be able to tell the difference.
    Economics aside and on to the question of Cultural and Social Liberal fabric. This is also a mostly assuming that the large mass of the people of India even know what the devil and ideological stand is and that if they knew the difference between Left, Right, Totalitarian and Libertarian, that they really care. For the large masses do not care who rules them. The Indian Upper and Middle Classes through years of Alienation and indulging in First Worldist Utopianism don’t live on the same planet as the working class. The working classes are largely caught in a trap of Reactionary and conservative, rural tendencies.
    Before sounding like a meandering Marxist critic, let me put this as simply as I can. Social and Cultural Liberalism is a myth. Irrespective of Class, the inherently backward social constructs of Caste, Religion, Economic and Educational inequality ensure that Conservative, Reactionary tendencies are a default mode of the Indian population. It is best that the Congress while taking the credit for economic liberalization, remember that the new Middle Classes spawned from the Neoliberal womb, didn’t get the Liberal education and social consciousness needed. Therefore, it is the Middle and Working classes found no issues in turning to the Right Wing with elan – remember that a large percentage of the so-called Liberal India also has a warm feeling within it every time Hindu Pride is invoked.
    The problem lies in Liberalism. No other country has a fascist ideology in its mainstream politics like India. Every other continent expunged Fascist ideology and from there a more sane Right wing narrative emerged. Indian Liberalism did not do this. It did not cleanse society of it and today it suffers on the precipice of extinction for it. The INC’s poll debacles are only a symptom, the larger malaise is the Liberalism itself.

  2. I’m regard myself as a liberal too, but I have two problems with supporting the congress.

    The congress is to blame for the descent of the country into jungle raj and ubiquitous corruption, for the idiotic pseudo-socialist policies of the past, for the lack of any sort of meaningful local government, for license raj, the list can go on. And don’t get me started on the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. These people have no qualifications whatsoever to be ruling the country. They’re just first rate idiots. I don’t think letting them back into power just cause they’re mildly more sympathetic to beef eating or LGBT rights makes much sense to me. They’re a failed party and almost turned country into a failed state.

    Leaving all that aside, I know this is an unpopular opinion among us rich city-dwelling, well-off liberals, but our problems are really non-problems for India. LGBT rights or beef are a non-issue in a country where even in relative prosperous states like Karnataka are seeing 30% of rural girls still not going to school. Development and economic progress are *FAR* more important than our “boutique” liberal issues (to borrow a phrase from American liberal lexicon), and I’m not convinced at all that the congress can deliver development.

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