KT Long Reads: Should Indian liberals beware or stay woke?

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Narendra Modi, India, United States, US, Donald Trump

Dubai - Since the 2014 landslide election victory of the BJP, leftwing bastions have crumbled or been browbeaten into submission.

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

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Published: Thu 20 Aug 2020, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Thu 20 Aug 2020, 3:00 PM

Liberal Indians who have been wringing their hands since 2014 over the ascendancy of rightwing populism and the Modi government's authoritarian impulse should view the glass of Indian democracy not as half empty but half full. Things could have been far worse.

The ongoing implosion of the American liberals' camp - termed variously as the Great Awokening, the Second American Revolution and Cancel Culture movement - is a cautionary tale for every democracy. If the supposed threat to bedrock democratic values from the populist right seems unbearable, it is nothing compared with what could possibly come from the belly of the liberal beast.

The resignation in July of a writer for the opinion section of the New York Times crystallised the stakes of a fierce ideological battle that has been raging in elite cultural institutions across the US for years now. In an impassioned note, Bari Weiss depicted a veritable hostage situation at the headquarters of one of the world's most influential publications.

As she made clear in her resignation letter and which others also suspected, what is unfolding at the New York Times mirrors a nationwide capitulation by respected Ivy League academics, public intellectuals and journalists to the demands of social-media-savvy "woke mobs" whose confrontational discourse and daunting lexicon have made the rhetoric of the current White House occupant sound almost sensible by comparison.

Weiss was the second casualty in a span of just weeks of the purge of American editors who have fallen afoul of unwritten woke-progressive orthodoxy. James Bennet was drummed out of his post as the New York Times' Opinion Page editor in June for the sin of publishing an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a decorated veteran turned Republican senator, in which he argued that the military could be called in as a last resort to restore order if the riots that erupted in US cities following the death in police custody of George Floyd did not stop.

Also in July, Andrew Sullivan, the British-born celebrated American author, editor and blogger, became another high-profile casualty of the Great Awokening. In his last column cum resignation letter, Sullivan wrote:

"A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me . They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space."

Against this surreal backdrop, India, despite its American-style liberal-conservative political divide, feels like another planet. For, it is impossible to imagine any section of the Indian liberal centre or left posing a threat of any kind to independent thought or free expression in the present political climate.

Since the 2014 landslide election victory of the BJP, leftwing bastions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University have crumbled or been browbeaten into submission. Think tanks and NGOs that once produced reports and analyses that articulated a more progressive world-view have been reined in or marginalised.

As for television and parts of social media, the loudest voices today belong not to thoughtful centrists but to rightwing rabble-rousers who wear their bigoted opinions, shallow intellect and broken English as a badge of honour. As long as the BJP remains in power, they will likely have the upper hand in the perennial competition for power and patronage at the national level.

The country may be paying a high price in blood and treasure for the Indian populist right's incompetence and overconfidence, but that has not prevented it from sweeping two consecutive general elections or tightening its grip on formerly left-dominated cultural institutions.

Even so, after surveying the tsunami of "liberal cannibalism" that is tearing the American left apart and pitting intellectual titans against an intolerant "woke progressive" younger generation, Indian liberals should consider themselves fortunate perhaps to be facing no such devastating threat from within. Assuming, that is, they are not secretly rooting for the overthrow of America's beleaguered moderate liberal establishment.

The name of noted writer and activist Arundhati Roy was conspicuous by its absence from the list of prominent signatories of a now famous letter on justice and open debate published by Harper's Magazine. Another like-minded Indian author and polemicist, Pankaj Mishra, launched a characteristically fiery broadside against the Harper letter in a Bloomberg op-ed. Such attitudes suggest that in the hypothetical case of an intolerant liberal coup in Indian cultural institutions, there may not be a shortage of defenders or fence-sitters.

In recent times, the closest thing that India has witnessed to elite progressive wokery arguably is the dog-whistle politics favoured by Congress stalwart Mani Shankar Aiyar - for instance, his attempts to frame the November 2015 Paris attacks as a response to France's hijab ban and the Charlie Hebdo massacre as a backlash against the "war on terror."

If truth be told, a more natural, if equally innocuous, fit for woke politics is none other than Rahul Gandhi. The Congress president vowed to push for a "new language in politics" in 2019 after Aiyar sparked a fresh row with an op-ed in Rising Kashmir, yet just this month Rahul tweeted:

"Today a large part of the Indian news media has been captured by fascist interests ."

The tweet betrayed a weakness for woke speak ("fascist interests") that must have made Aiyar loudly chuckle given the troubles he faced for calling the late Arun Jaitley a "fascist" in 2010 and for accusing Narendra Modi in 2014 of being a "fascist" in his approach and following Hitler.

Politics aside, the history of modern Indian academia has little in common with that of its American counterpart, certain features of which may have contributed to the rise of "radical mobs."

In an opinion piece in Fox News' website, Senator Cotton offered his own conservative take:

"The media is just the latest prize in the left's long march through elite cultural institutions. This march began on college campuses, where radical faculty-many of whom had participated in the mayhem and bloodshed of the 1960s and '70s-indoctrinated students with far-left ideology and sent them off to tear down supposedly oppressive institutions like the family and the police, and harangue those who disagree."

There are no comparable Indian examples of radical university faculty indoctrinating students with far-left ideology since the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s. However, there is no dearth of liberal Indian commentators who undercut their own credibility with their failure to give even the slightest benefit of the doubt to Modi on any issue.

While the frustration of patriotic Indians with the heavy-handed methods of the BJP government is understandable, a constant stream of fire and fury scarcely amounts to constructive criticism, to say nothing of persuasion.

The vehemence of the Twitter pile-on against Modi over the June incidents in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh was a classic case in point. What led to the escalation in tensions in the remote and vulnerable area along the Line of Actual Control after a gap of 45 years is still a matter of speculation, yet most liberal Indian commentators appeared to assume that, one, it was an unprovoked Chinese act of aggression and, two, that the Modi government could have averted the clash in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives.

Likewise, attacks by the liberal-left on Modi for the demonetisation of high-value banknotes in 2016 as well as the recent coronavirus lockdowns discounted the slight chance that the decisions were based on erroneous risk-reward calculations. What these critics refuse to consider even for a moment is the idea that the prime minister's gambits might have been motivated, for all we know, by national interest rather than sheer malice and cruelty.

The same perhaps can be said about the embrace of sympathisers of Naxalites and sundry separatist movements by certain figures among the Indian liberal left. Justified advocacy of due process in dealing with those who take up arms against the state, be they Maoist activists or Kashmiri militants, is all too often undermined by a reluctance to acknowledge the essentially violent and illiberal character of these movements.

In any case, what our rightwing government cannot be accused of, at least so far, is rigging elections on an industrial scale, jailing opposition politicians on flimsy charges (except in Kashmir) or plotting to suspend the constitution. Those and other dubious honours still belong to the Congress party and its Communist allies when they had a near monopoly on political power and elite cultural institutions for most of the 1960s and '70s.

Looking to the immediate future, it is difficult to imagine a radical new generation emerging from the groves of Indian academe and posing a catastrophic threat to an already feeble liberal edifice.

For all the historical influence of Marxist intellectuals and their failed Soviet/Maoist political and economic theories in university campuses, no progressive ideology has materialised in recent years to fill the vacuum and fire up a new generation with false hopes.

Indeed, the good news is that disillusionment with a form of democracy that prioritises the holding of periodic elections over good governance and socio-economic development has not yet created an opening for intolerant ideologies to take hold of young minds.

Although what monster might emerge from the eerie vacuum is hard to predict, one can only hope that Indian society's strong family structure and aversion to political instability will act as a deterrent against mass ideological indoctrination of young urban populations.

If America's Great Awokening has created a teachable moment for India's liberals about anything, it is the importance of staying strenuously faithful to the values one claims to espouse. As two eminent Americans, Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor, and Cornel West, Harvard University philosophy professor, eloquently put it in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe:

"We need the honesty and courage to resist the hatred - the spirit of hatred - that the zeal even for good causes can induce in we frail, fallen, fallible human beings, . even among those who began as sincere advocates of freedom and justice."

No matter how offensive the rhetoric, arguments or actions of their opponents, the response of Indian liberals should be civilised, coherent and devoid of personal animus. Such qualities may seem unsuited to the era of social media and, indeed, to the tenor of the times, but they could prove more effective in the long run even in a democracy as fragile and overrated as ours.  

Arnab Neil Sengupta is a journalist based in Dubai, UAE

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