The liberal DNA

Indian liberalism is an embattled species. The right abuses it by confusingly hyphenating it in the phrase "left-liberal." The left abuses it with the derogatory phrase "neoliberal", associated with the privileges of the rich. And centrist parties are confused about its meaning. Few in India call themselves liberal. On this Republic Day, it is worth asking whether India's DNA, to use Rahul Gandhi's phrase, can mutate into something more liberal than its current hijacking by the Congress allows. Liberalism has a complex provenance and history. More than an ideology or a set of prescriptions, it is a sensibility: a set of presumptions about the treatment of individuals and the nature of power. Do we have this sensibility?

First, liberalism places the freedom of individuals, their presumptive equality and claim to be treated with dignity at the centre of attention. India has made considerable progress in creating space for the de jure recognition of individual rights. But our political culture far too often immobilises the claims of individual freedom in the face of community identity or group coercion, putting at risk assorted values, from freedom of expression to gender equality. The Congress party has promulgated the idea that India is a federation of communities and the task of politics is to keep a balance between them. This idea can have deeply illiberal consequences. It traps individuals in the tyranny of compulsory identities. It readily mobilises state power against individuals in the name of community sentiment. Diversity should be an outcome of individuals freely exercising choices. The Congress cares for diversity but not freedom. The right cares for neither diversity nor freedom.

Second, liberalism has a presumptive faith in citizens. The Indian state has acquired inordinate powers over citizens by setting itself up as the vanguard of society. The state is often needed to secure justice and reform society. But, cutting across party lines, there is a more insidious idolisation of the state that is legitimised by a pervasive distrust of citizens. The state knows better than the citizens; citizens cannot be trusted to make choices. And perhaps more damagingly, this distrust of citizens is licence to micromanage them. The state is all virtue, society all vice, so society needs superintendence. This construction of the citizen as incapable and untrustworthy is deeply entrenched in administrative practice. No liberal society can flourish on the basis of a pervasive distrust of citizens.

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