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.

Third, liberalism distrusts concentrations of power, wherever they are found. Nothing has damaged Indian liberalism more than the idea the left has propagated, that Indian liberalism simply replaces the power of the state with the power of the large Corporations. But temperamentally, a genuine liberalism has been as suspicious of the monopolies and inordinate influence of private actors as it is of state power. It also believes in what Michael Walzer once called the Art of Separation: the considerations and norms appropriate to one sphere of activity should not contaminate another. Politics has to be shielded from economic power, considerations appropriate to culture have to be shielded from politics and so on. Not one political party believes in this separation, and in the related idea that institutions are not simply instruments of power, but should be governed by public reason.

Fourth, liberals are not radical democrats. But they recognise that participation is necessary to secure rights, foster a sense of citizenship, prevent power from becoming remote, and for producing decisions that are legitimate. For this reason they are committed to forms of self-government where possible. For all the talk of decentralisation, none of the political parties thinks of local governments as genuine sites of self-government. They think of them as, at best, instrumental conduits for plans hatched at higher levels of government.

Fifth, liberals' presumption is towards well-regulated markets. But the state has an important role in protecting the vulnerable and enhancing the capabilities of citizens. But the test of such an intervention is whether it enhances the citizen's ability to participate in the economy, society and politics, not whether it keeps them tethered to a debilitating dependence. Unlike the right, liberals care about equality, because inequality can have corroding civic consequences and militate against fairness. Unlike the left, they do not believe that a simple measure of equality is all there is to an economic system. But unlike the left and the right, liberals, in many matters of economic policy, do not presume to give the same answer to every question even before the question is asked.

Sixth, liberals have a more complex view of the "tradition" question. The left positioned itself in the vanguard of progressivism by a wholescale delegitimising of everything past; secularism for it was not so much a political ideal as a weapon of cultural assault. The centre and the Congress were interested in culture only in so far as it was aligned with identity. And the right was interested in assimilating culture into a stultifying uniformity. Liberals will defend political secularism and not compromise on basic ideas of individual freedom, equality, dignity. But they have no stake in polarising cultural wars. Like the best moments in the nationalist movement, they believe that tradition can be transcended without making all its animating impulses despicable.

Seventh, liberals recognise the horrifying social inequalities perpetuated by caste. And they recognise that many of these, particularly in the case of Dalits, will need to be taken into account to build a society that is fair and inclusive. But unlike all political parties, they want forms of affirmative action that do not trap individuals in their identities, that do not reduce complex questions of discrimination to an indiscriminate formula of power sharing. Their goal is a conception of citizenship where identities matter less and less to what people get qua citizens.

Finally, liberals have two dispositions as a matter of moral psychology. They take on board a complex view of historical causality, where there are more shades of grey, unintended consequences, strange juxtapositions than the narratives of the left or the right allow. Second, they do not reduce everything to either the question of power, as in the case of the left, or the identity question, as in the case of the right. Intellectual argument, questions of culture, or possibilities of self-knowledge and self-realisation cannot be simply reduced to power or identity.

This list is incomplete and abstract. But most mistakes in practical politics have their origin in confusion over abstract ideas. Is this kind of liberalism possible in India? Our politics might make you despondent about its prospects. But perhaps here, as elsewhere, our politics is out of touch with what is struggling to emerge from below. Let the Liberal Republic emerge.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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