Laying the Liberal trap

With the resurgence of a robust Right-wing mobilisation in India, we are struck with a new kind of Liberal-Illiberal dilemma. Liberal democracies work with the implicit idea of a political culture of protecting the rights of those who are a numerical minority, in religious and ideological terms, and those who are socially and economically weak and underprivileged.

Differences are sought to be settled through a deliberative process that is the hallmark of Liberal institutions, including an ideal of separation of powers between the various pillars of democracy, one working as a check on the other, between the legislature, executive and judiciary.

Much of the Right-wing mobilisation stands in contrast to these Liberal sensibilities and institutional arrangements. Right-wing politics essentially believes in centralising power by undermining institutions and unleashing violence with impunity.

The question today is, how do you deal with a politics that believes in the righteousness of street violence and vigilante justice? All ideological, cultural, and political differences stand at the doorstep of street violence. How do you deal with everyday violence, especially when Right-wing political groups enjoy a massive electoral majority of the kind they do today?

The Right uses the best of liberal ethos, extended by way of legal protections and a political culture built in the course of the nation-building exercise, and denies the same to others in the course of following its own ideals. This poses a unique dilemma for the Left-Liberal project that is unable to replicate the methods that the Right uses, for it undermines the very essence of their politics, and is also in a quandary to keep extending the Liberal privileges because that only seems to further augment the cause of Right-wing mobilisation with impunity.

Marxist thinker Herbert Marcuse had argued that the Liberal ideal of tolerance always works in favour of the privileged, by arguing that all points of view need equal space as we cannot arrive at a single notion of truth. He therefore propounds the ideal of 'Right to Intolerance'. Intolerance here refers to intolerance against vigilante justice, intolerance against the language of war and the domination of the majority over the minority, among other issues.

The Right has developed elaborate mechanisms to deal with such easy counter-posturing by the Liberals to gain clarity over the situation. One such method is to launch a range of social and cultural organisations and refer to them as 'fringe groups' where, while they carry out dastardly attacks such as those against the rationalists and journalists like Gauri Lankesh, to be followed by denial, distancing themselves, along with refusing to act against such groups.

The hydra-headed character of Right-wing mobilisation is a unique way of dealing with the existing Liberal political culture and the ethos of tolerance and coexistence. Since they cannot directly take on these ideals as they have taken root in popular culture, they seek to undermine them by acting and denying. It has been the case right from the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Further methods include mobilising in the name of Liberal ideals but in actuality undermining them. For instance, the attacks and public threats being issued in the name of tolerance. The Right attacks those who have in the past been critical of India becoming intolerant. They express intolerance against being called 'intolerant'. Here, they pretend to uphold the ideal of tolerance even as they display rampant intolerance. It is linked to their self-belief that India and Hinduism are, compared to other nations and religions, more tolerant.

They hate, and are critical of, Islam for its ostensible distaste for democracy, dialogue and difference, but wish to exactly replicate that in their own politics. They take potshots at Pakistan for its failed democracy and the fact that the army plays the central role in that country, but they precisely make the army a central symbol of nationalism in India. They criticise Pakistan for cleansing the minorities, but want to replicate the same in India.

In psychoanalysis, Freud refers to this as 'penis-envy' - envying what you don't have. The Right, in essence, admires Pakistan and its anti-democratic machinations and therefore wishes to achieve all of that by mounting criticism and thereby finding justification to reproduce the same set of practices. It's not about criticising to create an alternative political culture, but criticising to replicate the same set of practices, which again is unique to Right-wing modes of mobilisation.

Equalised violence

Finally, they have a strategy in states like Kerala where Left violence is countered by Right violence. It is all equalised and thereby Right-wing violence no longer remains distinct or unique to their brand of politics but just another kind of political violence, sought to be portrayed as a general feature of Indian politics.

The questions that remain for Left-Liberal politics in India are, how do they collectively delegitimise the Right-wing kind of blatant violence with impunity? How do they convince the majority that this kind of violence is born neither from being a victim nor as a response, but remains a core strategy of generating fear and undermining the ability of democracy to ask uncomfortable questions?

Finally, how does one convince the majority that the Right is not merely anti-minority but, in fact, anti-majority in its deep conviction to control everyone, irrespective of religion or beliefs? Though Fareed Zakaria refers to the current scenario as the rise of 'Illiberal Democracies', the elaborate strategies devised by the Right make the task of convincing the majority that they are essentially Illiberal tougher.

The majority is lost in the maze of these diffused strategies that the Right has devised, and the gradual change in the political culture without overtly hurting Liberal sensibilities will make it all the more difficult to pin down the Right to its essential core.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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