I don’t think I’ve called myself a liberal. I am, I believe, rooted more in the neo-Marxian tradition of Marcuse and Althusser; unabashedly Foucauldian in some sense, and a huge fan of Žižek. There are, of course, other intellectual strands that have inspired me, and continue to do so; in many ways, I’m still in my formative years. That said, I’m not a Leftist: I do not believe that the Left would (or far less, could) achieve a working version of a Marxian utopia. And I certainly am not on the Right. So, I guess that makes me a de facto liberal.
Last night, I had the opportunity to listen to one of India’s foremost and widely respected intellectuals, and an unabashed liberal, himself: Ramachandra Guha. I had, for quite some time, been anticipating his lecture, ‘The Rise and Fall of India’s Liberal Tradition’ at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, especially after having reading an excerpt from his latest book, Patriots and Partisans, in the Outlook Magazine. Unlike the Left’s (that is, the CPI(M)’s) practised archaic polemic against the state, or, for that matter Kejriwal’s anti-corruption rhetoric, Guha’s opinions have always been a curious blend of sociological analysis and are, as he claims, polemical.
This essay isn’t a review of Guha’s lecture. Here, I borrow some of his most influential thoughts from last night, to argue out a different conception of Indian liberalism, positing my ideas of challenges and limitations. I am, of course, deeply indebted to Guha for entertaining my rather long question in the Q&A segment – something which shall form the basis of my present argument.
Guha, as the title of his lecture goes, began speaking of the rise of India’s liberal tradition – tracing a genealogy from Ram Mohan Roy, to Gokhale, Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru, to his teacher, Dharma Kumar. He then traced the major threats to Indian liberalism in the post-Independence era – the first, being the Hindu Right-wing extremism, exemplified by Ghodse’s assassination of Gandhi; and the second, the radical Left-wing extremism which, Guha claimed eloquently, never had any fondness for the Indian state in the first place. In the 70s, however, there was another threat. The threat from the democratic centre, Guha argues, began with Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule, culminating in the Emergency years, and finally, the rise of dynastic politics in India – which, Guha suggests, impeded the governance mechanism, the bureaucracy and public institutions, most of all. Increased arbitrariness and violence by the police and armed forces in conflict zones, too, was and does, constitute a significant threat to liberalism in India (Guha's essay 'The Absent Liberal', in the Outlook Magazine provides the context for his this argument).
Guha ends up underwriting more problems than he does in resolving them – something I admire about him, and a position, which I believe, is rooted in his training as a sociologist. And it is in this respect that he has no qualms making a polemic for liberalism – which, he argues, must reclaim patriotism from the Hindu Right-wing chauvinists. Increased dialogue and a more dynamical political process, he suggests would help assert liberalism in India, where people aren’t reduced to being “useful idiots” (in Lenin’s terms), or apologists. In this regard, Guha is incredibly patriotic, rejecting any label of “global citizenship”. Liberalism’s strength, Guha asserts, is its incremental nature; the fact that it never remains tied to an ideology, like the radical Left and the Right, rejecting any claims of creating a utopia. It is precisely this criticality, I believe, that allows Guha to posit the democratic centre as a threat to liberalism.
In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, working extensively with Hegel's dialectics, argues a very strong case for liberal democracies: with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have, he suggests, arrived at the end of history in the Hegelian sense. Of course, Fukuyama’s arguments, as we read them twenty years since he made them, do appear to be weak, if not entirely naïve. The crisis in the Balkans, ethnic cleansing and genocides in Africa, the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, its rising debt crisis, the resurgence of the radical Right, like the Tea Party Movement, or the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States, and a general increase in parochialism in other parts of the world, China’s rise as a dominant global power, to name a few. In this respect, I am undoubtedly more inclined to a Marcusian-Althusserian critique of the capitalist/neoliberal political economy than what Guha seems to suggest – which, in his terms, would be Left-leaning liberalism, but liberalism nevertheless.
Clearly, then, with the concerns Guha raises, Fukuyama’s arguments do not hold very well. Liberal democracies may well be the dominant political-economic paradigm, but with the threats from the democratic centre itself, from multinational corporations and unregulated capitalism, there’s a lot Fukuyama left under-theorised (to no fault of his own, as he did revisit his arguments in Our Posthuman Future). Although Guha’s arguments for Indian liberalism are incredibly contextual, hinged on his idea of reclaiming patriotism, in my view rethinking liberalism requires a more discursive, global engagement. In defending my stance, however, I take recourse to another of Guha’s suggestions: that there’s a lot the world could learn from Indian liberalism as well. Indian liberalism, Guha argues, moves beyond the narrow rubric of economic organisation. India’s pluralism, its diversity, its cultural heritage – the fact that as the world’s largest democracy we’ve achieved so much, stands as testimony to the strength of Indian liberalism. Sure, there have been problems with democracy, many from outside, and some from within; but Guha’s faith in the rule-bound, impersonal public institutions is something I cautiously share. Žižek, whom I cited in a previous essay, also expresses similar views, mostly stemming from his distrust of civil society (which he calls fundamentalist, right-wing, and most of all, unaccountable).
Guha’s polemic suggests that Indian liberals be more vocal, unafraid; that incremental social change and political pluralism, should inform Indian liberalism – not narrow economic models of profit maximisation or paranoia-driven governance, and certainly more faith in its democratic institutions. In my opinion, however, for the Indian Left to make crucial contributions to this liberal programme, it needs to shed its apologist stance and fealty to classical Marxism. While there’s a lot that Indian liberalism could contribute to the world, the Indian Left, I feel, must eschew its superficial fealty to classical Marxism and whatever illusions it harbours of achieving a utopia. In an earlier essay, defending the relevance of Marxian sociological tradition, I have argued that the Left in India is intellectually bankrupt (perhaps with the exception of a few figures like Sitaram Yechury, or Prakash Karat, to an extent) – the very idea of a Marxist political party (no matter how great a multi-party system we are – a fact that the early Left hated) is a contradiction-in-terms and an anathema. For instance, increasing corporate hegemony in the political sphere, or multinationals influencing foreign policies (aspects Guha didn't discuss in his lecture), or the threat to environmentalism (an idea he engaged with, in his book, This Fissured Land, with Madhav Gadgil) are issues that the Leftist scholars (with their Gramscian influence and turn to subaltern studies) have engaged with. I have, therefore, no apologies in arguing for a more academic grounding, or praxis, for Leftism in India. Guha, with that charming smile of his, attests my argument as a point for liberalism.
I’m not sure how much of a convincing argument I’ve made in this essay. In many ways, I am indebted to Guha for presenting a case of liberalism in a way that I hadn’t thought of before. What I will, undoubtedly, take back from my brief encounter with Ramachandra Guha (apart from a signed copy of Patriots and Partisans. Yes, I am gloating), is the memory of a rich and engaging discussion, which I believe constitutes another vital intellectual strand in my formative years.
Postscript & notes:
Guha's book, Patriots and Partisans, in fact dedicates a chapter in discussing the problems with the Indian political Left, and what it could have done to have made a more lasting contribution of the multiparty, democratic process in India - a fact I came across later, as I read through the book. However, in my arguing more a more academic praxis for the Left in India, I am slightly skeptical of the political Left's partaking in the democratic process (partly, as they are still bound to various Communist ideologies). Perhaps, what we need is a robust intellectual tradition, informed by post-Marxian and Critical thought, primarily that of the Frankfurt School (apologies, for this is my bias and limited knowledge speaking), and that of the Subaltern Studies. For such a move could potentially converse with the kind of liberalism Guha argues for, and inform the nature of public discourse in the country; the first step among the many, if we are to partake in a Liberal Exercise.
For most of Ramachandra Guha’s statements, I have, to my best efforts, found citations wherever possible. Many of his statements in this essay, however, are quoted verbatim, as I noted them during his lectures at the Times Literary Carnival in Bandra, on 7th December 2012, and at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Kala Ghoda, on 8th December 2012.