As the 2019 election results seep in, liberal writers, who have typically opposed the Bharatiya Janata Party, have stocktaking to do. Going forward, we must introspect and proceed with greater humility. We must ask ourselves where our blind spots are such that we have failed to sufficiently engage and persuade the electorate. Else, we will come across as arrogant even while having little to be arrogant about.
The first shortcoming that liberals must come to terms with is that we have been reluctant to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi credit where it’s due. This is partly understandable. Modi and the BJP’s words and actions are often xenophobic, and it can be impossible to criticise those and then proceed with a “but” to list the BJP’s positives. If our principles do not allow us to accept the existence of multiple policy fronts, with regard to the BJP, the voters—who of course have given the BJP an even bigger mandate this time than what the party had received five years ago—are forcing us to reconsider our position.
The life of any country, certainly of the world’s largest democracy entails multiple fronts, and we must look at those other fronts, too.
Modi’s first term successes have included the Ujjwala scheme, which has provided gas to rural households, rural electrification efforts, as well as India’s 54-point jump in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index (from 131 to 77) in the last two years. These successes also included an energetic engagement with issues of gender and caste, even if largely only symbolic. For instance, the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and others.
It would be disingenuous to not recognise these and other such accomplishments, even if imperfect. It is not unfathomable that a poor, rural voter might be drawn more to the first-time electricity supply to her village than be concerned with the BJP’s incessant discriminatory statements and actions. Liberals need not agree with this voter, but we must better understand where she might be coming from.
In addition to giving limited credit to Modi and the BJP where it has been deserved, the second shortcoming in liberal writing has been the absence of engagement with swathes of intellectual and policy territory. Look at the Armed Forces. For liberals, discussion on the Armed Forces—when they do discuss the Armed Forces—largely stops with human rights abuses by the military. As a result, scores of other issues pertaining to the forces, and the sentiment of patriotism, is ceded to conservatives. Look at business. When liberal writers do discuss business, and again that does not seem to occur particularly often, business is largely equated with exploitation. Entire worlds of entrepreneurship, technology, stocks are left unexplored—and, therefore, left to the Right. The Wire, an extraordinary success story of Indian journalism, introduces itself as a platform “committed to the public interest and democratic values”, and as seeking to report “on issues of national and international importance and interest”. It has published countless excellent stories on Hindutva. How many stories, however, has it published on entrepreneurship, finance and investments? Very few. Are those not areas of concern to the Indian citizen and voter?
Liberals need to accord proportionate focus to a variety of issues such as secularism, minority rights, and Hindutva, as well as the many currently neglected areas. By ceding vast intellectual and policy territory, liberals fail to hold the BJP accountable in important areas, giving it a free pass in those realms in the eyes of the voter.
The third shortcoming among liberal writers has been that while we have rarely been shy of claiming the moral high ground, we have not always been helpful in furthering a healthy public discourse.
The classism of a Mani Shankar Aiyar or a Shashi Tharoor—who of course, are more politicians than writers, though writers too—is well known. While I don’t suggest an equivalence between liberals and the assassination-threatening, misogynistic Right-wing troll machine, liberals ought to do much better in order to be worthy of the moral claims that we make for ourselves.
These are just three areas where liberals ought to reflect as we move into Modi’s second term. Our core beliefs—secularism, the rule of law, the importance of institutions, and more—have not become redundant. To those core principles, we must now add learnings from the past five years. Hindutva might be repulsive to us but that does not mean that everything a Hindutva leader or a Hindutva party does is bad. Fighting Hindutva might be dear to us, but we cannot in the process ignore other issues of importance—such as entrepreneurship, business, and more. And we must recognise that we ourselves are not always perfect, and must strive towards that ideal. With a slightly amended approach, liberal writers will be better poised to analyse Modi’s second term. Most importantly, the reader and the voter will then be better served.