Last year, former US president Barack Obama warned that progressives risk creating a “circular firing squad” – a reference to the fierce, and often nasty, exchanges among the candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Almost a year later, India’s Twitter liberals are proving him right.
Ramachandra Guha is the latest victim of this firing squad. At a recent event in Kerala, the historian said he believed the fight against Hindutva is handicapped by the fact that the Congress is controlled by one family. He went on to call Rahul Gandhi a “fifth-generation dynast” who stands no chance in the political fight against a “hard-working and self-made” Narendra Modi.
Keeping aside our value judgements about Gandhi and Modi, how is what Guha said even debatable? Is there any reason to deny that Gandhi is heir to the political dynasty called the Congress? Can it be denied that Modi did not inherit his position by virtue of family lineage? Is it not true that far more Indians see a leader in Modi than in Gandhi?
One fails to understand why this should even be debated. Modi governed one of India’s more prosperous states for almost 13 years, while Rahul Gandhi did not pick up even a ministry despite his party being in power for 10 years. Modi does not disappear for days at the height of the protests against the citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens while we are left wondering where Gandhi is. In the words of VK Krishna Menon, Gandhi merely picked up politics, Modi learned it. This isn’t a question of who plays politics more cynically, it is simply a question of who does it better.
Yet, instead of using this opportunity to introspect, India’s Twitter liberals engaged in a nasty fight with Guha. Now, here is a man who for the last few years has been very vocal about the divisive politics of the Right. Here is a man who just a few days ago was detained alongside the same liberals for protesting against the citizenship law. Is he the man you want to pick needless fights with?
Unfortunately, Guha isn’t the first to suffer the wrath of the Twitter liberals. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor recently got in trouble for merely disagreeing with the use of Kalima, the Islamic creed, as a slogan in the citizenship law protests. Things turned so sour that he had to eventually write an article and a series of tweets clarifying his position. But the damage had already been done.
One can always argue that Tharoor could have worded his disagreement differently, but it was clear he was not objecting to the Kalima itself but was merely suggesting that the best way to lose momentum is to make this a Hindu versus Muslim problem. Clearly, he was not asking the protestors to leave their hijabs and Muslim identity at home. He was simply asking them to use slogans that the rest of the protesters would feel comfortable shouting, that won’t make them feel isolated.
Tharoor is anything but a person of the political Right. Anyone who has been even slightly observant of Indian politics knows he is one the most vocal critics of not just the Modi government, but also of Hindutva politics that they propagate. It is one thing to disagree with him, but the Left has demonized a person who is undeniably a liberal for not being “liberal enough” and are now busy patting themselves on the back for it.
Unfortunately, this list does not end here. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Gurcharan Das, Ashutosh Varshney have all been at the receiving end of abuses at some point in the last five years. Their fault? They at some point pre-2014 might have shielded Modi from detractors and doomsayers. That they changed their opinions with changing circumstances is clearly not good enough for the Left. Apparently, one has to be in the anti-Modi camp from the beginning to reserve the privilege to be on that side now.
This list also includes people such as Anurag Kashyap or Yogendra Yadav who I do not recall ever defending Modi. Yet, they had to suffer the same consequences for criticising the leadership of Gandhi during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the ongoing protests. The purity tests for liberalism are constantly being made so stringent that even the Left has to keep proving that they are Left enough.
I would be wrong if this was just a recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, the Left has for long promoted the cancel culture. They have espoused a holier-than-thou attitude – an attitude that refuses to accept differences even within their own group. This overly idealistic cocoon-like politics is suited for university campuses, not on the national stage where people have real concerns and are not simply driven by ideology.
The more you think about why Obama called them the circular firing squad, the more you realise how true it is. The Left spends so much of its energy fighting each other that the Right does not even have to try. Has the Right engaged in such vitriol when it comes to their own?
India’s Twitter liberals must now decide which battle is worth fighting: the ideological Twitter battle or the electoral battle. As an unabashed liberal myself, this is no brainer: the battle for votes is more important than the battle for online supremacy. After all, the battle on Twitter can be fought after you win the battle for votes.