According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 82% of American voters are disgusted with their country’s politics. Many Indian voters, especially middle-class ones, are likely to empathise. Middle-class disgust at politics and politicians helped fuel the rise of news anchor Arnab Goswami. But while Goswami, more than any other journalist or anchor, was able to exploit this disgust, he also exacerbated one of its causes: the scarcity of meaningful political debate.
The absence of fruitful political debate in India has many roots, but one that has received insufficient attention is our political lexicon. Political discourse in India, especially in English, is hamstrung by a vocabulary that has been imported from the West and maps poorly onto Indian ideologies or electoral politics. Two of the primary culprits are words that have become ubiquitous in our politics: “secular” and “liberal”. Discarding these terms is essential to improving the quality of our political discourse.
The problem of meaning
The first problem with the terms “secular” and “liberal”, whether these are considered as values or as identities, is the difficulty in establishing exactly what they mean, or refer to. In the case of the term “liberal”, this is a global, not an Indian issue. It has become a term whose meaning is almost entirely context-dependent. In the US it typically refers to the mainstream political left; in Europe, to supporters of free-market economics; and globally, to supporters of personal freedoms, such as the freedom of expression and LGBT rights.
Historically, from the Enlightenment – an intellectual movement in Europe that spanned the 18th century – onwards, political liberalism referred to a programme that hoped to enshrine individual rights while placing formal constraints on the power of the State. But this kind of liberalism is notable in Indian politics only by its absence. No party expresses a belief, either in theory or in practice, in limited government. After two-and-a-half years in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of “maximum governance, minimum government” appears to have been an insincere, and vague, aberration. State power in India is constrained by incompetence or lack of capacity rather than liberal values.
On the question of support for individual rights or civil liberties, political parties and their supporters are united by their opportunism and inconsistency. From the sedition charges against Jawaharlal Nehru University students earlier this year, to last week’s order suspending news channel NDTV India for one day, which was put on hold on Monday, the present government has shown only contempt for the freedom of expression.
But the Congress, which, banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, when it ruled at the Centre, and imposed the authoritarian Information Technology Act, 2000, is ill-placed to offer a liberal alternative, and state governments run by regional parties even less so. Most professed liberals stood up for the rights of American scholar Wendy Doniger in 2014, when Hindutva groups targeted her books for being disrespectful of Hinduism. Earlier this year, professed liberals also backed the makers of crime thriller Udta Punjab, which the Central Board of Film Certification wanted 89 cuts from before clearing the film for release. But for Hindutva leader Kamlesh Tiwari, jailed for blasphemy in Lucknow last December in a supposedly secular republic, there is a conspicuous silence.
Indian political discourse
The problem with the term “secular” is more specific to Indian political discourse. Unlike “liberal”, this is a word that in its Western context has a fairly straightforward meaning: the total separation of religion and politics, with no role for religious doctrine or organisations in governance or legislation, in a context where the church held significant political and economic power. The word itself may have been added to the Indian Constitution during the Emergency, but no political party or movement in India favours this version of secularism, either in theory or in practice.
In a 2014 column in The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta distinguished between two ideas of India: a “federation of communities”, which sees the country in terms of discrete social groups, whether in competition or harmony, and a “zone of individual freedom” in which the individual is empowered to live his or her life as a citizen of a republic unconstrained by a “compulsory identity”. As Mehta notes, the Constitution, on the whole, was written with the hope of creating a zone of individual freedom, a prerequisite for secularism. But in practice, our politics operates on the presumption that India is a federation of communities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate over the Uniform Civil Code. For a secular republic, or indeed, a liberal one, a Uniform Civil Code, which guarantees equal rights and emancipates law from religion, ought to be axiomatic. In India, however, the opposition to such a code is led by political parties, scholars, and activists who identify as secular, often in the name of upholding secularism. And the minority in the secular camp who support a Uniform Civil Code do so on the grounds of gender justice, rather than secularism. Perversely, the only arguments in favour of the Uniform Civil Code from the standpoint of secularism come from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in other respects a nakedly anti-secular – or communal – party.
Other areas of policy in which Indian secularism is anything but are education, where, thanks to legislation and court judgments, minority institutions are granted special privileges, and the use of public funds to support religious causes of all stripes. Here too, the operating principle is that India is a federation of communities. This could be called accommodationist, or pluralist, or cynically political – all parties to varying extents, treating social groups as votebanks – but not secular.
The use of the words “liberal” or “secular” could be justified if India had developed its own particular variant of these ideologies in the manner of American liberalism. Instead, what we have is the absence of agreement on what these terms mean, along with the belief on all sides that each party or individual is the only true representative of secularism or liberalism. BJP veteran LK Advani used to claim that the BJP, rather than the Congress, stood for “positive secularism”. Thus, an alarming and increasingly debilitating proportion of our political discourse consists of allegations that a person or party is not truly liberal or secular.
This trend originated with the term “pseudo-secular”, coined in the 1950s by the Christian priest Anthony Elenjimittam, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, in reference to the distance between the actual policies of the Congress and true secularism, and popularised in the 1980s and ’90s by Advani. More recently, we have #AdarshLiberal, used sarcastically to expose so-called liberals who are inconsistent or hypocritical.
These epithets are used too broadly and indiscriminately, but, far too often, they are well-deserved. No liberalism worth its salt defends the rights only of those of whose views it approves. Nor can a person or organisation that defends the Muslim community’s right to retain triple talaq as a form of divorce be accused of being secular. But to be constantly on the lookout for hypocrisy and double standards is, in the long run, an exhausting and counterproductive method of political debate.
Alternatives to ‘secular’
Mehta hopes that we can move beyond compulsory identities to a true zone of individual freedom. Many others, including this writer, may share such a hope, but it is an ideal totally at odds with Indian political reality as it exists in 2016. What we can reasonably hope for, in the short term, is a new political vocabulary that allows us to admit what we truly are.
This would allow the Congress, or all those who oppose majoritarian communalism, to stop claiming to be secular. There are many good and accurate alternatives, beginning with the term “pluralist”, or even “Gandhian”. Within the paradigm of a federation of communities, there is room for a vast range of political programmes: Gandhi’s communal-harmony vision, with its respect for community rights, is far from secularism, but it can be usefully opposed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh view of an unequal federation with Hindus as the dominant community. As a political brand, BR Ambedkar, perhaps the strongest advocate of a zone of individual freedom, is much more fashionable than Gandhi at present – but it is Gandhi’s pluralism, rather than Ambedkar’s secular liberalism, that has actual political currency.
Such a move would enable opponents of a Uniform Civil Code to avoid allegations of pseudo-secularism and admit, openly, that they believe in community rather than merely individual rights, and particularly in an India in which extensive minority rights are protected.
The word “liberal”, for its part, could be replaced by a variety of words that are more contextually appropriate. When many left-liberals use the term “neo-liberal” as their preferred term of political disparagement, the need for lexical change is self-evident. Increasingly, American liberals identify as progressive – Indians who have previously identified themselves or been identified as liberal can easily find alternatives. After the global financial crisis of 2008, and with the Soviet Union at best a distant memory, the terms “socialist” and “Marxist” are ripe for a comeback.
Ditching the words “secular” and “liberal” would allow us to have a political vocabulary that fits our own particular politics. It would mean greater honesty, a prerequisite for good-faith political debate. It would reduce the hypocrisy-detection trade and, in time, it might even also enable a secularism and liberalism worthy of those names to return to our politics.