Were Borges alive, and had he followed the surreal discourse marking Indian and American politics over the last couple of years or so, he would have promptly published an updated version of his endlessly fascinating work, The Book of Imaginary Beings. To the collection of marvellous and strange beasts engendered by the human imagination curated in the text, Borges would have added another mythic creature, “the liberal elite.”
The abstraction of the “liberal elite” represents that Archimedean point where liberal self-flagellation and conservative triumphalism meet. In the United States, commentators across the political spectrum shell shocked by Donald Trump’s election victory have blamed myopic out-of-touch liberal elites, lost in their fog of Pinot Noir fumes as they seek to change the world, one scrupulously organic kale chip at a time, from the hipster enclaves of Brooklyn and the hilltops of San Francisco. Liberal elites have been blamed for foisting a culture of political correctness run berserk, marked by an indifference to the travails of White working class folk, especially in middle America, by a refusal to call a Muslim terrorist spade a spade, and most horrifyingly, by tantrums over acts of cultural appropriation such as college cafeterias serving sushi.
In India, Modi’s election victory in 2014 and subsequent policies have likewise been hailed as a ringing endorsement of his son-of-the-soil charisma by his admirers, fence-sitters who voted for “development” and even staunch self-professed liberals tired of an enervated Congress Party and ineffectual secularism. Somewhat mystifyingly, commentators with impeccable elite credentials, like the writer Aatish Taseer and columnists Swapan Dasgupta and Ashok Malik, have described Modi’s ascendancy as heralding the twilight of Nehruvian elites in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Such elite voices for subaltern political sentiment see the new Indian prime minister as the messiah of organic, grassroots-level authentic Indians ready to stake their claim on the country. In a recent essay defending Modi’s welfarist populism, Ashok Malik has coined the charming phrase, “Khan Market consensus”, painting Modi, by contrast, as a great dissenter against Delhi’s hegemonic cultural, social, and political elites. In India too, although the term is not used as much as in the US, political correctness has come in for considerable bashing since 2014: it is held responsible for the appeasement of Muslims, reservations for Dalits, and the imposition of an alien anti-Hindu secularism in school syllabi and public space, all of which are said to have cost India dearly.
While liberal worldviews, philosophies, and ideologies should be subjected to critique – as they are amply are, actually – the lazy scapegoating of the “political correctness” of the Indian or American liberally-inclined elite is riddled with contradictions. Indeed, it serves the ideological function of defending and perpetuating the very injustices that a liberal politics is meant to draw attention to and redress. One common grouse against the elitist liberal worldview is that it focuses disproportionately on identity politics, privileging the difficulties faced by racial, ethnic, sexual and minorities over those faced by majorities, and ignoring class and economic issues. Yet, the interpretation of the resurgence of the Hindu and White Right as an inevitable correction to overreach along these grounds conveniently ignores the fact that the natural order supposedly being restored takes the majoritarian caste Hindu and White experience as the invisible, assumed norm.
As for the idea that the elite liberal perspective has turned a blind eye to caste, the notion that America is a classless society where anyone can realize the American dream through merit and hard work is, in fact, a Conservative idea. It was George HW Bush, a Conservative, who, in 1998, famously declared class as something that existed in European societies but not in America. The same Bush, incidentally, had no idea how to navigate a supermarket where ordinary Americans shopped for groceries. It is American conservatives who have called for shrinking social welfare programmes, which, ironically, stand to benefit large numbers of citizens from the poorer sections of red states.
In the Indian context, it was the Modi government and its bureaucrats that, if promises and pronouncements were to be believed, sought to roll back the welfarist programs of the earlier United Progressive Alliance government. Since then, the National Democratic Alliance government has suitably been chastened, learning that doing away with these popular programs would risk serious loss of political capital. It has sought to defend this position through the convoluted and comical justification that its welfarist policies are more merit-driven than those of its predecessor. These measures, ironically, are among the few NDA initiatives that do not overtly or covertly invoke a cynical identity politics, in contrast to the theatrics over implementing a Uniform Civil Code or recent noises about banning beef, for example.
In both societies, India and the US, what we have witnessed is the rise of illiberal elites or, rather, their victory in social, cultural, and political space. The tacit agreement between Left and Right in designating their liberal counterparts as the primary factor underlying their newly-found prominence deflects attention from the deeper and more difficult questions about the constellation of social, economic, cultural, and political dynamics that have led to this state of affairs. That complementary and contradictory mix of forces includes a radically changed political economy of global labour, the perceived inadequacy of states to address the challenges of globalisation, the diminishing appeal of vocabularies and narratives of liberal and Left projects, statist or otherwise, the permanence of risk and insecurity as part of everyday life, diagnosed superbly by sociologists like Manuel Castells, Anthony Giddens, and Zygmunt Bauman, and the limited affective pull of cosmopolitanism compared to the imagined, utopian promise of the local. In seeking to understand the interplay of these trends and how they have produced our current political reality, we would do well to listen to liberals, including those of the elitist variety.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. He runs the Twitter account @IndiaExplained and is co-founder and curator of Auctorly.com.