I am a liberal bubble. I am made in India and, like most of my kind, I am full of rhetoric. Shakespeare was referring to the likes of me when he wrote of lives “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Originally I was a British-American make, tough as a goatskin, ferocious in my certainties. Today I am a bubble, fragile, vulnerable, caught in the confusion of my times. Like any bubble, my surface tension makes me iridescent and attractive. It is my depths that need an exorcism.
My liberalism, when it began years ago, had a clear-cut agenda. I believed in the individual, in individualism, in the power of human rights, and the vision of the market. My eloquence was clear, my vision pellucid. Today a big part of me is fighting for survival, caught between ideologies of nationalism, an arid socialism and a cannibalistic technocracy.
I wish I had the confidence of my predecessors, like Minoo Masani, Piloo Modi, and C Rajagopalachari. Read Rajaji’s Swarajya. It had a sense of clarity and contestation, the courage of marginality. Today, even my journal and its name have been hijacked by jingoistic nationalists who confuse Swarajya (self-rule) with Swadesi (of one’s country). My anxieties and fears have become bigger than my arguments. Part of me has almost become a still life to be admired in political museums, where it is featured as nostalgia. Part of me protests and complains too loudly, almost as a sheer act of survival. It is as if I claim in a delirious Cartesian way, “I am paranoid, therefore I am.”
My fears virtually make me. I had a great sense of being when the constitution was born. Our constitution has a touch of the liberal worldview built into it, incorporating the idea of rights and the sense of the individual. This and a sense of the idea of citizenship were great liberal contributors.
Then socialism took over, but in the Nehruvian years I still provided a leavening on the public sector, creating possibilities for democracy.
My liberalism survived as secularism, a weak kind of cosmopolitanism. My secularism was like a piece of English etiquette, more table manners than ethics. There was nothing sturdily political about it. Its hypocrisy and its rituals of political correctness, its loss of feel for religion, which is so deep-rooted in India, allowed Narendra Modi and the BJP to creep in.
Modi represents my biggest crisis and, for all his support for the market and corporates, he belongs to an illiberal India, which tramples on minorities, individual rights, and freedom of sexuality – an India that thinks the deviant, the dissenting, the minoritarian, and the marginal have no claim to citizenship. Modi and his majoritarian regime made me silly, made me mix my metaphors and equate him with Trump.
The idea is superficially attractive. To say that all caricatures are alike, that all such apparitions stem from the same source. Yet that is where our liberalism failed. It was more a theory of advertising than a profound sense of authoritarian evil. Our theory was produced in panic and, worse, what was produced in panic was appropriated by the BJP jingoists who paraded the possibility that Modi was an ancestor, a predecessor to Trump.
It appealed to ardent non-resident Indians who felt an urgent need for a certain kinship between India and the US. It appealed to nationalists who felt that “Make in India” and “America First” arose from a similar pulpit. It appealed to sociologists who, without exploring the different cultural roots of the two gentlemen, found the cosmetic similarities appealing. I guess vulnerability, a sense of irrelevance and a location in the paranoid produce a confusion that adds to a sense of illiteracy, creating idiot stereotypes that mislead, misinform and, turn the liberal dream from history into a dystopia. My analysis might be wrong but I hope my fears contain truths which need to be retold.
Modi is a moral challenge each individual must confront in his search for a decent society, which values the freedom of the individual. My fears may disappear like bubbles but that bubble is all I have – a warning note by the concerned and the incompetent about an India that frightens all.
Today when Modi is messiah, the liberal message sounds silly. But I can wait; I, the bubble, might one day be a football scoring against a regime that has desacralised the individual. All I can do is hope, and offer you my silly fears as prophecies to be interpreted.
This article first appeared on Quartz.
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