In a democracy, perhaps the most important function of the press is to hold those in power to account: to apply the greatest possible scrutiny to the actions of the government of the day, and to examine whether these are in accordance with campaign commitments, the letter and spirit of the Constitution, raj dharma, and the public interest. In India, it is a role that the press has performed at best fitfully.

In the years of Congress dominance in the 1950s and 1960s, the press was, with only a few exceptions, far too uncritical of the state, a period that culminated with the shameful complicity of many newspapers and magazines with the Emergency. After the Emergency, the gradual decline of the Congress was accompanied by the rise of a more vigorous and activist media.

But with the emergence of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party as the first nationally dominant party since the Congress in the 1980s, old habits are returning. In recent months, there have been a spate of articles and TV debates that choose to deflect attention away from the government’s failures and missteps and, instead, blame all of India’s problems on people who hold no political power: those so-called liberals who have the temerity to view the actions of the state through a critical lens.

Easy targets

In Swarajya, on April 17, R Jagannathan blamed liberals for India’s problems in Kashmir, concluding darkly that “If India ever loses the Valley, it will be because the ‘liberals’ have enabled this”, and that these liberals will only have themselves to blame for the Hindu Rashtra that inevitably follows. Two days later, in the Indian Express, Srijana Mitra Das, in 700 words of whataboutery and class hate, rehashed the familiar claim that liberals are hypocrites who only assert liberal values when it suits them, socially or politically. In Mint, on April 10, Manu Joseph, a more subtle prose writer, avoided using the broad-brush term “liberal”, but he dismissed the critics of Aadhaar as an out-of-touch gang of quinoa–munching urban elites who care little for the real interests of the poor.

Times Now, and its soon-to-be rival, Republic, are currently engaged in a farcical legal dispute about, among other things, the ownership of the phrase “the nation wants to know”. But both channels responded to the horrific Maoist massacre of jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, on Monday, by choosing to question everyone but the government, which failed to appoint a CRPF chief for two months – it only announced the appointment of Rajiv Rai Bhatnagar as chief of the police force on Wednesday. “Will the ‘Kanhaiyas and Khalids’ salute our Sukma braves?” asked Times Now on Twitter on the day of the massacre.

(Photo credit: IANS).

After the Sukma ambush, Arnab Goswami, founder of Republic, raged on Twitter against “the cocktail circuit media”, “Maoist sympathizers”, “PSEUDOS who call terrorists ‘Gandhians in arms’” (a mangled reference to Arundhati Roy), “shallow foreign funded anti nationals” and “FRAUDS who justify secessionism”. In April 2014, however, as Pratik Sinha, who runs the @TruthOfGujarat Twitter handle, has pointed out, Goswami, then at Times Now, attacked the United Progressive Alliance government for a Maoist attack at Sukma, rather than alleged Maoist sympathisers.

Who is a liberal?

It is not clear who the liberals of these attacks are, or what they allegedly believe. As I have argued in the past, the meaning of liberal is always context-dependent, and is especially ill-suited to India. The term “liberal” in India is typically a label without an ideology. To the limited extent that there are real, identifiable liberals, it is an ideology without a party.

No party or politically relevant movement in India professes liberalism or practises it. Jagannathan, in particular, makes clear that he is referring to “faux liberals”. The implication is that these are people who claim to be liberal but are not. It is a common trope – Das recites it as well – that most self-proclaimed liberals are in fact inconsistent and unprincipled. Jagannathan’s own publication, Swarajya, describes itself as “liberal” and “committed to the ideals of individual liberty unmediated by the state”. When Jagannathan attacks faux liberals, he means that his liberalism is the real deal.

But, in fact, very few of those people targeted in these op-eds and TV debates ever claim to be liberal. Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid are communists who would recoil from such a description, liberalism being one of the enemies of Marxism. Arundhati Roy has been as critical of mainstream bourgeois liberalism as of Hindutva. For most intellectuals and student activists on the left, a favourite label is “neoliberal”, used to describe the uncritical cheerleaders of market-driven society. The term “liberal” has become to the right as “neoliberal” is to the left: a word used to label opponents who do not actually identify with that label. “With what temerity can they call themselves liberals?” asks Jagannathan. He never specifies the “they”, with good reason: very few of the people he is targeting actually call themselves liberals.

Srijana Mitra Das’ piece, which never actually names or critiques any actual liberals, exemplifies this tendency to go after a liberalism that is essentially fictitious. It is not clear who these liberals are or what they actually believe, but the various critiques of so-called liberalism have certain common features: instead of responding to specific people or arguments, they are deliberately vague (vagueness is often essential to the creation of a straw man), and in fact decline to engage at all with the actual criticisms being made by so-called liberals. Even Manu Joseph, in his defence of Aadhaar, ducks entirely two of the most prominent liberal criticisms: that Aadhaar should never have been passed as a money bill, and that it is being made mandatory in defiance of both the Supreme Court and of Constitutional propriety.

They associate liberalism with a life of luxury (for instance, the references to quinoa, foie gras, the cocktail circuit), a bizarre characterisation on two levels – one, because India’s rich overwhelmingly support the BJP, and two, almost all these critics of liberalism come from the same or higher social class as those they condemn. The proprietors of The Indian Express or Republic may consume foie gras, but the same is unlikely to be true of, say, a Jawaharlal Nehru University professor. But this association of liberalism with a disconnected elite is essential to sustaining a rhetorical approach that is ad hominem and refuses intellectual engagement.

(Photo credit: PTI).

Liberals and their critics

Those who attack liberals tend to claim that they are doing so in the national or public interest. But what these attacks have in common is a narrow and pessimistic construction of that interest: a scepticism about the possibilities of the Republic and its Constitution, accompanied with a denial of the role of morality in politics and of our capacity for moral improvement as individuals and as a nation. The alleged liberals, by contrast, might not share a coherent political philosophy, but many do share a desire for the State to live up to its founding ideals and laws, as expressed in the Constitution. Expressed morally, this is the desire to be the best version of ourselves. To be proud, for instance, of not descending to Pakistan’s level.

The critics of liberalism define the national interest in terms of security – whether in terms of territorial integrity or law and order – and material prosperity. Anything that comes in the way of these objectives is liberal frippery. They do not believe that compromising or suspending our Constitutional rights and republican values are too high a price for achieving certain goals such as Kashmir security and efficiency in the Public Distribution System. The alleged liberals, by contrast, do not believe that there is actually a trade-off between Constitutional values and these goals (repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, for instance, is cited as both a moral and strategic aspiration). Nor would passing Aadhaar as a regular bill, and being honest about the intention of making it mandatory, have had consequences for efficiency. There are no economic gains from depriving the poor of their Constitutional rights.

And they believe that there are prices that are too high to pay for security or prosperity. Jagannathan writes: “The liberals are not doing India’s cause any good by pretending that ‘liberal values’ must prevail before the state manages to regain lost power.” What exactly are our soldiers defending in Kashmir – mere territory, or the Republic of India, with the rights and freedoms guaranteed by its Constitution? If, in order to keep Kashmir from Pakistan, we suspend our own values, then that is too great a price to pay.

In a Constitutional republic, the officers of the State, including the Army, are themselves subject to the rule of law. This is something liberals of left and right agree on: constraining the powers of the State, and holding off despotism. Essential to this constraint is the scrutinising power of the press. But in India, we need not call these liberal values. They are Indian values: the values of our Constitution, and of the founders of our Republic. But blaming “Indian values” does not have quite the same effect. If the intention is to deflect attention away from the government and its policies, then liberals who hold back our progress and imperil our territorial integrity between sips of Dom Perignon are an effective scapegoat, even if they happen not to actually exist.