One of the fundamental liberal misunderstandings of contemporary Indian society consists of the view that irrespective of who forms the next government, public and private life will be characterised by a turn towards illiberalism.

According to this view, the nature of the ruling dispensation is now irrelevant to how the majority think about social, cultural and religious differences, caste and jingoistic nationalism. This perspective – an understandable lament in the current climate of hopelessness as far as liberal causes are concerned – is based both on a misunderstanding of India’s past as well as the relationship between the governed and those who govern.

First, let us tackle the idea that Indian opinion has been so fundamentally altered due to the five years of Bharatiya Janata Party rule that prevailing opinion has become unalterable common sense, and any another political dispensation will have no bearing on it. Muslims will continue to be treated as suspicious co-citizens and the Hindu view of life (whatever this means) will form the canopy under which others (non-Hindus, non-believers) will be allowed survival, according to this view.

The problem with this view is that it assumes that apart from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance interregnum, Indian society has actually been marked with deeply felt native forms of liberalism, and it is BJP rule that altered it. This is simply incorrect.

Fundamental Indian traits

If post-colonial Indian society has been characterised by periods of tolerance of difference and lack of deliberate incitement towards majoritarianism, this has little to do with deeply-held beliefs about the nature of a modern society.

The fact of the matter is that apart from a small minority that has struggled with the idea and deliberated upon it (in small circles, it should be said), there has never really been a majority opinion in India regarding tolerance and what is identified as liberalism.

If we have come to believe that these are fundamental Indian traits, then this is the work of modern historiography that has tended to push the narrative that Indians have almost a biological proclivity to be inclusive, open-minded, charitable and, above all, questioning.

A vast body of scholarly literature over the past few decades has informed us Indians about our fundamental desire for democratic norms, the “syncretic” nature of Indian life (the term “Ganga-Jumuni tehzeeb” has been reduced to a banality) and a native talent for questioning structures of power.

A great deal of this kind of thinking derives directly from the key ideas of anti-colonial nationalism. Wherever it occurs, anti-colonial nationalism is driven to produce a set of ideas about subjugated people that contests characterisations forced upon it by colonial rulers.

This is a logical manner in which power is contested though it may or may not have basis in history.

The making of alternative histories is a necessary part of struggles over meaning between colonisers and their nationalist opponents. But to take them at face value is a problem in the actual working of societies.

This belief that we were a different people lies at the heart of the view that “something” fundamental has changed over the past five years.

What is Indian liberalism?

Is a five-year period really adequate to the task of ushering in an entirely new set of beliefs and attitudes? Have we suddenly become more communal, casteist, intolerant, bigoted and chauvinistic? If this were the case, many marketing companies would be beating a path to the doors of the BJP headquarters for advice on the promptitude of change.

One can hardly put a monetary value on such information. We have not suddenly changed, and certainly not in five years.

The current climate is entirely the result of the ways in which the State has managed long-standing social and cultural tendencies. This goes to the heart of how we might understand relationships between the independent state and its subjects in India.

If we move away from the romance of the Indian past, everyday conversations reveal the deeply fraught nature of convictions about religious belief, caste and social and cultural norms (to name just a few aspects) on the ground. Despite the long history of co-habitation between populations of different kinds, it is difficult to identify a consistent and organic belief system that might be identified as “liberal”.

The role of the State

Indian liberalism, where it has existed, has primarily been a context created by the actions of the State. The larger environment has never really approximated liberalism – irrespective of class, education and other socio-cultural markers – and it is the dicta of the State of the day that has enforced norms about public attitudes and behaviours.

Though not all members of a political party that forms the State may believe in what is done in their name, they go along with its public stance.

The idea that things will never be the same is based on the view that things were different in actual fact. The persistence of caste attitudes, multiple atrocities against Dalits (irrespective of the era) and the fundamental reality of Hindu secularism tell us something else.

In India it is the State that has managed private opinion to form a public life of fragile civility and tolerance. To assume that the “people” are (or have been) axiomatically “liberal” is to fall back on mistaken ideas regarding inherent Indian capacities and the ease with social and cultural attitudes can be changed.

The nature of the State matters not because it can change long-held attitudes in the short period of a particular dispensation. Rather, because different States manage social attitudes differently.

While not the determining factor in all that we say and do, in the Indian case at least, the State has been a very significant player in the management of a fractious sociality.

That may not be the most desirable state of affairs – State intervention indicates the inadequacy of social opinion – but that is what we have. The “people” have not changed, the State has.