How India’s liberals have lost touch with realityThe crisis of liberalism in India is squarely related to the issue of language.
As Narendra Modi and his party BJP won a second landslide, it has stunned India’s liberals. Will this massive victory of the Hindutva party force the liberals to question their delusional sense of entitlement that they had enjoyed since India’s Independence?
Even though Mahatma Gandhi had mobilised and managed India’s masses successfully by identifying with them in dress and demeanour, he and especially his cohort of Congress leaders were Anglophone elites who had adopted English liberalism and adapted it to India’s post-colonial political system. We can call it postcolonial Indian liberalism. It had the Westminster parliamentary system as its political institution, tolerance of social difference as its social code of conduct and the urban middle class and landed gentry as its pool from where its leaders came. The case of its bureaucracy, security forces and judiciary was not much different. At the core of this liberal politics, License Raj, and the governmental structure was the dominace of the English language. And Nehru came to replace Gandhi as an icon of this liberalism among India’s liberal elite, including its Anglophone scholars.
The image of this liberal was suave, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, and more comfortable with Enid Blyton, Shakespeare and Dickens than with Kalidas or the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The first generation of the liberal freedom fighters, even though English-educated in British Indian schools and of zamindar provenance if from the rural areas, had to adopt the dress and demeanour of villagers following Gandhi, and suffer at the hands of the British again for following him in order to gain freedom. Rural India, vernacular India, could identify with them and even they could have genuine empathy with this vernacular India’s plight, albeit only for electoral purposes.
But once this generation of postcolonial leaders died out, their progenies and those of the Anglophone bureaucrats could be ideologically staunch liberals, who in habit and in taste were cosmopolitans. But if you asked them about how a chickpea plant looks like or where rice grows, they wouldn’t be able to tell you even though they will tell you that they have seen both on television. As for language, they would readily carry on an everyday conversation in racy, urban colloquial Hindi but they wouldn’t be able to write a good letter in Hindi, let alone expound their liberal, cosmopolitan, pluralist ideas in the vernacular. In my view, the crisis of liberalism in India is squarely related to the issue of language.
To be sure, there are local newspapers in vernacular languages. There are television channels in Hindi and other local languages. But if you want to hear and see nationally and internationally respected and known intellectuals and thinkers in these television channels, explaining their idea of India, you will be sorely disappointed. I don’t know if even a couple (Yogendra Yadav could be an exception but I don’t know if he writes and speaks on a regular basis from formal public platforms in Hindi) of India’s national and international intellectuals write and speak regularly in both English and local vernacular languages even though these liberals with all their good-heartedness, pluralist ideas and English language make much noise about the death of pluralism and liberalism at the hands of what they call Hindutva fascists.
And these so-called Hindutva fascists haven’t become quite fascists yet, but they do harbour ambitions to make India a majority-dominated homogenous country. How they are going to accomplish it is a different matter altogether. But for now, after decades and decades in the wilderness, they are in ascendance. How have they come to accomplish this feat? That is the question every liberal is asking and trying to answer. In my view, Hindutva groups have monopolised the vernacular discourse and this is how they have come to connect with Gandhi’s masses. For decades, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh), the cadre-based Hindu organisation, carried out drills in small towns and cities but nobody listened to them because the freedom fighting generation of leaders was still alive. Their appeal, at least in dress, speech and demeanour among India’s vernacular masses still prevailed. Once these leaders died, a vacuum emerged in the 1990s that vernacular leaders like Lalu Yadav, a graduate in Political Science from Patna University, filled. At this time, Lalu Yadav was able to stop upper-caste LK Advani’s chariot yatra to Ayodhya. Yadav halting Advani’s march was an important symbolic event because a vernacular OBC (Other Backward Caste) leader had impeded the Hindu nationalist march of an upper-caste Hindu nationalist ideologue.
In the 1990s, it appeared that the ‘Lalu ideology’ would triumph and halt upper-caste Hindutva, which has become more prominent after the gradual decay of the Congress. Advani and his Hindutva volunteers succeeded, nevertheless, in demolishing the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992. Lalu’s strident rhetoric against upper-caste privilege alienated the upper castes, including the bureaucracy, the majority of whom came from their ranks. And, so, it is said that the bureaucracy didn’t cooperate with Lalu and his administration. But Lalu himself, despite all his rustic charm and cultivated boorishness, didn’t help himself when he indulged in corruption or lacked the administrative capability, creating what came to be known as ‘Jungle Raj.’
Lalu’s downfall in Bihar saw the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP. And when the so-called OBC Modi rose like a phoenix, upper-caste ideology of Hindutva merged with the OBC persona, mask and icon of Modi and Amit Shah, creating an unsurpassable nationalist narrative of religious nationalism. Classical Sanskrit merged with the Hindi vernacular. What was once only confined to the non-Congress upper castes and trading community became a driving force in Indian politics. It is only fitting that Modi’s and BJP’s second victory has come at a time when Lalu is in jail for fodder scam. The English-speaking liberal elite had hoped that the Rahul Gandhi- and Priyanka-led Congress would rescue them. But how can that happen? They can’t and don’t speak, write and represent India’s masses. The classical left is even worse because it never spoke or understood the vernacular in its blind adherence to Marx and class rather than Ambedkar and caste. No wonder then, that it’s been wiped out from its bastions, Bengal and Kerala.
The Anglophone elites are making a lot of noise in New Delhi, London and New York about their crisis and Modi’s triumph; but unless it learns to communicate in a villager’s language in remote Bihar or Rajasthan, and be persuasive to them, India is in for a long period of Hindutva Raj.
Mishra is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.