Apart from yours truly, if there is another observer that I trust to keep track of India’s socio-political winds it is the eminent social scientist and commentator Shiv Visvanathan. The world has generally stood utterly revealed and demystified in front of me for as long as I remember but occasionally one yearns for a voice other than one’s own. On such occasions, I check out Visvanathan, an unabashed liberal.
Notwithstanding his passion to inject scholarship into undeserving realms, Visvanathan generally offers perspectives which are never less than compelling. In the clearest indication yet that the rise of Narendra Modi, a braggadocian politician of uncomfortably high self-assurance, is causing a significant shift in the way the Indian liberal elite has begun to reassess its own certitudes Visvanathan has written an excellent piece in The Hindu newspaper. The headline itself is meant to underline that shift. It says, “How Modi defeated liberals like me”. If I considered myself a genuine member of the human species, I too may have been part of that liberal elite. However, I have never considered myself to be part of the human species but a detached outsider to the amusing spectacle.
The gist of Visvanathan’s article is that liberal secularism has become so coercive in India that a vast majority of Indians who practice Hinduism as a way of life in all its glorious everydayness feel pushed around, oppressed and guilty. (This is my interpretation of what he is saying). On a side note, it is ironic that a man whose name contains not one but two names of the same Hindu god—Shiv and Visvanathan—has often been the bête noire of those everyday Hindus numbering hundreds of millions and those who Gave Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party its biggest ever victory.
This is how Visvanathan describes it: “The Left intellectuals and their liberal siblings behaved as a club, snobbish about secularism, treating religion not as a way of life but as a superstition. It was this same group that tried to inject the idea of the scientific temper into the constitutions as if it would create immunity against religious fears and superstitions. By overemphasising secularism, they created an empty domain, a coercive milieu where ordinary people practising religion were seen as lesser orders of being.”
It was this vast section of India that Modi and his team tapped into to win.
It is not my case that within days of rising Modi has begun to convert the unconvertible. But there is certainly a new wish to look at Modi and his kind afresh, without the liberal/secular blinders. I am not saying I necessarily agree or disagree with this approach. I am merely reporting what seems to be going on in the immediate aftermath of India’s most reviled political figure rising to become prime minister.It is precisely the kind of honest self-analysis that Visvanathan engages in in this piece that India needs. He puts it memorably by saying, “He (Modi) showed that liberal secularism had become an Orwellian club where some prejudices were more equal than others. As the catchment area of the sullen, the coerced, and the repressed became huge, he had a middle class ready to battle the snobbery of the second rate Nehruvian elite.”
I think the endeavor to freshly look at the electorally reinforced political ideology represented by Modi comes with its attendant challenges. The enthusiasm to reverse liberal prejudices—which sounds like an oxymoron—could create its own set of problems, one of which could be to disregard some of the more insidious aspects of the new agenda carried by the influential outliers around this new force. Going by the reader comments below Visvanathan—which as a norm tend to be devastatingly illiterate and half-baked—it seems that the readers are happy that finally sense has dawned on the “left-liberal” writer. I see Visvanathan’s piece as a fine example of how a truly liberal and liberated mind will have no problem questioning its own deeply considered views from time to time. He is accurate in saying that Narendra Modi tapped into the unease caused among everyday Hindus by coercive secularism. I wonder though whether a comparable observer from the other side of the divide would offer an equally honest self-assessment as Visvanathan. I hope someone does.