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Mainstream, VOL LV No 29 New Delhi July 8, 2017

The Retreat of Liberal Democracy

Tuesday 11 July 2017


by Saumitra Mohan

The world seems to be moving increasingly backward with the march of time much to the chagrin of all Panglossian expectations of the humanitarian values bringing about an eclectic, cosmopolitan and catholic human society. The incursions of regressive and retrograde forces on liberal-democratic ethos of our times are more stark and insidious today than ever before.

When the Berlin Wall came down in September, 1990 or when the former USSR disintegrated, people like Francis Fukuyama had vainly proclaimed ‘end of history’ with the battle of ideology having putatively been won by the liberal-democratic forces. But it was around the same time that there were prophets of doom like Samuel Huntington who warned of an impending ‘clash of civilisations’ looming large on the horizon because of potential clashes along the cultural fault-lines. However, the latter was excoriated as the gusts of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG) were sweeping the world off its feet. Who thought that the tide would turn soon to make Huntington sound prophetic today?

If we look around ourselves, something appears to be really putrid about the times we live in. The negativities in thinking and action coupled with sinister developments all around us quite often repulse and disgust us. While we should have constructively occupied ourselves with resolution of our multifarious developmental problems, the societal discourse seems to have got stuck in a vicious time-warp. The insular and reactionary forces are running amok prescribing gastronomical and cultural norms, both nationally and internat-ionally. The ascendancy and appeal of chauvinistic forces at the expense of liberalism, as reflected in their swagger on the world ramp, are staggering and somehow reveal the cerebral atrophy of this era.

There have been multiple developments in recent times which prove that we, as a society, still have not resolved our existential dilemmas. This often compromises and impinges on the normative narratives which have all along defined and delineated the hoary Indian civilisation. The same holds true for many nation-states across the world. The seemingly ‘innocuous’ cultural and intellectual excesses of fellow human beings often cross the boundaries to start interfering with the fundamental niceties of corporate living.

Here, an attempt to build a monolithic straitjacketed social order is made by conversion of the ‘salad bowl’ into a ‘melting pot’ in the garb of ‘Swadeshi’ and ‘Nationalism’. And when this happens, Goebbelsian lies and cultural McCarthism become rampant. A cultural conformism is sought to be imposed through intimidation and violence. Real issues facing the society go to the backburner and sensationalist emotional subjects overpower the hoi polloi with a dash of jingoist fervour and deemed cultural nationalism. Instead of endeavouring to build a strong, well-knit futuristic society, we have started chasing an anachronistic chimera and creating a Frankenstein which may eventually devour this civilisational entity.

So, the self-proclaimed cultural custodians, by their diktats and fiats, not only deprive millions of their livelihood but also take off the menu millions’ preferred food by proscribing and tabooing beef. This they do without realising the economics of the move and by alienating a significant section of our citizenry. In fact, by throwing millions into unemployment, a huge section of the populace gets disaffected and is a sitting duck to the preying revisionist forces. What one fails to fathom is the limit of such inanity. If beef is banned because the same is taboo in Hinduism or for various benefits it brings to the society, what about sundry other non-vegetarian diets which are still not banned and consumption whereof may hurt the sensibi-lities of million others? When this country is failing and flailing in macro-managing its larger interests, we are trying to micromanage things which are better left to the citizens.

It is notable that India not only loses billions of dollars because of the measure, but also creates further liabilities of maintaining the unproductive cattle which have to be cared for and for which we have no adequate resources or fodder available. The culture vultures, encouraged by a section of powers that be, have found ready excuses to take law in their hands because they suspect someone of dealing in or consuming the prohibited victuals, thereby compromising the fundamental right to life and liberty of common citizens as enshrined in our Constitution.

The ‘Love-Jihad’ and ‘Ghar Wapsi’ are other inanities which are masquerading in the name of cultural vigilantism. You are no longer allowed to go out or seen with the love of your life in certain parts of this country. It is really ironical that people have serious objections to people displaying their affection in public, but look the other way if people indulge in affray, rioting or battery of fellow citizens. Be it banning books, films, liquor, Pakistani artistes and players, we love the ‘B’ word without realising the irrationality of the same in this world of free information and communication signified by World Wide Web.

It is these nefarious attitudes and thoughts that are reflected globally in the rise of Donald Trump, rise of entities like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, terror attacks in London, Paris, and elsewhere, killing of liberal writers and scribes, revisionist and irredentist Chinese incursions on neighbouring countries, Grexit, Brexit or ban on Muslims or visa-cuts for emigrant workers by countries like the US and Australia. If we revel in ‘Swadeshi’ and would like to ‘Make in India’, others would do a reactive tit for our ‘nationalist’ tat. The ‘Quit India’ calls for Sonu Nigam, Shahrukh Khan, Kanhaiya Kumar, Aamir Khan or Khushbu are reflections of intolerance swaying this country these days. People are sought to be crucified for being vocal and expressing their opinion. The media is sought to toe the dominant line.

As Voltaire rightly said, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The opinions expressed may be wrong, but expressions of the same make the truth appear brighter. Beheading threats for Kerala and West Bengal CMs, banning late-night parties in Goa, attempts to ban dance bars, face-blackening or throwing shoes at people ‘we don’t like’ are some other instances of growing intolerance in the country. What is surprising is that while we have time for attending to such non-issues to reclaim our cultural pride, we find ourselves at our wits end when our soldiers are cursed, abused or manhandled in Kashmir or when they are lacerated by enemies.

Balkanisation of countries has happened in the past because people have tried to impose one culture or way of life over other. Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Indonesia and many other countries were divided simply because they could not value the plural sub-nationalities existing in these countries. If India has so far succeeded in pulling along in once piece, it is simply because our forefathers essayed to build Indian nationhood in a spirit of consociationalism. Consociationalism is a form of democracy which seeks to regulate the sharing of power in a state that comprises diverse societies by allocating these groups’ collective rights.

It is by respective our pluralism and multi-culturalism that we have pulled off the impossi-bility of building a successful model of a mind-bogglingly diverse society as India. Slowly but steadily, we have been progressing from being a state-nation, a geographical congregation of a motley princely states, in 1947 to a nation-state with strong liberal democratic traditions and foundations. If we don’t soon resolve these contradictions, we shall only be self-destructing ourselves as the mythical ‘Bhasmasur’ did to himself. Whether we shall survive in one piece as a country would greatly depend on how effectively and swiftly we resolve these existential dilemmas and contradictions.

Dr Saumitra Mohan, IAS, is an Additional Secretary, Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed in the article are his personal and do not reflect those of the government.

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