With a Surge in the Modi Wave, What Choices Are Indian Liberals Left With?


With a Surge in the Modi Wave, What Choices Are Indian Liberals Left With?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

As I watched the results of the Lok Sabha elections pour in on Thursday, I couldn’t help but remember an extremely quotable line from Game of Thrones: “Power resides where men believe it resides.” The sentiment assumes even more relevance, given how there is no way to dispute the massive mandate that PM Narendra Modi received. Analysts could haggle over trends and narrative but from the looks of it, this wasn’t even a competition. There was merely the formality of a race. Naturally, the country’s liberals are the most aggrieved right now, which I would be lying if I said does not include me. A crude, discomforting fact of the fallout from this landslide election is that not only have India’s liberals been caught mistaking the clouds for the sky but the land beneath their feet might also have irreversibly shifted.

When I visited home – a small village in Himachal Pradesh – a few days before the election, I found that for my neighbours back there, the rhetoric of the “strong leader” was so persuasive that it made no sense arguing with them about the economy or jobs. These included my own family members.“At least he [Modi] is trying to do something. It shows courage,” an uncle told me when I prodded him about the failures of demonetisation. Even then, I naively presumed that the narrative would change in Shimla, the largely urban capital of the state where I cast my vote. It was based on the standard assumption that urban populations practice progressive politics laced with a discourse that endorsed moral censure of evident bigotry. But that also turned out to be incorrect. Even the demonetisation-hit apple traders and farmers that I spoke to in the capital were indisputably in Modi’s favour.

Each of BJP’s four victories in the state was achieved by eye-watering margins (a record 69 per cent of the state’s vote share), including ones amassed by underperforming sitting MPs like Anurag Thakur of Hamirpur. It was a similar narrative elsewhere in the country as well. Although, the wins of Sakshi Maharaj and Pragya Thakur must be taken with a pinch of salt, it’s nearly impossible to defend the whitewashing mandates that BJP received in Delhi and Mumbai, the two biggest cities in the country. Even the elitist, high-end residential corners like the art-rich South Delhi and the gig-rich South Mumbai have voted for PM Modi a second time.

That liberals were not in touch with ground realities was established as a fact back in 2014 itself. That they have been trying to fight a new battle with the same old tools of intellectualism and self-importance is perhaps the takeaway of the 2019 election. The more liberals continue to look at the world through their maids and Uber drivers, and feel entitled to fix it in their own way, the more they will continue to cede ground. If this month has taught us anything. it’s that better language, bigger words, and shinier poetics aren’t buzzwords for a majority of Indian voters. Even juvenile is to claim that BJP’s win is a resounding vote for conservatism or communalism alone, given that Modi didn’t even bait voters with the promise of a “mandir” this time. He, in fact, surpassed the need to take questions or debate issues long before liberals assumed it was going to be his undoing. Modi has come to own, something liberals considered themselves the champions of – communication.

India’s liberals are nowhere close to being the country’s financial elites, but Modi has managed to convince people that intellectual elitism and crony capitalism are hatched from the same egg: that all rich, vote liberal and secular, essentially othering their politics from the concerns of the rest of the country. It was this election campaign that saw Modi mock the largely irrelevant English-writing, Khan Market-frequenting journalists, who are a minority, even in Delhi. The last time around, Modi’s slogan was “Harvard nahi Hard work” – not because we were competitors like we’d like to assume, but because liberals are relatable clueless targets.

Even the elitist, high-end residential corners like the art-rich South Delhi and the gig-rich South Mumbai have voted for PM Modi a second time.

The problem with Indian liberals is that they believe that the ethical high-ground is a battleground in itself, whereas on the grass, the will to adhere to such merits is minimal. Columnist Christophe Jaffrelot writes in the Indian Express that “liberals simply lack the discipline of their rivals” while journalist Sandipan Deb goes as far as to say “liberals are the most illiberal people around”.

To an extent Deb might even be right. Both The New York Times and The Guardian, in editorials reacting to Modi’s victory, painted an ominous future in-waiting. Endorsed by their Indian counterparts, this is likely to be the default reaction of alarmism and denial, rather than the graceful acceptance of a mandate that has evidently rejected the notion of persecuted minorities and distressed farmers.  Even if they have been, the voter has clearly prioritised. Because this near unambiguous and unanimous verdict dents the idea of the electorate being communal or casteist by nature rather than persuasion as is widely suggested.

Rather than tell them what they should do, compile warnings and list threats to democracy and secularism, we should perhaps try and understand why we nurture certain fears that the electorate either doesn’t relate to or is prepared to see past.

Keeping with the principles of liberal expression there should similarly be liberal acceptance as well. Liberalism in this country has been reduced to point blank outrage, a culture of ranting and talking down to people that, as Deb points out, is at odds with the flexibility and fluidity of its foundations.

This election is a throatful of whispers that we need to put our ears to rather than try and again, like 2014, outspeak. The most radical step that the self-appointed reformists of the country can take today is to accommodate its overwhelmingly contradicting voices. Liberals, therefore, must make peace with the fact that they cannot beat someone at a dance-off, by singing. This is the new language. Jump, skip, dodge, learn or perish.