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A SENSE OF DISQUIET

- ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have to be redefined carefully

A friend of mine, an outstanding academic who happens to be of Muslim origin, has suddenly developed a medical condition requiring frequent visits to the hospital in the coming months. Given the state of Delhi traffic, he thought of avoiding hours of driving on each visiting day by renting out his own house where he currently resides and leasing in a flat closer to the hospital. As an extraordinarily decent and polite person, who is both highly distinguished and by no means devoid of the requisite financial means, he should have been the tenant that landlords dream about; but there was a hitch: he had a Muslim name. And one landlord after another, in one of the most plush localities of Delhi close to his hospital, where the crème de la crème of the city live and own houses, turned him down for this reason, which was quite explicitly and unashamedly revealed to the intermediary who was doing the house-hunting for him.

He is now, perforce, looking for a house in some Muslim ghetto near the hospital, for that is all he can hope to get. A person who was never religious, never saw himself as belonging in a narrow sense to a particular community, who was quintessentially a part of the progressive secular intelligentsia of the country whose commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution has been an important factor sustaining this nation, is now forced to seek refuge among his supposed co-religionists.

But let us leave aside his personal plight. If even he can be discriminated against, then one shudders to think of the kind of enforced ghettoization that ordinary Muslims in the country are subjected to in the normal course of things, even those who, unlike in numerous small towns in Uttar Pradesh, escape the fate of being tortured, and jailed for years, on the mere suspicion of being ‘terrorists’.

Any society that takes democracy seriously must have in place a law that makes such discrimination against members of a minority community a cognizable offence. We do have such a law, no matter how ineffective it may be, in the case of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is no reason why such a law should not be enacted for other minorities as well. I have no doubt that prosecution under such a law would be exceedingly difficult; and the law itself may not be much of a deterrent for that very reason. But, at least, it would signal the nation’s commitment to eradicating such discrimination.

The fact that the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team in the United States has been barred from several forums, and even asked to sell his club, for making an anti-black racist comment in a message to his girlfriend, represents such a signal. In India, alas, those discriminating against minorities enjoy complete impunity.

But a more disturbing thought arises. If on May 16, the person being projected as the next prime minister by the corporate houses and the media controlled by them, actually does emerge as the winner of the elections, would not those practising such discrimination get a boost from this fact? And if they do, as they surely will, then does that not constitute a threat to our democracy? One may not share the Left position, which I personally hold, that his assumption of power would signify the ascendancy of fascism in our country. But shouldn’t any liberal worth his or her salt, interested in the preservation of democracy in the country, raise his or her voice against this particular political tendency, which is threatening to overwhelm us and which would indubitably accentuate quotidian discrimination against the minorities, even if we assume, for argument’s sake, that pogroms against Muslims on the scale of Gujarat 2002 will not be repeated?

What is most disturbing about contemporary India, however, even more disturbing in a sense than a possible electoral victory of the person in question, is the covert or overt acceptance of him by prominent liberal intellectuals of the country. To be sure, several artists and academics who call themselves liberal have come out openly against him. But those of the liberal intelligentsia who are most visible in the media, who write regular columns in newspapers or are regularly present in TV talk-shows, have, barring a few exceptions, explicitly or implicitly endorsed him.

When I expressed my disquiet over this spectre, of the “vanishing liberal”, to a philosopher friend of mine, his response was that the people I was calling liberal were really conservatives. He was right in drawing my attention to the need to define terms carefully. The term, ‘liberal’, as distinct from ‘conservative’ must be distinguished from the term ‘liberal’ as distinct from ‘communal’ or what Amartya Sen has called ‘communal-fascist’. One can be a conservative, and hence not a liberal in the first sense, and yet be a liberal in the second sense. This, for instance, is what Jacques Chirac was whom the entire French Left had supported in the second round ballot for the French presidency against Jean-Marie Le Pen of the fascist National Front. It is the absence of liberals in the second sense among persons who, even though conservatives, would have been expected to be liberals in the second sense, that is so striking about contemporary India. The “vanishing liberals” refers to liberals in the second sense.

Even more disquieting is the set of arguments that are being used by such liberals for abandoning their liberalism. One argument invokes Gujarat’s “impressive” development record and suggests that priority should be given to development over other considerations. Gujarat’s impressive development record, however, is a fabrication. Much has been written about Gujarat’s lacklustre human development record, and I shall not repeat it. But because of the emphasis on Gujarat’s poor human development record, an impression has been created that its development record in other spheres, such as its growth rate, must be, as its proponents claim, quite exceptional. However, this too is a myth.

If we take the period, 2004-05 to 2011-12, per capita gross state domestic product in Gujarat grew at an annual average compound rate of 8.19 per cent. Over exactly the same period, the rate for Bihar was 15.3, for Tamil Nadu 8.65, and even for Kerala, a state that never wooed corporates but persisted in sustaining and improving its remarkable achievements in the sphere of human development, 7.91 percent. The all-India average was 6.65 per cent. The growth performance of Tamil Nadu is particularly interesting. Tamil Nadu is emerging, after Kerala, as the second best among the major states of the country in terms of human development; and yet, it had a higher GSDP growth rate than Gujarat, whose performance therefore cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be held up as a model.

A second argument doing the rounds asserts that India’s democratic institutions are too well-established to risk being dislodged by a few years in power of this new political force. This is an odd argument for several reasons. First, on what basis is it being advanced? Who can vouch for how strong India’s democratic institutions are? In the 1930s, for instance, many people had said exactly the same things about Germany, but within weeks of the Nazis coming to power, the episode of the Reichstag fire was used to deal a body blow to these institutions. Such statements, therefore, mean very little.

Second, even if we assume that the institutions of parliamentary democracy in the country would survive five years of this person and that he would have the grace to quit if voted out at the end of it, what is the point of such statements? Let me give an analogy: the fact that my bones may withstand a fall, does not constitute an argument for a fall. And yet, if it is repeatedly asserted that my bones would withstand a fall, and not a single word is uttered that warns me against a fall, then the inference that will be inevitably drawn is that a fall is not such a bad thing after all. The repetition of predictive statements of uncertain validity — for example, that Indian democracy can withstand this person — with not a word of apprehension about the consequences of his being in power, cannot but be construed as an implicit endorsement of his bid for power.

Third, the term, ‘democratic institutions’, in this euphoric prediction about their durability, is used in a highly restrictive sense. Yes, elections may continue to happen. Yes, the particular government of the corporate-Hindutva alliance that may come to power after May 16 may get voted out. But people belonging to the minority community like my friend would get further ghettoized; and surely that is an undermining of democracy.