Note: I am talking of political and social liberal ideas, not economic liberalism.
We should all be tired of being outraged every time liberal values are trampled upon. Outrage is meant for the exceptions. It is tiring for what is no longer an exception. Liberalism is defeated in India (and elsewhere, one could argue, but let’s limit the scope to India for the purpose of this article). The state is coming down hard on its citizens and the privileged majority is cheering on. Individual’s rights, liberty, freedom of expression, right to dissent are being frighteningly delegitimized.
No, let’s not fool ourselves that it’s a minor setback. Let’s not pretend that there is one screw gone loose in the system and once it is tightened we will again start marching down the liberal road. That’s not how it is. It’s a fundamental shift away from liberalism. It is one kind of a thing when the disadvantage of poverty is pitted against the disadvantage of being a Dalit. It is one kind of thing when the unemployed youth get taken in by nasty propaganda. It’s not right, but it is understandable. It has nuances which a poor and unemployed person, who is struggling to find a toehold, may not be willing to indulge in. It is one thing for all of this to happen. But it’s quite another what is happening now.
A middle-class person, who hasn’t suffered hunger, who has a decent roof over his head, who has no contacts with Dalits or Adivasis, who hasn’t been affected by communal riots (not in many years, at least), whose children are well-settled and hold good jobs, whose grandchildren are being brought up in relative prosperity and aren’t exactly lusting after the government jobs of the future, that person is convinced that he is a victim. He is not grateful for or proud of all he has. He is a victim. A victim of reservations, a victim of Muslim appeasement, a victim of Maoists (he has never encountered a Maoist). And while we humans always tend to find someone else to blame for the slightest of our miseries, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to turn that blame into this appalling sense of victimhood a few years ago. But now it is. And that thought is so comfortable, that it is well-nigh impossible to eradicate it. It. Just. Works. What is more, it works for those children and grandchildren too.
No wonder, liberalism is defeated.
This means a fundamental shift in how an average liberal person navigates the world around them. We knew that liberal values were not always practiced, but in certain spaces, nobody could have opposed them in principle. So, when the practice differed from principles, you could scoff, outrage, point out the divergence and hope that over time, as you point out and fight against more and more such hypocrisies, they will be fixed. Hence the world will become more liberal, even in practice, as the time passes.
That assumption of the theoretical acceptance even in the face of practical divergence is no longer valid. So, the task has moved fifty or hundred years back. The theory itself needs justification now. The ideas need to be sold all over again. The principles that we had assumed were well-accepted, need to be argued for all over again. Scoffing at diversions would be meaningless. Imagine the reformers of the early 20th century who would have had to argue even with the most educated of the upper-caste people that untouchability was bad. And they would have had to argue that from a position of weakness. Well, we are back to that situation in the 21st century. Depressingly, in some cases, the issues may exactly be the same as they were 100 years back. In some cases, they may take a different form. But we have to start from a position of weakness, in even getting the principles to be accepted. We better eat that humble pie.
What it also means is that its a long journey all over again. The victory was never complete. But all the gains have been reversed as well. Even if the political power equation changes in the short-term, this beast of social conservatism has been legitimized and unleashed. Political overlords of any denomination are not going to challenge it. They will only seek to utilize it. The only hope from electoral politics is that some balance of power is maintained with changing governments so that no one group can continue to inflict damages unchecked. The social fight is going to be long and repetitive. And also thankless. Let’s brace for that. Somebody may yet live to see the tides turn.