Parties and activists on both sides of political spectrum, extreme Left and Right dismiss liberalism but there is no other way of building a modern democracy. I was reading this interview (Frontline, August 2019) of Aijaz Ahmad one of the most respected Marxist thinkers of our time, where he dismissed liberalism because liberal institutions help right wing forces to grow. But he also said that Modi’s win in 2014 or 2019 were though “electoral landslides” but not exactly “people’s mandate” because people need rational debates to make political choices. But how can you conduct rational debates without liberal institutions? How can you reject liberalism and then say we need rational debate, free speech, individual rights and so on? It is a conundrum.
Though, Ahmad is not completely wrong. Liberalism or a State functioning through liberal institutions by its very nature does allow everyone, including uncomfortable and inconvenient ideologies and movements to grow. A largely liberal framework that Nehru and team gave us, with freedom of speech, thoughts, free press, right to assemble, form associations, protest, right to practice and preach own religion etc – these rights if available freely without State control create the conducive environment for the growth of any forms of ideology or movement. That is what liberalism is all about – to give individuals the freedom to be what they want to be, follow whom they want to follow and so on.
So, Aijaz Ahmad is right when he says, “there was no fundamental contradiction between projects of the Far Right and the liberal institutional structures; the RSS can (and did) take hold of those institutions and rule through them… The state has been taken over substantially, from within.”
For seven decades RSS and its affiliated groups of this and that Sena, Vahini, Dal, Samiti etc flourished in the safe space given by a liberal state. Successive Congress governments could have exercised a higher form of thought control and state excesses to violently crush dissent the way the BJP government has been doing ever since it came to power, but they did not.
Ways Congress Could Have Ensured RSS-BJP Do Not Grow
Congress could have violently crushed the very first thought of demolishing the Babri Mosque because at the very outset it was an unconstitutional idea. LK Advani’s activities as a run up to Babri demolition were exactly the kind of “unlawful activities” which the UAPA Law was supposed to prevent. Advani and other leaders could have been arrested and kept in jail for 3-4 years, a spectre of fear could have been spread among Hindutva supporters; They could have used FCRA, ED, IT, NIA to choke RSS’s funding, especially the foreign funding and label it as anti-national NGO, and stalled its growth; they could have used sedition/UAPA laws to jail and crush those worshiping Godse, abusing Gandhi-Nehru and otherwise any dissenting ideology; the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights could have written letter to Ministry of Home Affairs to shut down all RSS run schools where children were being brainwashed with violent hateful ideologies and given weapon trainings; corporate media could have been co-opted by fear or greed; Spying could have been done on Election Commission, Judiciary, opposition leaders, media people to blackmail them to silence; The Congress workers in various residential areas could have ganged up against RSS using public parks and other public spaces every morning for shakha activities.
None of these happened because the previous regimes were liberals. Not perfect, perhaps disconnected from ground realities, but largely liberal.
Instead, towards the end of UPA 2 regime we saw a weak government being mob lynched by a fake media running fake CAG report, fake anti-corruption movement floated by RSS and so on, a State unable or uninterested to present its truth or defend itself.
We have learnt in Modi’s 7 years that various weapons and strategies always existed in State’s hands to ensure dissenting ideology or groups do not rise but were not used. When Indira Gandhi faced a situation where RSS forces were about to overthrow the government in a sheer act of seditious coup she imposed Emergency using legitimate Constitutional mechanisms. She was labelled a fascist and is still being treated as the villain.
So, giving up on liberalism just to make sure right wing forces do not rise is not an option. Left regimes could do that, and have indeed done so several times across the globe. It is little surprise that violent fascist leaders were found in both Left and Right regimes. But liberal States do not have that liberty to give up on its values. Instead, liberal intuitions are required to be vigilant and defend the values. Maintain a fine judicious balance between fundamental rights and reasonable restrictions to ensure that extremists do not misuse the system to take it over and close the doors behind.