America’s Left and Indian Democracy – Analysis
The annulment of Article 370 has led the liberal-left segment of the US establishment to denounce Indian democracy as “majority.” The accusation is fascinating because it says more about the motives and fate of American “progressism” than about Indian democracy.
For much of the 20th century, left-wing liberals believed that social norms and economic inequalities had left powerless individuals despite the individual and political freedom granted by law. Therefore, they sought to foster human capacities through education and redistribution, with a view to making people “truly” free.
When voters preferred markets and individual choice, left-wing liberals shifted the focus to a different kind of impotence. Now, the concern is for groups whose identities and interests are at risk because they are “powerless” minorities. Therefore, to give a well-known example, “Happy Holidays” is preferable to “Merry Christmas” as the traditional greeting “alienates” non-Christian minorities in the United States.
Ideas don’t gain traction unless they talk about some aspect of the human condition. For ingenuity, contemporary progressism must be praised for the sensitization of the majorities of the ways in which they can hurt minorities. At the same time, its focus on minorities has some worrying implications.
One is that progressives are willing to shout as illegitimate any law that affects a minority, even if that law has democratic backing and legal sanction. But if democratic procedures and institutions are rejected, how can we resolve disputes over what is a legitimate course of action? Be The Washington Post issue decrees?
Another implication is the valorization of those identities and interests more capable of articulating their victimhood. The repeal of Article 370 is therefore strongly criticized as “deleting” Kashmir, but little concern is shown for iniquities that take refuge under the benign term, for example, ethnic cleansing of pandits, discrimination against women and Dalits, corruption, and the plague of dynastism.
The third implication is even more troubling. Because they want “ally” with “powerless” minorities, left-wing liberals face an uphill battle against majors. They respond by trying to divide or delegitimize the majority. Therefore, the fervent cry that a Hindu is a member of a caste, class, community, ethnicity, region, anything but a Hindu. Therefore, the accusation that Hindus who bring religion into politics are “fundamentalist,” but minorities who do the same are “expressing” themselves.
These deficiencies are the reasons why Indians, who are insintelligiably moderate, should be wary of the left-liberal criticism of our democracy. Overwhelmingly declaring any complaint of the majority as illegitimate and unworthy will not encourage peaceful coexistence. It will only redouble these grievances and lay the groundwork for the rejection of democracy itself, as the rise of the far right in Europe makes clear.
Challenging this Liberal-left American narrative will incur two costs. The relationship with the diaspora will suffer. At universities, where left-wing liberals dominate, Indians-Americans learn about Godse and Godhra, but complaints that motivate Hindu nationalism—for example, the Moplah Rebellion or the destruction of temples—are ignored or even ridiculed as pets mock a rabid stripe. Therefore, it is that an American Indian becomes a “South Asia” and then a “person of color” who denounces “Islamophobia” but is hardly aware of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits.
This gap can heal itself. As in England, where British Indians have strayed from the Labour Party, Indians-Americans may have doubts when they realize what progressism means to them in practice. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in the West is the canary in the coal mine.
A subset of the diaspora poses a more intractable problem. American Indians comprise a small fraction of the American population, and cluster along the coasts, where Democrats dominate. For the foreseeable future, then, we should expect that Indian American politicians who want to rise up in the ranks of the Democratic Party will be too interested in demonstrating their displeasure with “majority” India. India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar’s ambush in Congress is an indication of what’s to come.
The most serious problem, then, is that Indian diplomacy, especially under the Bharatiya Janata Party, will have to wade through partisan politics. ‘Howdy Modi’ is a harbinger in this regard. Critics are concerned that Democrats will respond by punishing India. But remember the sanctions and vilify that Democrats unleased in 1998 after nuclear tests. Two years later, Bill Clinton was a member of the Lok Sabha. Why? Because India also has cards to play. It can broaden its support base in the United States by moving forward with economic reform. It may also complicate America’s efforts to contain China by supporting Asian solidarity against an meddling West.
Let’s hope none of this comes true. An ideology that opposes issues that most citizens feel strongly will always fight in a democracy. The recent crushing defeat of the Labour Party should bring American progressives to a halt. But if you seek continuous confrontation, then, for the reasons set out above, we must not shy away from answering that, when there are disagreements about the rights of minorities, it is for our procedures and institutions, and not for our procedures and institutions The New York Times, to arbitrate what is and is not a legitimate course of action. The way in which we must assess the health of these checks and balances in India will be the subject of further trial.
Rahul Sagar is Associate Professor of Political Science at Global Network at New York University, Abu Dhabi
The opinions expressed are personal