Home > Edits & Columns > COLUMN His freedoms and ours Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express: Monday, February 18, 2008 Yes, Raj Thackeray is wrong. But his political opponents don’t say what the right argument is
The most disturbing thing about the political fallout from Raj Thackeray’s demagogic revival of crass nativism in politics may not be his own statements. It is rather what the reaction to his statements has revealed about politics in India. Thackeray deserves all the blame he is getting. But it is also time to be blunt and graceless about one disturbing fact. The response of the political class as a whole has been deeply disturbing in its own way along more dimensions than one.
First, as this newspaper’s editorials have been arguing, most prominent Maharashtra politicians have been at best very tepid, at worst downright equivocal, in their condemnation of Thackeray’s underlying arguments. This is the kind of issue that requires politicians from Maharashtra to express unequivocal outrage. Not one major leader, from Sharad Pawar to Vilasrao Deshmukh, has expressed the requisite sense of outrage or engaged in the kind political symbolism that can assure all Indian citizens that they are not quietly complicit in this dangerous madness. This issue demands a united response from other politicians in Maharashtra. It requires a clear signal that this sort of politics will be made a pariah. The absence of such signals suggests that the rot in our polity is deeper.
Second, we seem to be fundamentally confused over what this crisis represents. Faced with an unpalatable and dangerous ideological trend we want to have it both ways. On the one hand, we want to boil it all down to politics. But in democracy when we say that there is a political logic behind some move, it is as much of an indictment of the voters as it is of politicians. On the other hand, we want to reaffirm our fundamental virtue. This is a fringe movement, we want to claim. The daily practices of life, the great ability to live with difference that most Indians embody, so the argument goes, are far too robust to be damaged by marginal elements. But either way we are in trouble. If indeed, such ideological mobilisation can get mass traction we are in trouble. But even if this is a marginal movement, the fact that a lakshman rekha around what citizenship means in modern India has been crossed portends danger. We can lose, because large numbers of people turn over to the dark side; or we can lose, because large numbers of people, even though they have not turned over to the dark side, are willing to let the fringe run riot. Either way we lose.
Third, this crisis reveals yet again the colossal leadership vacuum India is facing. We have assorted chief ministers protesting at the goings-on in Maharasthtra. But they also use a language that refers to their particular constituencies: Biharis defending Biharis and so forth. But no one at the national level is a credible, consistent and forceful embodiment of the basic constitutional values we need to defend. The symbolic functions of leaders, whether they be leaders of parties or holders of high office, is that they consistently remind the nation of the boundaries that cannot be breached. But most of our leaders deal with these sorts of crises in avoidance mode. When the last wave of ‘son of the soil’ politics hit India in the seventies, Indira Gandhi was much more ambiguous in her response; and the contagion spread quickly. But we are now in a political environment where the refusal of our important leaders to express outrage will only embolden every two-bit leader to occupy centrestage.
Fourth, and perhaps most seriously, we need to move away from a discourse of diversity to a discourse about freedom. Of course diversity is something to be cherished, but all the talk of diversity can also lead to some fundamental confusions. For one thing, diversity is quite compatible with segregation and even hierarchy. We often cherish diversity so long as everyone is in their rightful place. The minute implied boundaries are breached, populations mixed, cultures transformed, we scurry back to the protection of our enclaves.
The crisis in Maharashtra cannot be handled by making diversity a bedrock value. Rather the bedrock value of our society ought to be freedom: the freedom to call any place in the country home, the freedom to alter culture, the freedom subject to practical constraints, to speak any language, the freedom to break out of the fetter of compulsory identities. Out of this freedom new diversities and cultural forms will emerge. But at the moment the discourse on diversity fails in significant ways: it is too compatible with the imposition and preservation of compulsory identities, and too compatible with the idea that each Indian has his appropriate place whether by virtue of geography or kinship. Tocqueville once defined democracy as being a society to the effect that where you are going matters more than where you came from. In this sense identity talk of the kind we are seeing in Maharashtra and the responses to it are deeply anti-democratic.
We should also recognise that we are creating institutions that encourage parochialism rather than counter it.
One of the great unwritten tragedies of modern India is the way in which our universities, for instance, are far more parochial in their composition than they were 30 years ago, all products of an ideology that was committed to the proposition that institutions be held hostage to the imperatives of identity politics. Indeed, it is time we gave up the comforting illusion that dangerous forms of identity politics are simply instrumental in their objectives: a form of vote- bank politics, or a resentful expression of underlying economic dynamics. Neither of these explanations is very convincing. Instead, we should confront the more radical thought that these ideological tendencies may indeed be becoming a cultural common sense; the prison house of collective identities a more secure place than the uncertainties of freedom.
The reason to worry about Raj Thackeray is not that he is being cynical; the reason may be the opposite: he is being sincere. Calling him cynical may be the easy way for us to go into avoidance mode. Or worse still, making him a scapegoat can be an alibi for not examining the extent to which a whole range of assumptions now guide our behaviour. For the truth is that as India flourishes, the Idea of India, as a space marked by freedom and reciprocity, is slowly dissolving into a series of particularities. The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research firstname.lastname@example.org