It’s not the hap­pi­est of new years by a long shot, but af­ter 2016, it could only get bet­ter. Right?


THE NEW YEAR OF 2017 al­ready seems des­tined to be re­mem­bered as one of those epochal turn­ing points: an­other end of his­tory or the end of glob­al­i­sa­tion or the end of lib­er­al­ism, or if you are prone to ut­ter hysteria, the End of Days. Most of this is, of course, be­cause of all that tran­spired in 2016. Here, at this mag­a­zine, ded­i­cated as we are to the per­sis­tent present of In­dia to­day, we are less in­clined to hy­per­bole. But even we might con­cede that per­haps 2017 marks a much-post­poned con­clu­sion to the lin­ger­ing 20th cen­tury.

Though the clos­ing weeks of 2016 have been tu­mul­tuous, even chaotic, in In­dia, the tur­moil was an­nounced by dis­tant drums: the Brexit vote in the UK, the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump in the US, the es­ca­lat­ing con­flict in Syria… While the dis­rup­tions (or ‘in­con­ve­nience’, as some would have it) of our own na­tional so­cial ex­per­i­ment may be of smaller con­se­quence to the world, it has al­lowed us to join the pan­icky new global mood or zeit­geist (and it’s gen­er­ally not a good por­tent when every­one starts us­ing Ger­man words). And yet, it’s worth re­call­ing that un­til that Novem­ber evening when Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi chose to dis­tract us from Don­ald’s day, our coun­try seemed in many ways ahead of the curve. Af­ter all, we had our own po­lar­is­ing elec­tions way back in 2014. “Volde­mort won!” read one pop­u­lar so­cial me­dia post of the day. Only to be met by the in­evitably cruel re­tort: “Too bad about the half-blood prince.”

But be­yond the la­men­ta­tion of the lib­er­als and the tri­umphal­ism of the con­ser­va­tives of the world to­day, we in In­dia have had some time to recog­nise that nei­ther party is re­ally on the right side of his­tory. And while the global tur­moil has added res­o­nance and mean­ing to our own circumstance, we are also con­scious of our na­tional par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. Our cover pack­age this week brings you a di­verse se­lec­tion of 13 es­says (we’re not at all su­per­sti­tious) ad­dress­ing the chal­lenges fac­ing In­dia in the ripen­ing world of 2017. Our writ­ers are a mot­ley, if dis­tin­guished, as­sem­bly of aca­demics, wonks, geeks, busi­ness peo­ple and lit­ter­a­teurs, with opin­ions rang­ing from the dar­ing to the cau­tious to the melan­choly. Well, per­haps mostly cau­tiously dar­ing, as is only ap­pro­pri­ate at this time of the year.

The up­shot is that the ele­phants of 2016 have left the build­ing. And de­spite that old saw about pachy­derms and the men of Hin­dus­tan, we’d like to think we’ve done our bit to en­sure that the blind­folds are off.

AF­TER BREXIT AND TRUMP, 2016 is widely seen as an an­nus hor­ri­bilis for lib­er­al­ism. If you de­fine the lib­eral ideal, as The Econ­o­mist does, as “…open economies and open so­ci­eties, where the free ex­change of goods, capital, peo­ple and ideas is en­cour­aged and where univer­sal free­doms are pro­tected from state abuse by the rule of law…”, this has been a bad year. John Gray, an English philoso­pher who fore­told both Brexit and Trump, agrees with the def­i­ni­tion but un­like the house mag­a­zine of lais­sez faire lib­er­al­ism, he wel­comes its de­cline. Gray sees the lib­eral faith in progress as a dan­ger­ous delu­sion and he wel­comes dis­en­chant­ment with the pieties of neo-lib­er­al­ism as a nec­es­sary first step to­wards a new re­al­ism.

It’s hard, though, to find a gen­er­al­i­sa­tion that fits all the il­lib­eral pop­ulisms that rule the world to­day. How to rec­on­cile the al­leged causes of Brexit or Trump’s tri­umph (and pos­si­bly Marine Le Pen’s next year) with the as­cen­dancy of far-right politi­cians in cen­tral and east­ern Europe, fig­ures like the Hun­gar­ian prime min­is­ter, Vik­tor Or­ban, in Hun­gary, or the Pol­ish PM, An­drzej Duda? Even more prob­lem­at­i­cally, what do Vladimir Putin, Re­cep Er­do­gan, Naren­dra Modi and Ro­drigo Duterte and their elec­torates have in com­mon with their western coun­ter­parts? One coun­try whose cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cul­ture can be said to be a di­rect re­sult of the ide­o­log­i­cal im­po­si­tion of high cap­i­tal­ist dogma is Rus­sia. In the hey­day of neo-lib­er­al­ism af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, the ‘in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’ and the in­sti­tu­tional pil­lars of the post-war ‘world or­der’—the IMF and the World Bank—turned Rus­sians into lab rats for un­reg­u­lated capitalism. The eco­nomic and hu­man catas­tro­phe that fol­lowed taught Putin and his ap­pa­ratchiks that glob­al­i­sa­tion was a Western plot de­signed to elicit com­plete sur­ren­der. This sus­pi­cion was en­cour­aged by NATO’s ever-ad­vanc­ing east­ern fron­tier in the name of small-state sovereignty and the east­ward ex­pan­sion of the Euro­pean Union. Rus­sia learnt in the cru­ellest pos­si­ble way that there was no world or­der, just a jun­gle where mus­cle meant ter­ri­tory. Putin’s brand of il­lib­eral pop­ulism can be at­trib­uted to the ex­cesses of ne­olib­er­al­ism but the ex­pla­na­tion can’t be gen­er­alised. No other na­tion was rav­aged in this way.

If there is a sin­gle, sys­temic ex­pla­na­tion for all the swag­ger­ing pop­ulists that be­stride the world’s stage, it isn’t ob­vi­ous. The eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tion of­fered for Brexit and Trump’s elec­tion (work­ing class vot­ers in the hin­ter­land vot­ing with their feet against a neo-lib­er­al­ism that has left them stranded in dein­dus­tri­alised towns) doesn’t fit coun­tries in Asia who, econ­o­mists as­sure us, have done well out of glob­al­i­sa­tion. A dis­en­chant­ment with the neo-lib­eral or­der

can’t, there­fore, be the one size that fits every­one. The bo­gey of im­mi­grants steal­ing jobs isn’t a ma­jor is­sue in the elec­toral coali­tions built by Or­ban or Duda. They might baulk at the idea of hous­ing im­mi­grants from the Syr­ian catas­tro­phe, but im­mi­gra­tion wasn’t the is­sue that brought them to power.

There is a cu­ri­ous role re­ver­sal in the de­bate over the rea­son for Brexit and Trump: the right keeps em­pha­sis­ing eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tions—un­em­ploy­ment, free trade, re­ces­sion—while the left dou­bles down on cul­tural ones, such as racism and as­sorted forms of big­otry. For the Right, eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tions serve a rhetor­i­cal pur­pose: they nor­malise the xeno­pho­bic rhetoric that has fol­lowed Brex­i­teers and Trump­is­tas like a dirty halo by sug­gest­ing that such racism, as there is, is a dis­torted ex­pres­sion of au­then­tic ma­te­rial suf­fer­ing.

The rhetor­i­cal use of eco­nomic (and there­fore ‘sec­u­lar’) griev­ance sug­gests an al­ter­na­tive way of read­ing the new pop­ulism, not so much as a cri­sis of lib­er­al­ism but as the com­ing of age of mod­ern ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism. This is a pe­cu­liarly In­dian way of un­der­stand­ing the phe­nom­e­non some­times called il­lib­eral pop­ulism.

In­di­ans re­mem­ber a very sim­i­lar de­bate about the causes of Naren­dra Modi’s elec­tion vic­tory in 2014. On the Left, it was de­spair­ingly di­ag­nosed as the tri­umph of Hindu na­tion­al­ism, while the BJP and many of its born-again ‘cen­trist’ sup­port­ers in­sisted that the ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity that Modi had won was an ex­pres­sion of the ma­te­rial as­pi­ra­tions of a young elec­torate.

PRO­GRES­SIVES AR­GUED THAT it was a mis­take to see Modi’s po­lit­i­cal suc­cess as rooted in his claim to be an eco­nomic mod­erniser. His suc­cess lay in mo­bil­is­ing the elec­torate in the name of the ‘na­tion’, a na­tion de­fined by a na­tivist ma­jor­ity be­set by threats from with­out and within. His vis­ceral ap­peal is ma­jori­tar­ian; eco­nomic progress, cer­tainly, but for a nar­rowly de­fined peo­ple mo­bilised against the en­e­mies of the na­tion. In Modi’s case, these are treach­er­ous Mus­lims and de­ra­ci­nated sec­u­lar­ists, while for Er­do­gan, Turkey’s en­e­mies are Kurds, Ar­me­ni­ans and, above all, its own sec­u­lar, god­less Euro­peanised elites. “We are the Peo­ple,” Er­do­gan likes to say at pub­lic ral­lies. “Who are you?”

The sim­i­lar­i­ties to Trump’s cen­tral mes­sage are strik­ing. A coastal elite, ob­sessed with racial, re­li­gious and sex­ual mi­nori­ties, ne­glected hard-work­ing white peo­ple and turned them into strangers in their own coun­try. If his hos­til­ity to NAFTA (North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment) and the TPP (Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship) was aimed at har­ness­ing the re­sent­ment of de-in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion amongst work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties in the rust belt, his pub­lic big­otry about Mex­i­cans and Mus­lims and the

blind­ing white­ness of his en­tourage, made it clear that he was ad­dress­ing a white work­ing class.

It’s use­ful to re­mem­ber here that Trump didn’t stop at promis­ing to de­port 12 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, or build­ing a wall to stop il­le­gal mi­gra­tion from Mex­ico, he char­ac­terised Mex­i­can il­le­gals as rapists and crim­i­nals. And he did this in his speech in June 2015 when he de­clared his in­ten­tion to run for pres­i­dent. His call­ing card, from the mo­ment he set out his stall, was big­otry.

Trump’s de­fend­ers ar­gued that his crit­ics miss the wood for trees by cherry-pick­ing his provo­ca­tions while ig­nor­ing the real anger about real is­sues that he forced into the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. Peter Thiel, the Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire who was an early sup­porter, put this pithily: lib­er­als took Trump lit­er­ally with­out tak­ing him se­ri­ously. The im­pli­ca­tion that Trump’s sup­port­ers took him se­ri­ously but not lit­er­ally is clever but not per­sua­sive. To ar­gue that peo­ple voted for Trump de­spite his big­otry is to ig­nore the sup­port that this big­otry brought him, sup­port that more ‘mealy-mouthed’ Repub­li­cans, de­spite their con­ser­vatism and their near-iden­ti­cal pol­icy po­si­tions, never got close to. Trump won the Repub­li­can pri­maries be­cause he was xeno­pho­bic and racist; his sup­port­ers took him both se­ri­ously and lit­er­ally.

Trump’s apol­o­gists re­spond to this ar­gu­ment in two ways. One, by ob­ject­ing that to ar­gue this is to stig­ma­tise a plu­ral­ity of Amer­i­cans as racist and, two, by ar­gu­ing as Joe Scar­bor­ough did in an opin­ion piece, that since some Trump vot­ers in the Mid­west must have voted for Obama in ear­lier elec­tions, they couldn’t pos­si­bly be racists.

We have heard these ar­gu­ments re­hearsed be­fore in In­dia af­ter Modi’s elec­tion. Lib­er­als were ac­cused of smear­ing a third and more of In­dia’s elec­torate as com­mu­nal, merely be­cause they voted for the BJP and its al­lies. This ar­gu­ment from size, which as­sumes that there is virtue in num­bers, is based on a com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing of prej­u­dice, whether racial or re­li­gious.

Big­ots aren’t born, they are made and big­otry is a set of ac­quired opin­ions, not a per­ma­nent in­her­ited con­di­tion. Pro­gres­sives who char­ac­terise Modi’s sup­port­ers as big­oted aren’t ask­ing to elect a new peo­ple. They are ac­knowl­edg­ing that there is some se­ri­ous counter-per­sua­sion to be done. Big­ots don’t have to be cadre mem­bers of the KKK or the RSS. They don’t even have to be ca­reer big­ots. If they are per­suaded by the rhetoric of Hindu na­tion­al­ism or white na­tion­al­ism to vote for Modi or Trump, it’s rea­son­able to say that they are ei­ther vot­ing for big­otry or are will­ing to dis­count it as a nec­es­sary evil. When they stop sup­port­ing big­otry, when they re­ject the as­sump­tions of ma­jori­tar­ian na­tion­al­ism, they will stop be­ing prej­u­diced in that way.

IF WE SEE THE NEW POP­ULISM as ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism gone vi­ral, there are his­tor­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions that suggest them­selves for Trump’s vic­tory and Modi’s. Trump won the elec­toral col­lege while los­ing the pop­u­lar vote. He won votes where they mat­tered un­der the rules of the game. The real ques­tion isn’t why Hil­lary lost the 80,000-odd Mid­west­ern votes she needed to win. The ques­tion that will in­ter­est his­to­ri­ans is why did nearly half the Amer­i­can elec­torate vote for this bigot with a bouf­fant?

There is a de­tailed his­tor­i­cal an­swer to that ques­tion that goes back to the Repub­li­can Party’s ‘south­ern strat­egy’ un­veiled 50 years ago and the cu­mu­la­tive suc­cess of the dog-whistling, ger­ry­man­der­ing and voter sup­pres­sion per­fected over the decades. Trump’s elec­toral col­lege ma­jor­ity wasn’t built over one cam­paign; it was built over 50 years and helped over the line by the derange­ment in­duced in sec­tions of the white elec­torate by the sight of black ten­ants in the White House for eight in­ter­minable years. There is, sim­i­larly, a his­tory to Naren­dra Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity founded, like Trump’s, on decades of ma­jori­tar­ian mo­bil­i­sa­tion, start­ing with the cam­paign for the raz­ing of the Babri Masjid and cul­mi­nat­ing in the Muzaf­far­na­gar ri­ots just be­fore the 2014 elec­tions.

Why did these dis­parate ma­jori­tari-anisms win po­lit­i­cal power at roughly the same po­lit­i­cal mo­ment? Any gen­er­al­i­sa­tion will need caveats, but the Great Re­ces­sion and its con­se­quences of­fer the be­gin­nings of an ex­pla­na­tion. As eco­nomic growth ta­pered off and the prospect of sec­u­lar progress dimmed, plau­si­ble sec­tar­i­ans of­fered anx­ious and un­cer­tain vot­ers both anti-na­tional en­e­mies and na­tion­al­ist panaceas. In times of eco­nomic cri­sis, ma­jori­tar­ian par­ties and strong­men in­vari­ably have a head­start over their lib­eral or left-wing coun­ter­parts, be­cause in­vok­ing the Na­tion and sound­ing the alarm against ex­ter­nal threats and in­ter­nal treach­ery is part of their stock in trade. Lib­er­als com­mit­ted to a civic pa­tri­o­tism (and re­luc­tant to sum­mon up a peo­ple for fear of who might turn up) are slower off the mark. Some­times lib­er­als are so per­suaded of the self-ev­i­dent virtue of their be­liefs they for­get that po­lit­i­cal suc­cess turns on per­sua­sion. It’s cold com­fort, but af­ter the la­men­ta­tion and hand­wring­ing of 2016, they know that their clock starts now. MUKUL KESAVAN is a writer who teaches his­tory at the Jamia Mil­lia Is­lamia, Delhi. His last book was Home­less on Google Earth

Illustration by NILANJAN DAS

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.