Crisis of the liberal narrative in India
The Modern State’s Clash with ‘End of History’
The resurgence of the state in the age of globalisation appears to have become a contemporary political fashion. Across the globe, many states have decidedly taken steps to counter the ongoing trend of the retreat of the state and subsequently design policies to reinforce their borders – from the US’s Trump administration’s call to ‘make America great again’ to the Brexit vote in England, to the V4 nations of Europe (the Visegrad Four nations, namely - Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) not wanting to entertain immigrants and even to India’s novel engagement of reframing its image as a Hindu nation under the current NDA government.
The narrative of globalisation had ushered in the promising potential of liberalism to address problems of economic barriers, communication gaps and issues with multiculturalism. The political boundaries of states, the old Westphalian legacy, seemed to have suffered a withering effect. Of course, the boundaries are still intact. But what globalisation entailed was that these so called political boundaries of states were no more impediments in our aspirations of looking beyond the borders. Communications between citizens of various disparate nations, economic transaction between states or individuals poles apart, dissemination of cultural nuances are the realities of today – technology had provided the platform for all of this on which globalisation rode unchartered. With so many overwhelming advances in our realities, the role of the state had been observed to be dwindling. The state was not the soul actor in the international milieu (although it remained the most important one). The proliferation of non-state actors starting from NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) to MNCs (Multi-National Corporations) to even terrorist organisations – all of which had emerged as subsidiary power centres in the IR locale - had clearly showed us in the recent past that states no more had supreme monopoly in deciding global outcomes.
This contemporary occurrence, of the return of the state, appears to have been engendered due to a certain realisation of failure of the liberal globalisation narrative – because globalisation, like all contested concepts, turned out to be a double-edged sword. It is still easily agreeable that globalisation has indeed facilitated notions of oneness and likeness in the minds of the people all around the world and across all walks of life. Globalisation has been credited as stepping stones to the formulation of a global village (Mcluhan, 1962). More so, it could also be considered as a step towards the possibility of realising the Tagorean ideal of religion of man, to be able to see others as just another and not as ‘the other’ – to see others as an extension of the self (Tagore, 1931). A whole lot of traditionalism was challenged by a wave of western modernity. Many caste and tribal systems disintegrated, and with it disappeared a whole lot of taboos, ancient beliefs and ways of life that seemed anachronistic in present times. Thus, the ideals of a globalised liberal world were not without its merits.
However, the liberal mission of globalisation was not without its demerits either.
Being a double-edged sword, it is not just the state that takes a backseat. The onslaught of globalisation also demands culture, race, ethnicity and all other social identity markers to take a back seat to the point that bearers of these social identity markers could come to feel that their identities are in crisis. With countries proposing to implement economic reforms and opening the door for foreign investment and such policies, migration, tourism, domestic and international conferences have thrust people into moving around and settling, either temporarily or permanently, in new communities.
From today’s’ reality then, it is evident that states reinforcing their national borders does not comprise of any intent to fabricate economic barriers or disrupt the flow of capital. Thus, it is not the economic but rather the socio-cultural aspect of the ‘liberal story’ that appears to be the threatening aspect – in the case of USA, outsiders from its southern borders and overseas seem more of a problem rather than being a solution to the problems of its society; the Brexit vote appears to indicate that Britain prefers going solo as it believes its sovereignty is compromised and its shared space with the European Union (EU) is inimical to its existence; the V4 nations do not want to entertain immigration into their countries as multicultural society is supposedly not a value or virtue for them, as stated by a Polish MP; and India now appears committed to augment its non-muslim populace via the newly legislated Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA, 2019), concomitantly making a statement as to for whom the borders of India are open to. It is the subsequent change in demographics of cultural spaces of countries that urged states to resurface and take back control from the onward march of globalisation.
To understand the anguish and disillusionment against the liberal narrative of globalisation, an understanding of how the liberal narrative came to be is imperative. The opening line of Yuval Noah Harari’s 2018 book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, states that “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better”. As such, every person, group or nation has its own tales and myths. The discourse of 20th Century presented the world with three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story and the liberal story. The fascist story collapsed with the end of the Second World War. Subsequently, from the late 1940s to the late 1980s in the guise of the Cold War, the world observed the communist story and the liberal story battling one another dynamically to prove themselves as the better narrative. Then, the communist story also collapsed with the disintegration of the USSR and the liberal story emerged victorious from this ideological battleground to become the dominant guide and an indispensible manual for the future of the world. The point was made by Francis Fukuyama in his book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), where he argued that with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, the last ideological alternative to liberalism had been eliminated. Fascism had been killed off in the Second World War, and now Communism was imploding. Even in states like China, that called themselves communist, political and economic reforms were heading in the direction of a liberal order.
Thus, the liberal story celebrated the value and power of liberty. And then the whole world was urged to jump on to the liberal wagon via the platform of globalisation. The ideals of liberalism espoused that life under oppressive regimes could be a thing of the past forever, free enterprise would overcome economic restrictions and transcending borders would inevitably curb the ‘us-and-them’ divide among people. The liberal story, of course, acknowledged that all is not well in the world and that there were many more hurdles to overcome. Yet, liberalism seemed to have the tools to address the problems plaguing the world in the most harmonious manner. In the 1990s and 2000s, this story became a global mantra. Many governments, from Brazil to India adopted liberal recipes in an attempt to join this unalterable march of history.
As such, mankind seemed to have arrived at the end of history as there did not appear to be any scope of any ideological advancement beyond liberalism. However, the global financial crisis of 2008 triggered people across the globe to become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story. Resistance to immigration and to trade agreements has been escalating and ‘walls and firewalls are back in vogue’. Moreover, many of the supposed democratic nations have begun to undermine public institutions in them such as the judiciary or the freedom of the press setting the trend of emerging ‘illiberal democracies’ (Harari, 2018). It appears that occurrences today marked by the rise of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote in Britain and a Hindutva India signifies the moment when this tide of disillusionment against the liberal story hit the breaking point in these liberal countries. Discourses of political correctness and overt liberalism have forced many across the globe to believe that the liberal vision is either undesirable or unattainable.
History has not ended then, a point that even Fukuyama recently has conceded to where the political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism. While liberalism and globalisation has indeed helped make the world smaller and easier, excess of liberalism has engendered a feeling of irrelevance in many individuals. Open communication channels have eased flow of communications and information but it has also eased channels of migration. Consequently, the world is now more cosmopolitan than ever but identities of many peoples as a group appears to have had a retreating affect. As such, the loosening roots of the many peoples’ identities have had an unsettling effect and the ensuing fear of further loosening of these roots to the point that their identities lose relevance altogether has compelled people to resurrect their borders once again. In essence, the problem with the liberal story is that extreme liberalism entails a sort of loss of identities or their relevance.
Most people who voted for Trump, Brexit or Narendra Modi did not reject the liberal package in its entirety – they lost faith mainly in its globalising part. As Harari opines, “at the end of the day, humankind will not abandon the liberal story, because it does not have any alternative… [Then again], people may completely give up on having a global story of any kind, and instead seek shelter with local and religious tales…This is arguably what is happening all over the globe, as the vacuum left by the breakdown of liberalism is tentatively filed by nostalgic fantasies about some local golden past” – Donald Trump wants USA to return to the great age of American isolationism, the Brexiteers dream of making Britain an independent power like in the days of Queen Victoria and in Russia, Putin’s official vision is not to build a corrupt oligarchy but rather to revisit the old tsarist empire. Such statements would be true for Poland, Turkey and many other countries.
Similar nostalgic dreams that mix nationalist attachment with religious traditions also underpin the current regime in India. The NDA coalition government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seems to believe that the Indian subcontinent has always been the land for Hindus. With centuries of migration movements and the concomitant change in demographics here, the BJP appears to believe that the Hindu identity does not carry as much weight as it used to, or that the Hindu identity may not hold any value in the long run of the Indian liberal story, especially when the overwhelming majority of the Indian population comprises of Hindus. Deeming such a narrative as somewhat of an existential dilemma, the right-wing movement in India has also made utterances of a glorified Hindu past such as the reigns of the Gupta Dynasty or the early Maratha and Rajput empires that were golden periods in the Indian subcontinent, bereft of any adulteration from Mughal presence on the Indian soil. In addition, there have been a slew of issues that indicate India’s changed trajectory towards a nationalistic mission since the BJP coming into power in 2014 – mob lynchings due to cow slaughter, religious conversions (Ghar-Wapsi), implementation of NRC in Assam, abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, communications curfew in Jammu and Kashmir, sustaining the rhetoric of Pakistan as an enemy nation along with the Hindu-Muslim divide in the country and most recently the passing of the CAA which has resulted in mass protests across the country. All of these steps indicate measures taken to consolidate and reframe the Indian state in its Hindu avatar.
There have been protests of unprecedented numbers to all of these issues. However, it has hardly put a dent on the path that India is on now. India’s trajectory towards a Hindu Rashtra has already taken flight then, which is why the minorities in the country portend the end of the liberal story in India. However, it must be understood that all of the Hindu populace residing in India do not want a Hindu Rashtra, as everyone does not identify with India’s identity as a Hindu state. The ideals of secularism entrenched in the thoughts of the founding fathers of India - such as those of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru – hold dear for many as the true ideals of this country and who believe that India could not have chosen a religious (theocratic) template for the basis of its society. The Anti-CAA protests across the country express this spirit. At the periphery, it can be easily stated that the India of today, which is Modi’s India, is not the India that many of its residents identify with. It is not Gandhi’s India anymore, not Nehru’s India, not Ambedkar’s India either and certainly not even Vajpayee’s India.
By and large, India among many other like countries across the globe, is facing a crisis of the liberal narrative. This crisis could be said to have been brought about by the lack of an alternative narrative to liberalism, as the past narratives of fascism and communism have already been deemed as a definitive failure. Quintessentially then, India appears to be at the brink of a transitional phase where it appears to be suffering from a certain kind of personality disorder. India must choose its path, and thereby its identity, from the choices that are at its hand. On one side lies the path of remaining true to its secular credentials and the other is to turn towards the Hindutva illiberal democratic regime.
It was the renowned Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, who stated that ‘a countries future must come from its past’, while registering his activism for Ireland’s independence from Britain. Many who share his sentiments have been prodded on to rebuild and fortify their borders and many ‘alt-right’ governments from the aforementioned countries today have designed anti-immigration policies based on the same sentiment. For India, even if it must draw inspiration from the past, it has two pasts to choose from – first, from the past of the Indian independence struggle that comprised of the ideals of the founding fathers of the Indian state (which was a secular, democratic, organic and an inclusive movement); and second, from the past of non-muslim reigns of dynasties prior to the Mughal interference. The latter of course precedes the former. However, in case of the latter, it is pertinent to ask that whether we truly want to redefine India via a past which is from a time when the concept of an Indian nation in itself was questionable. Prior to the Mughal interference in the Indian discourse, even if the Indian subcontinent had rulers and kingdoms with a Hindu basis for a society, the many kingdoms (big or small) that the Indian subcontinent comprised of were at a state of war with one another. It seems there was hardly any concept of India as a nation.
In conclusion, India is at the brink of making a choice for itself and it must be careful in choosing its identity and its path. Whether it chooses to reinforce its secular identity or adapt to a new Hindutva one, the consideration of which one is sustainable ought to be given weight to. Many other nations are on the edge of making the same choice. From a peripheral outlook and considering the current global political discourse, it could be said that there is a sense that the liberal narrative has failed many across the globe. This crisis of narrative is summed up well in a statement by Yuval Noah Harari:
“In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2018 we are down to zero”.
(The author is a research scholar doing his PhD from Jwaharlal Nehru University, you can find him on Twitter @TanzeemAhmed6)