“It is often easier to fight for a principle than to live up to it.” – Adlai E Stevenson II, Candidate for President of the United States in 1952 and 1956
Adlai Stevenson lost to Dwight D Eisenhower twice in his attempts to win the White House in the USA, so it seems counter-intuitive that something he said might hold the key to unlocking current leftists’ attempts to wrest power from the nativist right-wing parties around the world.
Leftists and liberals have been out of power and their influence has gradually declined in the past decade, all the while when leftist ideas like universal healthcare, right to education, right to associate freely, to name but a few, have gained prominence. It has been quite the shock to see right-wing parties in the USA, UK, and India talking about protecting pre-existing conditions, protecting and increasing funding for the National Health Service, and extending federal healthcare respectively. Similarly, the right to education is now a major talking point even in right-wing circles around the world as they decide how to reduce student debt. But there is no doubt, that even though these parties have adopted or started discussing these issues, these parties remain right-wing in their cultural outlook.
This contradiction of increasing discussion of leftist talking points with its relinquishment of power was, perhaps, manifested nowhere better than France. Emmanuel Macron, their President, was trying to balance the budget of the country on the back of working people in the name of pension reform. This led to widespread protests across the country as the working class rose up en-masse. At the same time, the Socialist Party of France, which has traditionally championed the working class, had to sell its headquarters to luxury flat developers to raise money to fight the next election.
So, it is essential that liberals look and try to find what ails them and causes this disconnect. If it is not economic and social policy, then it must be that the major reason is that the leftist parties have lost the ability to connect with voters culturally. Liberals must remember, whether they agree or not, that the majority of most democracies are composed of religious and working-class people, which used and ought to be their traditional base.
And though it seems that the Left has woken up to that recently and you could see Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the presumptive candidate of the liberal opposition in India, going on temple visits before national elections in 2019, the incumbent right-wing party successfully saw to it that they would be really seen as insincere photo opportunities and not genuine offerings of faith. We see this around the world where during the impeachment of Donald Trump in December 2019, the president openly criticized whether the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is sincere in her Catholic faith and in her prayers for him. This brings us to the larger question and that is to look into details of not only the cultural disconnect but why attempts to bridge that are being seen as hypocritical. And the operative word here in this question is “hypocritical”.
This brings us back to where we began this essay and the quote by Mr. Stevenson. The Left has found itself increasingly in positions where it has been easy to label them hypocritical. There have been many examples in India and around the world, where consistency in their position has been something out of reach for the leftist and liberal parties. An effort to be uniform in their positions would help the Left in reaching out to its core constituency culturally once more and then they will be able to deliver on the economic promises that the Right is nowadays promising but the Left traditionally delivers better.
Take, for example, social engineering and demographic change as cultural topics. It has become a right-wing dog whistle, if not an outright bullhorn, to keep talking about population replacement of the majority. You can see them riling up the Hindu majority in India by incessantly talking about the increasing Muslim population and how very soon they will be the majority. This is in a country that despite numerous direct Islamic invasions and rule has retained its Hindu religion for four millennia. Though somehow, the current relatively minuscule Muslim population are just about to replace the entire Hindu majority! Population replacement and demographic change around the world have been similarly used to appeal to others. Fox News and the other US right-wing TVs, and senators such as John Cornyn of Texas have talked about the rate of growth of Hispanics far outstripping whites, even though, in a plurality, the latter will be the largest group in the USA for the foreseeable future.
Liberals are right to stand against the concept of the demographic status quo. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously proclaimed, we want to judge people solely by the “content of their character”. We, the Indian liberals, have opened our hearts to minorities to fully express themselves and are proud that at the same time, we had a Muslim President, Muslim Vice President, and Sikh Prime Minister in Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Dr. Hamid Ansari and Dr. Manmohan Singh. We believe that overpopulation, in general, is a problem and affects female health and is to be combated by higher education and later dates of marriage amongst women across the spectrum, rather than arbitrary requests for more births in the majority community or lesser in the minority community as Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanded. Hence, we stand firmly against any call to protect the demography of a place, insisting for free movement of all and equal opportunity for all irrespective of caste, creed, race, or religion.
Or do we? Many liberal colleagues of mine had supported and still support Article 370 and its implementation in Kashmir, and one can guess by extension, of Article 371 in various North-Eastern states of India. I too believe that the support for the provision in them regarding interference by the federal government into local religion and culture is fair. It should, however, neither be fair to raise the specter of demographic change and forbid the movement of other people into those states nor block them from owning land in some part of the country by raising the same points about social engineering. I consider federal interference for protection of ethnic minority religions to be fair otherwise majoritarian impulses might snatch away their freedoms and hence further devolution of powers in minority-majority areas must be allowed. But the rationale of that interference should never be as illiberal as preserving the demographic status quo. As liberals, we must convince ourselves that freedom of movement ought to be fundamental while ensuring that the local culture and religions are protected. This can be done by creating religious and cultural boards for local tribes and religions and reserving seats in the parliament as we do for Scheduled Tribes and Castes for these local communities. Linguistic sovereignty can also be ensured by mandating the use of particular languages for internal migration into other states, like external migration from the country is often based on passing international English tests. What should not be tolerated by liberals is, however, complete prohibition of freedom of movement or right to the property based on culture or religion.
We must also guard against a natural inclination to stand up when minorities are forcibly driven out but not speak aloud when the majority is. Take for example, in our own country, the case of Kashmiri Pandits vis-à-vis Gujarati Muslims. Liberals rightly contend that the riots which killed and maimed thousands of innocent people, mostly Muslims, in Gujarat in 2002 are a grievous wrong and a blot on our secular history. We believe that this is a wrong to be corrected and those who had to run away should be given a right to return, resettle and begin anew with government help if required. But the helping hand which exists here should also extend to Kashmiri Pandits who were driven out in their own land and liberals must make it one of their pet causes too. Liberals, who are generally rightly critical of fascism and Nazism and religious supremacy, must strongly protest internationally against Islamic fascism and religious intolerance and ask for concrete steps for the implementation and enforcement of the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016 where they called for defending religious minority rights in predominantly Muslim countries. Similarly, just as we speak out against sectarianism within the Hindu community as it pertains to castes and tribes, the divisions within Christianity must be condemned as should the continuous attempts by the mainstream Islamic bodies to leave minority sects like the Ahmadiyyas out of the general discourse.
I am also sure that many of my fellow liberals are waiting for the definite ruling of the Supreme Court of India in the Sabarimala case. If you believe, as I do, that women and men should not have their individual right to faith abridged by anyone else’s faith system, then surely you will be hoping for a ruling that allows women to enter Sabarimala. But since the Supreme Court has coupled this question with the general question of religious tradition, how many liberals will be welcome in interfering to allow women and men to worship together in mosques or allow the entry of non-Jewish people into synagogues? Because consistency demands that we support all of the above and we should not hesitate to do so.
The examples given above are primarily Indian in context but this particular inability of liberals to be consistent when it comes to minorities is not limited to India. Take for example, in the USA, at-the-time Senators Kamala Harris, Maggie Hassan, Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill who refused to ask a single question of Asra Nomani or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who were born Muslims, when they came to the Senate in 2017 to talk about how women are oppressed by Islamic extremists. The charitable explanation is that again these liberal senators, somehow, managed to conflate Islamic illiberalism with the entirety of Islam itself, but this is a mistake that keeps happening again and again. As the witnesses themselves later put in an opinion piece, “This is extreme moral relativism disguised as cultural sensitivity. And it leads to good people making excuses for the inexcusable”. Equating the worst aspect of an individual to the entire community is racism and therefore liberals are right to call out conservatives when they say, for example, all Muslims are terrorists or sympathizers of terrorists. But by not speaking out against the extremists either, they are letting these illiberal members of the minority community guide the discourse and co-opt the entire religion or culture, which then ultimately lets others equate it to the worst aspects of what they espouse. This tacit silence is no less racist or communal that the more blatant conservative kind.
Now, this is not to say that the right-wing parties are not hypocrites. Right-wingers will be the first to label a member of a majority committing a racial or communal crime as just a lone-wolf criminal while at the same time calling for increased surveillance in minority communities because of an attack by individual terrorists who happen to be of that community. They will be the first to talk about preserving their indigenous culture from demographic change, as given before while complaining regarding proposed migration limits in other countries. But their hypocrisy does not make ours any more endearing. It makes it, on the contrary, baffling because if we could be consistent, we could culturally annihilate them by pointing out contradictions in their various positions. Yet somehow, we keep missing this open goal. We, on the Left, must realize that liberalism supports the right to liberty for all and opposes unreasonable traditions. Hence, while we must make it our calling to support minority rights, we must be careful not to support illiberal minority traditions.