In the US the word liberal has acquired among conservatives the status of an insult. Liberals hate US President Donald Trump with a vengeance. But then liberals aren’t supposed to ‘hate’. That negative emotion is reserved for the Right. But the venom that pours out of Left-liberal politicians and the media in America would do fascists proud.
Therein lies the contradiction. Liberalism in the classical sense is tolerant of opposing points of view. But American liberals are intolerant, sometimes viciously, of opposing views. In India, the same contradiction exists. Some of the most venomous attacks on political opponents come from the Left. The Left in India regards itself as liberal. It is not.
Consider the stand of the Communist government in Kerala. It says there isn’t enough evidence to ban the Kerala-based Islamist group Popular Front of India (PFI). There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence against the PFI. An investigation conducted by a leading English magazine in October 2017 revealed shocking details of the PFI’s terrorist ideology: “The NIA has accused the PFI of terror links and hawala financing, charges that the group has denied ... Ahmed Shareef, its founder member and the managing editor of its mouthpiece Gulf Thejas, also confessed to illegal funding. ‘All over the world. That is the motive,’ Shareef told the magazine’s reporters (who were undercover) when asked whether the PFI worked on a hidden motive to establish an Islamic state in India.”
The Congress likes to think of itself as a liberal party. But it violates an important commandment of liberalism: tolerance to dissent. The Congress dynasty does not brook dissent. No senior Congress leader dared challenge Rahul Gandhi’s election as party president last December.
The BJP, while not perfect, tolerates dissent among its ranks. Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi fiercely and incessantly. They face no disciplinary action. It is unthinkable for an enlightened Congressman like Shashi Tharoor, for example, to criticise Rahul Gandhi with such vigour. If he did, he would be expelled. That is leadership by fear and violates the fundamental principle of liberalism.
The RSS is not an exemplar of liberalism either. It is socially illiberal. It does not allow women membership of the main organisation. It has a separate women’s wing. But that is not liberalism. It is tokenism. The RSS will not be truly liberal till its sarsangchalak can be a woman.
Economic liberalism demands free trade and free markets. An open economy encourages foreign investment, builds economic diversity and spurs competition, efficiency and prosperity. The most successful entities in the world are diverse, competitive and rules-based. What makes the US the world’s economic superpower? An open economy, a cosmopolitan workforce and rules-based governance. Trump has been forced to dilute his protectionist economic policy.
He now accepts that skilled immigrants and low trade tariffs are good for America. While China (and to a lesser extent India) imposes punishing import duties, the US levies low or no customs duties on most imports. Diversity, openness and a rules-based order breed innovation. It would have been impossible to create Apple, Facebook, Google, SpaceX and Tesla in an illiberal ecosystem.
Liberalism revolves around gender equality as well. No society can be successful if it does not give half its population the same rights and opportunities as it does the other half. Even regressive countries like Saudi Arabia are waking up to this reality. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is gradually easing the restrictions that imprison Saudi women in gender ghettos. They will now be allowed to drive, attend sports events and go out without a male relative chaperone.
Liberalism requires acceptance too of sexual orientation. No modern nation can discriminate against a significant section of its citizens on the basis of sexual orientation. Globally the best estimate for the LGBT population as a ratio of the general population is between 7 and 10 per cent. In India that number would add up to around 70 million adult LGBT citizens. They must enjoy the same rights as the rest of their fellow citizens. It is the government’s obligation to treat all citizens equally and fairly.
The extreme Right and Left have more in common than they realise. For example, the extreme Right is against foreign direct investment (FDI). So is the Left. Those who regard themselves as Left-leaning or Right-leaning are often not liberal by classical definition. There are five axioms of liberalism:
Axiom one: No religion is exempt from criticism: neither Islam, nor Hinduism, nor Christianity. Blasphemy is not a taboo.
Axiom two: Shun violence. Argue with words, not guns. The answer to a book or film is another book or film, not a fatwa. Axiom three: Reject political dynasty. Feudalism and liberalism operate at opposite ends of the spectrum of a progressive, liberal democracy.
Axiom four: Don’t divide people on the basis of religion or caste. Whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim, you are Indian first, Hindu or Muslim second. The idea of a Hindu Rashtra is illiberal. The idea of a Bharat Rashtra is liberal. Muslims must abandon the illiberal idea of being Muslim first, Indian second. Be Indian first.
Axiom five: A liberal is tolerant. Even those on the hard Right and the hard Left must engage one another in civil debate. Words and reason, not abuse and invective, are the weapons of choice for liberals.
The author is an editor and publisher