The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I am an Indian liberal. Here’s what we are doing wrong.

Activists of various left-wing organizations protest in New Delhi on June 25. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
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A little more than a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earned a second term with a staggering mandate, his critics are still in denial about the nature of the verdict.

Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has already pulled out the maps and readied party members for its next round of electoral empire-building. But, rather than strategizing, the beleaguered opposition and broader liberal commentariat have turned their anger on the voters. Provocative articles in international newspapers have bemoaned how Indians have been seduced by hate, implicitly suggesting that the majority of Indians who elected Modi have become bigots and hatemongers. And every time something dreadful has taken place since the elections, such as the recent horrific lynching of a young Muslim man, there is a “you get what you voted for” contempt in the liberal response.

Instead of putting the government on the mat and holding it accountable, Indian liberals are making the fatal error of judging fellow citizens.

The liberal hand-wringing — and I say this as someone who unambiguously considers myself a liberal — is not only ultimately a waste of time and a grand bore. It is also political suicide. This attitude is similar to that moment in the U.S. campaign when Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” and it reeks of exactly the sort of elitism that likely placed us on the losing side to begin with.

In the Indian context, the scale of the Modi win means liberals are making generalizations about large swaths of the nation. While there was plenty that was distressing and depressing about this campaign — including the candidacy and victory of a candidate accused of participating in a terrorist conspiracy, the marginalization of India’s Muslims, and the pervasiveness of fake news — it is wrong to assume that every Indian who voted Modi in fact voted for aggressive Hindu nationalism or majoritarian muscle-flexing.

Many voted for the BJP because they simply did not see an alternative contender. Others responded to microeconomic welfare schemes, such as policies delivering toilets, gas connections, direct cash benefits, easy loans and tiled roofs to live under.

Yes, the BJP’s campaign was powered by an extraordinary wealth of resources. But the opposition did not lose because it was poorer. It lost because it ran a divided and fragmented campaign with obtuse messaging. The Congress party in particular spent too much energy and time on an alleged scandal over fighter-jet procurement. No one in India could even agree on how to pronounce the manufacturer’s name, let alone the details of the case. By the time the party came up with a second message — a minimum guarantee of income to the poorest Indians — it was too late in the campaign. On the ground, barely anyone had heard of the scheme.

And yes, Modi’s muscular positioning clearly worked in his favor. But Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s counter was to talk up “love” in a perplexing underestimation of the ruthlessness of politics. Not only was it fluffy and trivial, but also it was inauthentic. The same wishy-washiness is reflected in Gandhi’s taciturn, sulky response since the electoral battering.

So instead of taking mournful swipes at how people voted, India’s liberals need turn our gaze inward to fully understand why the opposition lost, even as we continue to call out the Modi government on key issues.

Many of us see ourselves as advocates for pluralism and diversity. But we have had to repeatedly confront the elitism that permeates our messaging. To the majority of the country, we seem distant, cocooned and colonized. The future of Indian liberalism will likely belong to those who are rooted in the regional and cultural traditions and histories of India, thus allowing them to speak a homegrown language of faith and plurality.

Yet instead, most of us have derived our progressive ideas from the Western world. We can quote from the Odyssey but not the Ramayana. We dream in English but often lack fluency in other Indian languages. The only effective counter to the current age of populism lies in the celebration of our own best practices. Many of us — despite touting the best, progressive ideas — simply do not have a narrative that the majority of Indians can relate to.

The other thing we need to learn is not to mirror dogma. We have often objected to the “us vs. them” intolerance of right-wing ideologues. But increasingly, liberals are aping this close-mindedness to alternative views. Any calls for self-reflection are labeled an endorsement of the other side — and I’m sure this column will elicit that very response. But trying to understand why so many citizens voted for Modi without judging is by no means equivalent to surrendering our constitutional values.

Of course, the fact that many liberals have buried their heads in the sands of denial does not justify the vitriol that the right wing, and sometimes even the Modi government, directs at us. Many of us have suffered from this vitriol personally — especially women. It could be armies of trolls deployed to spread fake news about us online, or it could be more insidious: There are journalists in India, such as myself, who have been informally blacklisted by the government for criticizing it over the years. The irony is that we are attacked with as much ferocity by commentators on the left when we call out the flaws in their positions.

Liberal-bashing is lazy. But voter-bashing is so much worse. It’s neither smart nor effective. So India’s liberals must decide: Do we want to win in the contest of ideas or maintain the holier-than-thou attitude and keep on losing?

To defeat your ideological opponent, you first need to understand the roots of the problem. Surely, Indian liberals don’t want to wish away the clear will and message of Indian people. So, let’s start by reading the 2019 verdict for what it is.

Read more:

Neha Dixit: India’s attacks on a free press are part of a disturbing trend

Vivan Marwaha: The secret behind millennial support for India’s Modi

Milan Vaishnav: If it’s ‘the economy, stupid,’ why did Modi win?

Barkha Dutt: This is Modi’s India now

Rana Ayyub: You know India’s democracy is broken when millions wait for election results in fear