Indian Liberals, you’re doing it wrong.
From Modi to Azaan, liberals are losing the culture war- and they’ll keep losing until they get organized and focus.
Right wing populism has taken over India- and the situation is much worse in India, than US or Europe. Why? Because everywhere else liberal leaders have united after identifying that the current upheavals aren’t just political- but intrinsically cultural. They have realized that there is no point being separated by nuance when their opponent wishes to change the bottom line.
The culture war can’t be won just by proving an opponent wrong in an argument- it will be won by getting him on your side.
The problem with the current crop is that they have lost the art of tugging at the heartstrings of people- they profess liberalism as an intellectual movement- when it is primarily supposed be a movement of kindness and inclusiveness that fights oppression. Which is why you mostly find them fact-checking and declaring their opponents to be plebs. They fail to form a narrative and when faced with an opposing viewpoint, they either don’t engage out of some misplaced sense of purity, or they gasp to show their outrage, or they insult out of a feeling of intellectual superiority.
The illiberal forces know this- in fact they’re banking on using our reactions as an advantage. When we don’t engage, they win by default just by participation. When we outrage, they use the outrage for the purpose of self-promotion and publicity. When we insult, they use that opportunity to isolate/denigrate us by portraying us as elites.
And the truth that we need to understand is that deep within- those biases and prejudices that illiberal people have- we have them too. Bigotry, for example, is a part of intrinsic human nature, which has been imprinted in our minds for thousands of years and which will take years to be eradicated. Liberalism, then, is a form of self control, in which one understands the destructive potential of such parts, if let loose. It is a way to live life in a way to prevent the moral destruction that would arise from various prejudices.
Therefore, acting holier than thou, when deep within those biases affect you too, is foolish. Remember bigotry is a disease and liberalism is the immune system. We must act like doctors- and engage both intellectually and emotionally- to get that system working. In short, don’t act like House- as people won’t tolerate your arrogance cuz you ain’t a genius.
Sharing my own personal experiences, I have talked to lots of colleagues and friends who were attracted to the Far-right philosophy and hated Muslims. But as soon as I pointed out that they were hating an entire community- a community made up of actual human beings, and that whatever problems they had with the community- were cause by a tiny proportion of the community. I reminded them that there are 15 to 20 crore Muslims, if they would have been so bad, our country wouldn’t have existed. Calling him a bigot achieved nothing. Attacking Hinduism in retaliation would have achieved nothing. Showing him calmly that he was bearing a burden of hatred for false reasons achieved a lot. I won’t say I solved the problem- but he acknowledged that Hindu extremism and vigilantism was not correct, which was a progressive step. If I had more chances to engage with him after that, we could have agreed on a lot more.
Outrage. Be wise with it. Control it. Preserve it. Choose when to direct it and against what. Going with the current situation, outraging about communal events- unless they are huge- will not cause any harm to the Far-right. However communal events based on caste must be outraged against as they hit at the core of Hindutva- uniting diverse groups of Hindus under one ideology.
Other cases- where outraging only adds to popularity of someone- is total bullshit. Attacking trolls only makes them more popular. In this regard, I hope each liberal unfollows/blocks/ignores the likes of Abhijeet Bhattacharya on twitter- because engaging with him only means making him mainstream. You will feel offended by what they say, and they are counting on that.
At the same time, there are other things that matter more, at which the present government is failing- but there is no equivalent outrage. There are no twitter hashtag and outrage campaigns against low job creation, bad performance of railways, internal security problems, the lack of a separate defense minister when Kashmir is on a boil, the failure regarding solving immigration problems in US, Australia and Singapore for Indian workers, Failure of Swachh Bharat and Startup India Schemes, the legalizing of anonymous political lobbying by corporations, the increase in the number of website hacks. It’s up to us to make these issues popular and explain their importance to people. Shifting outrage on any issue that do not polarize Hindus and Muslims is the way to go. Also, had the opposition waited for Dec 31 before unleashing their criticism to demonetization like Nitish Kumar, it would have been a smarter strategy.
Another mistake that the opposition makes is to keep on attacking Modi. Remember, Modi is largely famous because of his persona- not his work. A large section of the public suffers a high positive bias towards him- which rises whenever politicians attack him. However, he has a cabinet of ministers who are incompetent(Jaitley, Prabhu, Prasad, Parrikar, Rajnath, etc.)and the opposition do not put any pressure on them. It could be a good tactic to remind Indian people that they aren’t voting just for Modi- they’re voting for BJP and it’s bunch of bad leaders- especially in a state/municipality election. The fact that they couldn’t capitalize on BJP’s lack of a Chief Ministerial candidate in UP elections- conveys a huge strategic failure. They’ll definitely lose the Gujarat elections if they focus on Modi- while a weaker adversary in the form of Vijay Rupani is left unscathed.
The opposition needs to unite and organize. It should attack passionately but shouldn’t seem desperate, as if going after the government on everything. It should choose its battles, being ruthless where it has an advantage- and learn to dissipate the narratives on which it is on the back foot. The Illiberal forces are taking over- which is why being stronger and savvier is all the more important.