Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A liberal in the name of Dharma? (or a conservative by another name)

"You can’t be neutral on a moving train" – Howard Zinn

There is a movement that is gathering groundswell, particularly in India's virtual world. I have been hearing a lot about them lately, have listened to some of them and read a lot of what they have written. They call themselves "liberal". I have my doubts.

Their first claim is that they believe in "Classical Liberalism". Every time you hear them speak, you are not too sure where they fall. All you can make out is that they are somewhere in between the Maoists and the Shiv Sena. There are two issues on which they seem to have a clearly articulated political position i) the need for war and ii) transferring wealth from the public to private sphere. (I call that conservatism).

They use the words "Liberal", and "Dharma" in the same sentence. This sends a shiver down my spine.. If we look a little closer at their tonality and content (of what they say) it gives a very different perspective. My fear is that we will not have to wait long for them to start selectively quoting about Dharma from the Bhagavat Gita. They will say... Yes! They are our brothers and friends, but we need to kill them in the name of Dharma.

They gift wrap and/label what they say with the phrase "Our Interest". For example "it is in India's  Interest to send combat troops to Afghanistan". The vision is, apparently, to become some sort of global/regional power. Colonizing, bombing and jumping into the hell-hole created by America in Afghanistan is not my idea of a smart move. The equation - "Going to war" = "super-power status"  is a reflection of neo-liberalism and not liberalism. War has always been and will be about stupidity (even if you cloak it with labels such as geo-politics and strategic analysis). India is already at the receiving end of blow-back caused by American occupation and aggression in countries where it is not wanted. Above all, we are coping with a host of internal problems. We don't need the added distraction of a war.

Privatize they say. For every public sector company that they point at with a significant problem....I will show you five private sector companies with exactly the same problem. They will never talk about improving efficiencies in the public sector or profiteering in the private sector. All they talk about is transferring wealth from the public sphere to the private sphere. Why should the benefits of development HAVE to "trickle" down? Why can't we talk about letting it flow? They key, in my opinion, is to increase efficiencies in the public sector so that the government can off-set it's subsidies without having to turn to debt or tax-payers. Selling a public enterprises has only short-term benefits for the general public.

I am a big advocate of private participation. At the same time, I do not believe that there is anything like a "free market". There are only markets with unequal players. The government through controls and selective participation is able to level the playing field. They call for social equality but believe that in country with over 400 million people living below the poverty line, education and health care should be in private hands.

Do I agree on anything? Yes, but I will qualify it as well. First, there is a lack of political leadership in India. The disagreement begins when we start talking about the kind of leaders that we need. The second is around the need to tackle the issue of Naxalism and the futility of naxal violence. Their strategy, true to a neo-liberal approach, calls for a targeted para-military campaign. I (for reasons mentioned in other posts in this blog) believe it's about dramatically changing how Indian citizens in the Naxal belt participate in development.

It will take time for this movement to gain significant presence in the mainstream. If, the movement hits a tipping point before the next general elections, we will be in for a phase of policy-making where we end up aping the Bush doctrine. Nobody deserves that kind of Karma.