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.


  1. A small post but a very thought provoking one.So many issues have been tackled in one brush stroke of a piece.I guess people these days have a common perception of accepting a point of view that is different rather than thinking what its far reaching consequences can be."Privatization" is one such issue ,but the common man ,who is generally frustrated with the casual approach with which government servants handle public affairs,longs for the efficiency of privatized companies.He fails to see that privatization may lead to polarization of the markets which in turn will effect every single person as the balance of power will be tilted heavily towards those who control our economy.I am not pretending that the situation right now is much different but at least there is a chance of representation of all players in the current economic scenario.
    About the leadership in Indian economic and political spectrum,could you please do an article or a short write up in what kind of leaders we need right now,because I am thoroughly confused at this point of time just like the rest of the Indian youth who depend on study and reflection as to what indeed we should look for when we vote.Since we donot have much knowledge we keep on pointing back to ideas of leadership that are prevelant in India today and in extension keep oh hanging on to our leaders.

  2. @decider

    Thanks for the comments.

    Agree with you on the sentiment around privatization. Thank you for the endorsement!

    To the second part of your comment...
    i) To be honest, I think I only have the question around the need for political leadership and probably do not have the best answer.
    ii) That said, it worth a post. The right wing is talking about it. An earnest critique of the leadership options offered by the mainstream political parties in parliament may throw up the answer. i.e. - I accept the challenge and you should see a post in a few days :-).
    Thanks once again for the comments.

  3. Thank you Bala,will myself think of a few leadership qualities.

  4. Hey, I was one of the people who met you at an event in Christ College last month. I think I know who you are referring to in this blog post.

    I agree that sometimes people who espouse free markets in India turn out to be neocons in their overall outlook. The current Indian involvement in Afghanistan is a case in point.

    Btw I have listened to Shabnam Virmani at Fireflies for 2 years and loved it.

  5. @prmodbiligiri

    Thanks for your comments.
    Yes, I think you have joined the dots well and the speaker and the content :)

    One lesson that I have learnt in my recent trips to the more remote parts of India is that "progressive" journals are not worth the glossy paper that they are printed on.

    Appreciate your point on Afghanisthan.