“If we fail to weed out the streaks of intolerance in our midst, we do so at our own peril”
Writing about the strands of radicalism in crises-ridden, post-Versailles Germany, Erich Koch-Weser, the leader of the German Democratic Party, had these prophetic words to say (The Foreign Affairs Magazine):
“Economic depression and political radicalism go hand in hand.When economic distress reaches a certain point, the individualcitizen no longer uses his political power to serve the public weal,but only to help himself. His ideal of political liberty pales before his ideal of economic equality.”
While not to the same degree, if one replaces ‘economic depression’ with ‘chronic mis-governance’, the above passage rings remarkably true with present day, middle-class India. Angry and vocal, the urban youth today, is but a few steps away from radicalization. Given that the average Indian has traditionally valued moderation, this emerging trend represents a significant transformation of mindset.
Social transformations of this nature need drastic conditions and one feels that the Indian middle-class is standing at the edge of a precipice, waiting to be pushed over.
One of the broad ranging pulls that the middle-class has been subjected to has, quite unexpectedly, come from the government itself in the form of the economic liberalization of the 1990s – in many ways a watershed moment in the recent history of the country. Intended as a resuscitation of the moribund License-Raj economy, the reforms had far reaching implications on how the middle-class views its place in society and the kind of responsibility it demands from the government.
With liberalization and the consequent availability of private sector jobs, the government today is neither the only and nor the most desirable employer for a large cross-section of the urban youth. While the middle-class of an earlier era might have accepted government inaction as a natural extension of the lethargy in their own professional lives, the youth today is much less willing to put up with lack of governance for precisely the same reasons.
Accustomed to the strict culture of accountability in their private sector jobs, it should then come as no surprise that they are vocal in demanding the same from their government. In things small and big – whether it ispot-holed roads, insufficient electricity, wasteful babudom or gargantuan scams, the urban Indian finds the government woefully inadequate against the standards of performance that he is expected to live up to in his own job.
It is this feeling that leads to considerable anger against a political establishment that seems to enjoy a host of privileges without any appreciable standard of delivery. This anger is further aggravated when he travels outside the country and experiences governments that are infinitely more sensitive and diligent in the discharge of their duties to their citizens.
This simmering discontent often takes the shape of a short-lived rebellion (as in the Lokpal protests or the Delhi Gangrape protests) but finds its most vitriolic and sustained expression in social media, a medium that makes access to and dissemination of information much more egalitarian in nature. Unlike traditional media, anyone on the internet is today a potential journalist, with editorial biases being rendered ineffectual against the multiplicity of sources from which news can reach the end consumer.
And, given that the urban youth is disaffected, he is eager to lap up anything that would otherwise have received a lackluster attention from traditional media. Thus, it is no wonder, that in the wired world of middle-class India, there are hardly any ‘holy cows’ and little deference to the ‘Omerta Code’.
The fact that the youth is angry and online, is being cleverly exploited by individuals with vested interests. Disenchantment, if unorganized, tends to subside after a few short bursts of anger. However, if that feeling of disenchantment can be channelized to serve a particular ideology, then it does become a force to reckon with. Mainstream media in India has always been liberal in outlook. The same has been largely true of the intelligentsia.
Over the years, successive governments have further tended to nurture liberal and secular intellectuals through institutionalized grants and privileges. Due to this systemic bias, intellectuals with contrarian beliefs have been edged out of the system. Marginalized thus, they have sought redemption and attracted fanatical following in their online avatars. In their role as online crusaders against a corrupt system, they have been largely successful inestablishing their credibility as the ideological rudder to public anger. Vilification and belittlement has been their preferred weapons in this Endeavour to mould public opinion.
As a result, epithets like ‘media crooks’, ‘sickular’, ‘limousine libs’ and ‘I hate XYZ’ has become part of popular lexicon.Given the root cause of disaffection of the ideological leaders, it is hardly surprising that the most caustic of abuses have often been directed against specific (read successful) mainstream media personalities.
If we agree that the middle-class is on the verge of radicalization, then we must also agree on the pivotal role that the disaffected intellectual has played in this transformation. The larger question, then, is whether these trends are strong enough to find broad-based support outside the virtual world? If yes, then is the anti-secular brand of culture chauvinism sustainable in the long term? I think that online culture chauvinism can very easily be exported to the offline world. And so, I am worried as to its long-term impact on the psyche of the common man.
Chauvinism, in any form, is a volatile cocktail for a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country like India. In a society where historical faultlines run deep, the concept of pluralism is an absolute necessity and not a cherished virtue. And while the ideological leaders behind this new trend of chauvinism might be discerning enough to be pro-secular and just anti-secular, the masses behind them might not make that distinction.
If the UPA’s definition of secularism is imperfect, then the response should be a better idea of secularism and not Hindu chauvinism in the guise of cultural nationalism. For, even if we leave aside minorities, there is considerable disagreement within Hindus themselves. Thus, ifwe keep traveling down this reckless path of polarization, the rabid Hindu nationalist will soon find that he is more rabidly Tamil than he is a Hindu. Or that he is Gujarati or a Bengali, before he is a Hindu. One just needs to look back at history to understand why Hinduism hasnever been an effective rallying cry for the sub-continent during the five thousand years of its existence.
India needs to be secular. India needs to be plural. And right from the government to the aamaadmi, each of us has a part to play in it. In our stridency of anti-Congressism,