Given the divisiveness of the political discourse today, perhaps its time to become a little naïve again and go back to some rudimentary first principles. What we see today as implacably opposed ideologies are all, at their core, attempts to understand reality and find a way to make it better. In our disagreements which are turning increasingly bitter and are tending towards violence, it is easy to lose sight of the essential humanness of these thought processes. The scripts that we write for each other have become fixed, and allow no room for nuance. We judge events based on foreknowledge- we know that JNU is a haven for Maoists and anti-nationals, we can see through the machinations of liberal journalists bent on promoting minorities and can predict how blindly and viciously bhakts will react even when in the wrong. Every little action becomes part of this larger set of certitudes- nothing can be innocent or minor anymore- everything gets elevated to the level of grand conspiracy. One side uses abuse and intimidation and invokes an overheated form of nationalism while the other employs sneering contempt and makes overblown comparisons to the Emergency and Hitler.
At its core, the Left yearns for equality and rails against the fact that for so many, birth determines destiny, trapped as they are in structures that perpetuate the inequalities and divisions of the past. It sees caste, religion and the market as systems that create and perpetuate hierarchies. To fight for the poor, the weak and the oppressed by fundamentally re-ordering society, is a difficult, even naïve enterprise, one that has been tried by many and discarded. One can assert that this idea has become ossified into dogma, and created oppressive and sometimes violent structures of its own. The prescriptions of the Left can be critiqued quite strongly, but not the motivations that drive it. To be moved by injustice, to take up cudgels for the marginalized, to want to change the world for the better, these motivations are difficult to argue with. And for the young to be infected by a desire to rid the world of its past imperfections by pushing for radical change is an instinct that should be easy to empathise with.
Similarly, the liberal belief in the primacy of individual freedoms is rooted in a fundamental human need. Why should we define each other and be limited by our collective affiliations? People should be able to express themselves freely, disagree with each other and find a way to resolve their differences. The goal is for everyone to have an equal opportunity in their lifetime to be able to define their own destiny regardless of where they come from and to lead a life on their own terms.
Some argue that in practice, the liberal view has become mired in political correctness, and finds itself trapped in straitjackets of many kinds. By privileging individual freedom over everything else, it can disrespect existing ways of life and impose a shallow universality, that in the name of modernity is often the worldview of the West. It stands accused also of being dismissive of existing ways of life and of using unrealistic benchmarks to sit in judgement on those that do not subscribe to its worldview.
The conservative view believes in the primacy of existing reality and need to understand and respect it. It is suspicious of change, particularly of anything that alters the existing structure of reality. It sees the individual as being embedded in the collective and as a part of a continuous chain of life. It has no fear of collective labels, and accepts that human beings need to belong to groups by believing in the rules of the group and it is therefore most protective of continuing collective institutions- family, community, caste, religion and country. It argues for respecting and furthering an Indian view of things, and for resisting the blind imposition of outside perspectives. In the Indian context, the conservative has had reason to feel excluded and ignored, given the dominance of the left-liberal discourse.
The right can be accused of having little interest in those at the margins and too much interest in perpetuating divisions of all kinds. It has the tendency to live in an imagined past, and to use it as a truth that cannot be challenged or argued with. It can come in the way of individual freedoms and the right that we desire of living the life of one’s choice. With fixed notions of good and bad, it can work visibly and vociferously to limit freedoms and tell us how to behave. It can abuse and intimidate, and exploit social fault lines to deepen divides. And yet, in its deep respect for the past and its recognition that India needs to look for its own truths, it represents a view that has relevance today.
Every ideological perspective is a way of imagining humanity and each can be critiqued both as precept and practice. But a reality like India’s needs the simultaneous use of many strands of thought, including those that are in apparent conflict. We need greater justice, we need economic growth to fuel greater prosperity, we need more real democratic structures, it is important that individual freedoms get protected and we do need a uniquely Indian way to solve our problems . It is only when these needs are imagined differently, when they are not seen to be in implacable opposition, that more nuanced, fluid and innovative answers will emerge. It would be natural to disagree, and do so spiritedly but there is a need to recognize that deep down, all sides have a valid reason to feel the way they do. Without suspending hostilities, and backing away from labels, this is not going to be possible. The problem is that today we find too much pleasure, too much meaning in the act of hating others. To be defined by who we hate is unfortunately the sign of the times.