The myth that is the Indian liberal

Apparently, there is a battle raging between Indian liberals and orthodox forces. Unfortunately, much like unicorns and pink fairies, the Indian liberal is a myth

Charles Assisi

[By Yatheesh Gowda under Creative Commons]

There are two pillars on which all liberal and contemporary economic thought stands. 

1. If the facts change, I will change my mind. 

2. The markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. 

It is unclear who thought these up. Multiple attributions have been made to the economist John Keynes. But there is no evidence it emerged from either his mouth or pen. Be that as it may, the reason I bring these up is that these principles are useful ones. When deployed, they can help you figure out whether somebody is a liberal or a pretender.

That said, let me assert that when looked at from a dispassionate perch, I am hard-pressed to think of contemporary Indian liberals. And this once, I sincerely hope I am proven wrong.

This assertion comes on the back of multiple conversations with those who claim to represent liberal forces in India and their voices are all over. What I think utterly disconcerting is the inability on their part to engage with reality—or even consider the possibility of changing their minds when presented with evidence that runs counter to their narrative. 

Worse still, when challenged, their voices begin to sound as shrill and hollow as the ones they accuse of being shallow, dogmatic and loud. 

Is it safe then to assume there are no liberal voices in India? Is it possible instead to assume those that exist are liars, fear-mongers and hold dogmatic positions? 

Remember George Bush Jr in 2001? He of the “you are either with us or against us” fame. The man rode to power by peddling fear when evidence existed there was little to fear. It is ironic that if all of the evidence is to be stacked up, India, the world’s largest democracy, is a better place to live in than the US in terms of crime, which is apparently one of the last few bastions of free speech that many Indians aspire to be a part of and want to emulate.

So, what tree is the Indian liberal barking up? A more pertinent question: is there a creature called an Indian liberal? 

As I travel across the country with my colleague to engage with people of all kinds to make sense of what sounds like a fractured Indian narrative, it is a question playing on both our minds.

To put things into perspective, the current government was elected on the back of a premise. Those who voted for it insist its agenda is an inclusive one that ends minority appeasement. Those who didn’t vote for it call it a communal and divisive one. That is part of a democracy and it is perfectly acceptable to challenge an elected leader. That said, consider the ongoing debate around technology in the country.

It is turning out to be a contentious one. 

It is now apparent that the government has decided to deploy some programmes aggressively. Those who wield power assert it will increase efficiency. The opponents, many of whom claim to be liberals, argue the assertion and conclusions are misplaced. In any parliamentary democracy, an informed and robust debate must follow. Unfortunately, we the public do not hear it. What surrounds us is noise masquerading as debate both in Parliament and on TV screens.

I’ve taken a conscious call to ignore rabid nationalists; not for anything else, but because they’ve made their minds up. To drive their point home, this camp will harangue and scream. Do not wrestle with pigs, I maintain. The pigs enjoy it and you get dirty.

Instead, engage with sane minds. I made the mistake of assuming liberals are sane. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I must report that on engaging with most liberal voices that dominate the current discourse, all they can offer is an opinion that goes against the ruling coalition. But when questioned on the back of philosophical thought and facts, my colleague and I are still to come across anybody whose position has been able to stand up to scrutiny. 

When confronted with evidence from multiple fronts on the benefits of technology, the conversation degenerates from what was intended to be a philosophical one to a mud-slinging match—much of which is ill-informed, and along the rabid lines of those they oppose. It then enters a downward spiral, with attacks on individuals rather than on propositions. 

So, did our founding fathers err in framing the idea of India? Or is something the matter with public discourse in the country?

On the basis of compelling engagements with some fine minds, my colleague and I are veering around to believe liberal thought, in its truest sense, is difficult to cultivate in India. As to the question of why this is, there exist various hypotheses.

1. Among the first pointers came in the form of a brief discussion with Santosh Desai, a writer, social commentator and managing director of Future Brands. One of his many observations was that, as a thumb rule, many Indians are not individualistic creatures, but given “to follow the tribe”. 

By way of example, he suggested a thought experiment. How many successful people in the Indian venture capital ecosystem could we think of who did not possess a degree in engineering from one of the premier engineering colleges, followed by a degree in management? Damn right he was. Most of them were engineering grads who had taken the MBA route afterwards. Following which an engagement with an international private equity or venture capital firm is a given as well because their peers have taken that path. Entrepreneurship is rare and often a matter of serendipity.

Desai then suggested another thought experiment. How many successful people could we think of from Silicon Valley, and what do their backgrounds look like? We could see the point right away. Steve Anderson of Instagram fame has put in stints as a paperboy, dishwasher, jeans model, tour director and salesman before getting into the business. Peter Fenton of Twitter fame studied philosophy before doing his MBA and is a triathlete who has completed several “ironman” challenges and is a trained helicopter pilot. The list could go on and on. 

Desai had struck upon something. Why, indeed, don’t our best and brightest find their own paths? Why do they go with the pack instead? They talk of Steve Jobs as their icon, but would they consider a course in calligraphy or taking off to the Himalayas in search of nirvana like Jobs did in the prime of his youth? Is it possible that the idea of being individualistic is alien to Indian culture? And in philosophical terms, liberalism is closely associated with individuality—an idea that is embedded in Western philosophy.

As opposed to that, Indian society is one where the collective takes precedence over the individual. To that extent, for all our differences as a nation, there is no taking away or denying that the larger family takes precedence over the individual. There is much literature on this theme

From a cultural perspective then, Indian liberals have not earned their place in the sun yet. The idea is an alien one and is at conflict with the mind and society it is embedded in. There is much to be thought about here. The ability to converse in English and move around in urban India does not change what is embedded in the psyche.

2. Then there is the fact that anybody can form an opinion about pretty much everything. In an earlier dispatch, I have argued opinions are the lowest form of knowledge

A well-informed opinion requires much hard work and mental muscle. The legendary investor Charlie Munger had once said, “You’re not entitled to take a view, unless and until you can argue against that view better than the smartest guy who holds that opposite view. If you can argue better than the smartest person who holds the opposite view, that is when you are entitled to hold a certain view.”

This raises a question: how do you craft a well-formed opinion? Because it is only on the back of a strong hypothesis, can you craft an entity of stature and muscle in any domain. But there is much heavy lifting to be done before that. Here again, may I propose that the Indian liberal lacks the mental muscle? This manifests itself in various ways. Take the Indian IT services business for instance.

An entire industry was built on the back of a brainwave one man had. His name was FC Kohli, the founding CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and now recognised as the father of the Indian software industry. Early on in my journalistic career, he had taken a liking to me and would often invite me to his home where I’d have tea with his wife and him as the three of us stared at the sea from his apartment in South Mumbai. He’d reminisce about his early days on how the giant that is now TCS was built. He had spotted an opportunity and built upon it. He was a rare creature who had come up the hard way. The scars of Partition and the trauma of leaving what was his original home had taught him to be an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. 

Perhaps, that is why his mind could figure software talent could be cultivated in India and used to disrupt expensive human resources in the West. Soon after, many others mimicked what he did with minor tweaks. Others followed, many companies were built and it spawned an entire industry and eventually an ecosystem.

If parallels to the Indian software and IT services business were to be drawn from biology, think of this reptile called the Texas coral snake. It is venomous and its bite can kill any creature in a minute. It is mostly a nocturnal creature and feeds on other snakes and occasionally lizards. 

But there are a whole bunch of coral snakes that resemble the Texas coral and who are all non-venomous. They pretend to be the real thing and get to be on top of the pyramid as well. This phenomenon was discovered by the naturalist Henry Bates and zoologists describe it as “Batesian mimicry”. To their trained eyes though, they know how to recognise the real thing from the doofuses. It is only a matter of time before the fakes get caught out.

Why do you think the Indian IT industry is facing the kind of crisis it is now

It is much the same thing with liberals. There is only so much bull you can throw. 

3. Deep down, the Indian liberal knows it, but will not admit it. That they are not doers, only critics. It is pertinent then to deploy one of the finest passages of rhetoric against critics that passes judgement on liberals. Ironically, it traces its origins to an iconic speech by the conservative American President Theodore Roosevelt

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs; who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

That said, I remain an optimist. I believe my daughters will grow up in an India where the narrative will have changed. I say this because it rests on pillars built by men like BR Ambedkar, a man born as an untouchable in a nation that believed that even touching the likes of him could pollute the mind and body. 

He had the spunk to live through segregation and discrimination of an unimaginable kind, go on to earn doctorates in economics from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and come back to become the principal architect of the Indian Constitution that guarantees all of us in this country freedom of speech, life and liberty. 

And why could he do it? Because men like him had humility and vision at once. It compelled them to live the examined life and deploy the force of reason. They were liberals in the truest sense of the word. How their minds work cannot be summed up any better than the way the intellectual tour de force that is Richard Feynman did. 

“If we take everything into account—not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't know—then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel. 

“This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, and tossed out if necessary, with more new ideas brought in—a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the eighteenth century.”

[This is a mildly modified version of an article first published in Mint on Sunday under the slug Life Hacks, a column that appears every Sunday. This has been reproduced with permission.]

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R M on Jun 05, 2017 4:41 p.m. said

The two tenets that you mention at the beginning can hardly be called 'pillars of liberal economic thought'. They have nothing much to do with economic theory. Especially the second one, which is only about financial market speculation.

George W Bush did not ride to power by peddling fear. His election platform was largely domestic policy oriented, what his strategists called 'compassionate conservatism'. Then 9/11 happened, and his policies changed. You can argue about the results of the wars his administration started; but if you are a 'true liberal' (the type you say changes her mind when the facts change) you should also see the good things he did while in office. Like his backing of the world's fight against HIV, among others. It's possible the world would still be struggling with the HIV scare, if not for Bush Jr.

Academically bright Indian kids do not learn calligraphy or philosophy, or liberal arts in general, because there are no places in India where you can learn them well - and the academic standards are good enough to keep then engaged. Can you name a decent philosophy school in India, where the faculty is capable of holding the interest of a curious young mind?

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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