Should liberals relax when populists are democratically elected?

Eternal nervousness might well be the price of democracy

Rohit Pradhan usually has interesting things to say and minces no words. Especially on Friday evenings. As he inaugurated last weekend, he decided to take liberals to the cleaners.

“But of course democracy is awesome till it elects people I don’t like. Then I want to rescind democracy & elect the government by the elite.”[@Retributions]

Let me deliberately take this statement out of its context, to try and escape the hangover of the politics of the previous week.

In conditions of “business as usual”, Rohit would be right. Supporters of liberal politicians and parties sometimes do engage in the dubious sport of blaming democracy for their electoral reverses. It would be appropriate to call out such behaviour as self-serving and hypocritical.

However, sometimes the sourness of the grapes is an early sign of bitter poisonousness. Communists, Fascists, Populists and authoritarians-sans-ideology can use democratic process to acquire power, and then systematically undermine the institutions and values that enabled them to do so. Like burning the ladder after you’ve climbed it, there are many instances in world history where this has occurred (even without invoking Godwin’s Law). The fear of “one man, one vote, one time” can be ignored at our peril. This is neither an argument for excessive, unwarranted fear nor for disenfranchisement based on political ideologies. Rather, it is a case for greater vigilance.

In the introductory chapter of a new book on populism, Jan-Werner Muller argues populism is “an exclusionary form of identity politics (that) tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but irreducibly diverse citizens.” Read his essay in the London Review of Books.

Mr Pradhan ought to be kinder on those are scared by what they happening around the world.

What lies to the right of centre in India?

The cohabitation of traditionalists and market liberals

Ever since India’s 2009 general election, it has become fashionable for many politically-minded people in the country to style themselves as being “right of centre”, “centre-right” and other terms where “right” and something else is joined together with a hyphen.

It is clear what people who label themselves thus are against — the Congress party, and especially the family that constitutes its apex leadership. Mostly, they oppose its “appeasement” of minorities, especially Muslims. They oppose its propensity to create “entitlements” in the form of reservations, quotas, subsidies and special treatment. They oppose the cronyism in the economy and political corruption in governance. They oppose its pusillanimity in foreign policy. There are many more, but these strike me as the big ones.

It is less clear what they stand for. Many of our self-styled right-of-centrists are strident opponents of liberalism. Many have deep misgivings, if not outright opposition to markets and free trade. The most coherent “right” in India is the Hindu right, which is clear about its commitment to Hindu nationalism, broad or narrow. However, even the Hindu right does not have an economic agenda that is consistent with its political ideology: should the Hindu nation rely on individual liberty and free markets, or should it construct a strong state that draws lines on individual freedom and controls the levers of economic power? During and after the 2014 election campaign, market liberals and social illiberals found themselves in the same “right of centre” camp, often having to pretend to be each other in order to fit in.

This ideological confusion and political tension within the segment that calls itself right-of-centre in India comes because our political context and historical development is different from that of the West, where the Right and Left first came into existence. I’ve written about this in my Niti-Mandala post, constructing India’s political spectrum. I was reminded of it last week as I read Jonah Goldberg’s statement of the Conservative position in the United States: which connects tradition and markets and forms the basic worldview of the American Right that the Republicans used to champion before Donald Trump, er, shook things up.

As a Chestertonian at heart, I like and respect old things. I like it when stuff beats the law of averages for reasons we cannot easily fathom. The Hayekian in me thinks old things that last often do so for good reasons we just don’t — and sometimes can’t — know. Unfortunately, we live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how. [National Review, emphasis added]

The same argument would be self-contradicting in India: where there are inhuman inequities embedded in caste discrimination and social practices. You can either defend the traditional Indian social order or individual liberty (and markets and so on). You can’t defend both, because the former is constructed without regard to, and often in suppression of the latter. This explains the confusion and tension among our “right of centre” compatriots, who are at best, — to turn a phrase from a best-selling novelist — Half Right. No pun intended.

They can either be traditionalists who seek to defend the old order from social revolution, and therefore come into tension with the Constitution that demands it. Or they can be liberals who pursue individual liberty and free markets, and thereby come into tension with everyone else who opposes either individualism or markets or both. They can’t be both.

Logical consistency apart, the practical question is to what extent can the two Half Right constituencies come together in politics. Is the tension between them bridgeable? Well, that’s hard to say, but the side with greater political clout will force the other into submission. Market liberals are not driving policy in the Modi government today.

The arrangement will hold to the extent that their dislike for the Left outweighs their dislike for each other. If the Congress party sheds its baggage — and that’s a big, big if — or another party takes up its Centrist space, it is likely that the the more liberal of the liberal Half Right will gravitate towards it. Until that time, the liberal Half Right will cohabit with the traditionalist Half Right, because most who seek the security of an ideological label are likely to lack the courage and commitment to stand apart, because that means standing alone.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

A beacon of liberal nationalism
My freedom to introspect

We are like a lighthouse, a beacon of liberal nationalism. Freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution, but will be lost unless protected. We stand strongly for freedom of an individual along with economic freedom and belief in diversity.

We believe freedom should reflect in the way you do things, not just in the outcome. When you talk to people about nationalism, they often speak of borders, or integrity. As if national interest is a real estate game. Whereas, in a liberal democracy, the individual is the ultimate cause. In one of our earliest editorials for Pragati – The National Interest Review, we said, “We are a land of 1.2 billion minorities,” that is, every individual is like a minority.

Natan Sharansky, the Russian politician and human rights activist, once said, “Can someone within that society walk into the town square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views? If so, then that society is a free society. If not, it is a fear society.” We believe if we can go to a town square and simply announce what we want to eat, wear, read and nobody attacks us for it, then we are a free society.

Freedom is not necessarily going against the state, it is also about staying protected from communities and civil society. The Republic of India is the best way to achieve it and one that can protect the rights of the maximum number of people.

(Recorded by Suchi Bansal for India Today’s special Independence Day issue)

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

On Independence Day 201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004;

On Republic Day 2016, 20152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

Dogma, Reason and Democracy

To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma

Democracy is popular. Other than self-serving polemic promoted by authoritarian regimes or by dispossessed elite, it is rare to find anyone criticising democracy. For thoughtful people, democracy is, as that Churchill cliché goes, “the worst form of government except for all the others.” Yet some—perhaps even a lot of—scepticism is warranted in terms of democracy’s role in the long war between Dogma and Reason that has been in progress for much of human history.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that most—if not all—big political debates are essentially different forms of the fundamental conflict: should humans follow some form of dogma, or use knowledge, reason & critical reasoning in making decisions. What individuals do in their private lives is less of a concern. How they decide on public issues matters a lot more. Should slavery be banned? Should abortion be declared criminal? Should women be allowed to willingly immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands? Should cloning be allowed? Should we allow foreign direct investment in retail? Should voting rights belong to citizens or to all people living in the country? The most vexing questions of politics are essentially dogma vs reason, playing out in different contexts.

So what role does democracy play in this conflict? Do democratic states always tend to push the moral envelope towards greater reason? For instance, aren’t democracies more liberal than non-democracies? Perhaps yes. But this might merely be a temporary correlation: are they liberal because they are democracies, or democracies because they are liberal? We can’t say for sure, as there are other factors at play that might have made societies more liberal, democratic or both.

Bryan Caplan has a compelling argument on why democracies fail:

“In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality. An irrational voter does not hurt only himself. He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies. Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external—paid for by other people—why not indulge? If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.[The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies]

Mr Caplan’s argument is that people have systematic biases that, unlike random biases, do not cancel each other out. In other words, if biases towards colour of shirts were random in the electorate, then they would cancel each other out and no particular colour would be more likely to win. However, if people had a systematic bias towards purple even to a small degree, the electoral verdict is quite likely to go purple. (Read the book to understand more deeply how this happens)

This argument, in itself, is a powerful indictment of democracy. It explains why democratic governments choose policies that are bad for them. If we factor in “education” (in the sense of reasoning, critical thinking and open-mindedness) then democracies can amplify dogma, in extreme cases, into a vicious cycle where society surrenders to dogma.

Consider a democracy where a simple majority of the people have an unshakeable dogmatic belief that Everyone Must Wear Purple Shirts. The rest of the people have a shakeable belief in everything and make up their minds based on available facts. Since the facts do not point to any advantage of purple shirts, they disagree with the Dogmatists who insist on purple shirts. Let’s assume everyone votes. It is quite likely that the politician who runs on a “Wear Purple” ticket is likely to defeat her competitors. And once she acquires political power, depending on her political strength, she is likely to change public policies to promote the wearing of purple. She is likely to focus on the education system, introducing purple into the curriculum so that she has an inherent advantage against the Reasoning politicians. In the future, politics will be about the shade of purple that people must wear.

In this highly simplified example, Democracy worked, the majority got what they wanted, but Reason lost. The real world is more complex, but the fundamental argument remains valid. To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

Mr Caplan sees democracies failings as an argument for governments to let the market determine economic outcomes (his book consciously limits itself to economics). Given the risk democracy poses to Reason*, and therefore, to itself we should go further. The zeroth requirement is for democracies to be constrained by a republican constitution that affirms fundamental rights.

First, those who prefer a slightly more reasoning society than a slightly more dogmatic one must unequivocally defend freedom of speech and expression. Unpopular and dissenting voices must not only be tolerated but enjoy absolute protection. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted during a recent conversation on this topic, actors in ancient India enjoyed total freedom and protection for what they said on stage. Likewise, court jesters. Such freedoms are protected in many democracies, but your mileage varies depending on which democracy you are speaking out in. Freedom of speech and expression must be protected in law and in practice.

Second, those who believe minds should not surrender to dogma must hold up the freedom of education. This means that while the government can pursue uniform standards, syllabi and curricula in its role of delivering a public good, it should not be allowed to monopolise the curriculum. People should be free to start and send their children to schools of their choice, teach and learn curricula of their choice, with no interference by the government or self-appointed custodians of public values. If this means some parents send their children to religious schools, nature schools or witchcraft & wizardry schools, so be it. It would be a small price to pay in the defence of Reason.

Third, the separation of powers into the legislature, executive and judiciary is not only for the purpose of ensuring that no single entity is too powerful. It charges the judiciary with the duty to defend the constitution and dispense justice without reference to what is popular. Here again, your mileage varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time. In recent years we have had the US Supreme Court under John Roberts declaring it is not the job of the Supreme Court to “protect people from the consequences of their political decisions”. In India, while courts have been criticised for judicial activism and overreach, cases of judicial populism have received lesser attention. Trials by jury suffer from the defect that they subject questions of guilt and innocence to popular mores. This doesn’t mean trials by judges escapes the defect completely: judges are cut from the same cloth as jurors, and both from that of their compatriots. One way to reduce such risks might be for judges to come from other jurisdictions—rotate them more frequently across states, and bring in foreign judges from similar jurisdictions.

* Disclaimer: In a contest between Dogma and Reason, The Acorn stands on the side of the latter. Hence the implied value judgement.

Our problem is not spiritual but social

Rabindranath Tagore’s diagnosis of India’s problem

In this letter to a New York lawyer, Tagore accurately pinpoints the big problem—parochialism based on identity—and its unhappy consequences. It comes up again, in verse, in Where the Mind is Without Fear: “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls”. This letter was perhaps written around the same time (Gitanjali was published in 1912) and elaborates on the argument in high prose.

Letter to Myron H. Phelps (New York)
16 December 1911

In every age the spiritual ideal has found its highest expression in a few specially gifted individuals. Such are to be found in India even today, often in the most unlikely places—among the apparently sophisticated, as well as among the unlettered and outwardly uncultured—startling us with the wonderful depth of their spiritual perception and insight. I do not feel that India has lost her spiritual heritage, for it is clear to me that her highest thought and activity is still spiritual. In the old days, however, the simpler environment—the comparative freedom from so many diverse and conflicting interests—permitted of the easy permeation of this ideal, emanate though it did from a few isolated altitudes, through and through the lower strata—with the result that Truth was recognized and realized not only intellectually but also in the details of everyday life.

A distinguishing characteristic of this spiritual civilization, as I have explained in my former letter, was its inclusiveness, its all-comprehensiveness. Aliens were assimilated into the synthesis; their widely differing modes of thought and life and worship being given their due places in the scheme by a marvellous interpretative process. But while the evolution of the spirit thus proceeded upon highly complex lines, the growth of the material body went on in a simple unorganized fashion, so that the time arrived when the mesages of the spirit could no longer find their way unimpeded throughout, resulting in differences of spiritual intensity, and consequent compromises and aberrations in the character of its manifestations. That is why high thinking and degenerate living are seen side by side; ideals are converted into superstitions: and the finest of inspirations reduced to grossness in action, wherever the vitalizing spiritual stream is deprived of its freedom of onward movement.

The problem of India therefore does not seem to be that of re-establishing its lost ideals, but rather of reforming its overgrown body so as to harmonise with and give free and fitting expression to its ever-living soul. In other words our problem is not spiritual but social—that of reviving, by organizing and adapting to its more complex environment, our fast disintegrating social system. It is our disorganized society which prevents our ideas and activities from being broad, the narrower self from being merged into or sacrificed for the sake of the greater—and our national experiences are being dissipated and wasted for want of a storing and coordinating centre. The workings of the spirit are seen as flashes but cannot be utilised as a steady flame.

In the west the situation seems to bejust the opposite. There we see a highly organized body, as it were, of which the soul is dormant, or at least, not fully conscious. While our soul is in search of an adequate body for want of which it cannot give its inspirations effective shape, and succeeds only in displaying to the outside world various incongruities clothed in phantastic forms, we find the west deploring its lack of spirituality. But surely spirituality cannot be lacking where the larger self is finding such noble expression in comfort-scorning striving, in death-defying heroism. On what can this living for ideas be based if not on spirituality? As for the want of consciousness, does not that tend more and more to be remedied by the very activities to which so efficient an organism finds itself increasingly impelled?

It is only where life is petty and scattered, and society partitioned into mutually exclusive sects that the vision of the Great is lost—it is only there that the mental horizon becomes narrow, aspirations fail to soar high, and the spirit remains steeped in a perpetual despondency. Here and there some greater soul may succeed, like a cloud-topping peak, in rising into the serene atmosphere above; but the multitudes wallowing in the slough below are as devoid of material consolations as of clarity of spiritual perception, and an unmeaning repetition of ritual is the only lifelike response of which they seem capable.

If the spiritual genius of India is not to prove futile for the purposes of humanity then it needs must seek to acquire the art of body-building. May it not be possible, in that quest, to avail ourselves of the assistance of the West without treading that slippery path of imitation which leads only to self-destruction?

Source: The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: a miscellany (Sahitya Akademi, 1994)

Laws that don’t befit the Indian republic

Which outdated laws should we get rid of, and why?

The recent surge of opinions on whether India—a liberal, democratic republic—ought to retain the colonial-era crime of sedition on its rule books is a good opportunity to discuss the general topic.

Which of those laws, or crimes under the Indian Penal Code, according to you, must be repealed? Why?

(Note: Be brief—that’s the best guarantee that people will read you. Restrict your comment to 150 words or less, per law.)

Dissolve the rogue UN human rights council

Kill it before it does more damage

We’ve said it before. The UN Human Rights Council is more than a farce. It is a rogue outfit that is poisoning the whole pond and has gone beyond the ability of liberal democracies of the world to control.

Freedom House’s Paula Schriefer reminds us that it is still stalking our freedoms, but she doesn’t go far enough:

This week, member states of the United Nations will vote on what has become an annual resolution, “On Combating Defamation of Religions,” put forward by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 states with large Islamic populations. The resolution condemns what it calls “defamation of religions”—a vague notion that can perhaps best be described as a form of expression that offends another’s religious sensibilities—and urges countries to enact laws that prohibit such forms of expression. The resolutions are part of a larger and dangerous campaign to create a global blasphemy law to combat what Muslim leaders refer to as “Islamophobia.”

Yet hypocrisy in Europe and the United States does not justify attempts to bring governmental oversight into what constitutes offensive expression. Even with the best intentions, which are often lacking, governments should never be in the business of policing speech. The tools of defeating intolerance, including religious intolerance, start with a legislative environment that protects people’s fundamental political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws don’t work in any context and U.N. member states should reject them unconditionally. [NYT]

You can’t allow the hard won freedom that we have in India or in the United States to be snatched away by majority vote by a supra-national institution. The correct response is not so much to try and defeat the motion whenever it comes up—and it will come up again and again—but rather shut the whole thing down. No one will miss the demise of the UN Human Rights Council, except those who need it for purposes opposite to the reason it was was brought into existence.

Look who needs the Indian state!

So “mobile, independent republics” need the protection of a “corporate, Hindu, satellite state” Ha ha!

Others have written about Arundhati Roy’s latest, successful hijacking operation. Her cameo appearance in the service of the cause of Kashmiri Sunni Muslim separatism has transformed the debate from being about Jammu & Kashmir to being about freedom of speech (especially hers). So it is unclear whether the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani will invite her to speak at the next seminar they organise.

More seriously, while her remarks have backfired on the cause she ostensibly supports they have wildly succeeded in drawing attention to her—heck, even The Acorn is moved to write about her. But this post is not about her being more than just a rebellious self-promoting intellectual stuntperson. Nor is it about the wrongness of her angry opponents breaking her flower pots.

This post is about the vacuousness of her claims of personally seceding from India and declaring herself a “mobile, independent republic“. The problem with mobile, independent republics is that they don’t last more than as long as it takes to break a flower pot. For all her grandstanding against the Indian state, Ms Roy (well, her husband) “lodged a complaint at the Chanakyapuri police station, following which police personnel were deployed outside the residence.”

The mobile, independent republic couldn’t even protect itself. It (well, its husband) had no choice but to turn to the corrupt, human-rights-abusing, uniform-wearing personnel of “the corporate, Hindu, satellite state.”

But then, the mobile, independent republic has a case history of irony deficiency.

This incident tells you why Arundhati Roy is wrong at the most fundamental level. The Indian state might be imperfect, but presents the best way to protect the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. Its faults must be identified and publicised—not to build a case for its dissolution, but to organise efforts for its improvement.

The airman’s beard

Permitting beards, regulating lengths

Other than tradition, there is no good reason for a the Indian Air Force to impose a blanket ban on beards. Sikh officers in all three armed services and the police force are allowed to wear beards and turbans. Beard-keeping is a tradition in the Indian Navy, and naval officers are allowed to keep beards regardless of their religious persuasion. Now, if operational reasons demand it—say, it gets in the way—it makes sense to ask the concerned officers to trim or shave their beards off.

Just like the armed forces have a sensible policy on haircuts, uniform and other aspects of turnout, they could have the same for beards, mustaches, sideburns and eyebrows. It need not involve religion at all, as long as it involves common sense.

The airmen who are fighting to keep their beards on their jobs might be motivated by religion. But the decision to allow them to keep them need not.

An ISI chief and a liberal?

Not quite

In Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s now famous interview to Der Spiegel, he defends the Taliban’s right to "freedom of opinion" although the question itself related to Mullah Omar’s presence in Pakistan.

However, it is worth listening closely when the general explains why he too is unwilling to apprehend the Taliban leadership, even though many claim that Taliban leader Mullah Omar, for example, is in Quetta, a city where Pasha lived until a few years ago. "Shouldn’t they be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe that jihad is their obligation. Isn’t that freedom of opinion?" he asks, defending extremist rabble-rousers, who are sending more and more Koran school students to Afghanistan to fight in the war there. [Der Spiegel]

Now the ISI chief might have engaged in this sophistry to avoid answering the tough question regarding Mullah Omar’s current residential address. But it also shows that for all his sophistication and liberal pretensions, General Shuja Pasha’s doesn’t know what liberalism is about. He indulges in a common fallacy, or indeed a trick that illiberal types use: they forget (or are unaware) that even the standard bearers of liberalism argue that the one condition that constrains free speech is that it should cause no harm to others. Here’s old Mill:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. [John Stuart Mill/On Liberty]