Francis Fukuyama’s recent book Liberalism and its Discontents revives the debate over the relevance of the subject. Tracing its rise to the nineteenth century, he examines how it relapsed into neo-liberalism and caused polarisation in many liberal democracies. In India, a victorious BJP in 2014 revelled in deriding liberalism as the vain preoccupation of the Khan Market Gang or the Lutyens’ Delhi set. The latter phrase is derived from the elite central part of the nation’s capital run by the New Delhi Municipal Committee, and popularly known as Lutyens’ Delhi.
The custodian of liberal democracy after the Second World War has been the United States of America. Fukuyama writes that alongside the US, “Germany, France, Japan and India were all established democracies by the second half of the twentieth century, although some, like the United States and India, have been backsliding in the last few years”. It is important to understand why this regression is underway at a time when autocratic states, now led by China, are working to gain allies and followers around the globe.
The Ukraine War has exacerbated this standoff as China and Russia had already declared a “no limits” friendship days before Russia started its “special military operation” against Ukraine. Though China has not apparently transferred weapons to Russia, it has, besides India, kept Russian revenues buoyant by the purchase of oil and gas. In 100 days of war, Russia’s oil exports earned Moscow $98 billion. Also, after its initial setbacks, the Russian Army, having scaled back its war objectives to capture crucial territories in the south and east, has been grinding forward more successfully. Meanwhile, the United States and other Nato members are somewhat belatedly transferring state of the art artillery to match Russian superiority in that area. The French system Caesar takes 40 seconds to automatically load the first shot and then fire 10 in under a minute. The US High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) is also quick, very precise and with extended range. BAE’s Archer can lob four shells a minute and move before the first shot hits the target. Speed is of the essence to not allow the enemy to locate the gun and fire back.
But will that end the Ukraine war? The consensus is that it will not. If the aim is to deny Russia control over the entire Donbas region, then the war will persist. Perhaps no ceasefire will come till both sides are exhausted enough to seek it. But its global impact on the cost of food and energy is already evident. That is likely to impact politics in all democracies as the young people without jobs and the middle class which is facing a bleak future seek alternatives.
The democratic recession globally and retreat from liberalism cannot be ignored. Take Latin America, generally seen since the US expounded the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 as its exclusive zone of influence. Five Latin American nations boycotted the Summit of Americas in Los Angeles earlier this month, presided over by President Joe Biden.
China, on the other hand, is the dominant trading partner and investor in most of these nations, boosting their infrastructure development. The Economist magazine warns that this may lead to not only democracies degrading to dictatorships but Latin America delinking from the West. At the virtual Brics summit on June 23-24, China is trying to enlarge the group to include more middle powers like Argentina and Mexico.
Sounds like déja vu and the mid-20th century when a bipolar world saw the rise of the nonaligned movement. The difference is that the second pole now has China in the lead, with Russia playing the deputy’s role, and India has unsettled border issues with the former.
India’s concern is that while the external environment mutates as big powers wrestle for space and influence, there is also internal churn engendered by the BJP to alter the post-1947 constitutional compact. Fukuyama notes that while the big European powers were already nations before they became liberal democracies, the United States, and I would add India, were colonies and thus states before becoming nations. The US left the race issue unsettled when creating their union though the Constitution promised equality to all. In 1861, the American Civil War began to settle the issue. The victory of the anti-slavery North settled the principle though it was only in the 1960s that actual racial integration took place. But the consensus again fractured over immigration and globalisation, resulting in the victory of Donald Trump as President in 2016. The bulk of the Republican Party is still backing Trumpian lies, creating a fear that a recession-hit US may re-elect Mr Trump or a clone.
In Europe, France has seen President Emmanuel Macron losing support in the just-concluded parliamentary election. A left-of-centre coalition came second. But the right-wing nationalists gained seats by a factor of ten. England is still teetering after the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Boris Johnson. President Biden has had to relent and reach out to Saudi Arabia to seek cooperation to bring oil prices down. In this unsettled world, the BJP’s priority is to consolidate its hold over domestic politics and implement its retooling of the Indian nation.
Fukuyama quotes an example of Conservative British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who, against the wishes of his supporters, brought the Second Reform Bill in 1867 to widen the franchise. Fellow Conservatives called him a traitor but he laid the groundwork for the Conservative domination of British politics during the remainder of the 19th century. However, it is well recognised that “classic liberalism” is the most successful means to governing a diverse society.
Will Prime Minister Modi realise this and become the Disraeli of India? But striking sections out of children’s history books, renaming places and cities, bringing down Opposition governments. unleashing the investigative agencies on Opposition leaders, etc., are not signs of dealing sensibly with India’s diversity. It’s true that the Congress too ignored that recognition of diversity also meant factoring in the majority community’s devotion to religion and pride in their cultural traditions, including confronting the past. The 1947 Partition did not bring closure to a lingering hurt. A new balance has to be found within the confines of the Constitution to discuss and consign the past. Fukuyama recommends the Greek advice of “nothing in excess”, or moderation. Can the BJP do some “course correction” or will an Opposition voice emerge to lead India back to the original path? The next two years are critical for India, both at home and abroad.