The Congress is trying to get onto the toleration bandwagon. Politically, this is entirely understandable. But in doing so, the Congress reveals just how impoverished its political and institutional imagination remains. It does not take even an iota of intelligence to indict the Congress on charges of hypocrisy. But even if, by some miracle, Indian democracy became less obsessed with hypocrisy and more with problem solving, the Congress would still have a problem on its hands. It is struggling to articulate a new language that can inspire credibility, even on an issue as purportedly morally clear cut as toleration. The party has the extraordinary ability to turn even good causes into timid political performances.
The first thing about its protest was its utter symbolic timidity. If you want to rise to an occasion of a national crisis,
you need to either mobilise a new symbolic power, or encase your arguments in a convincing new narrative. A short stroll down Lutyens’ Delhi to meet the president hardly evokes the image of a party that will be quick to draw swords on behalf of liberty. Quite the contrary, it evokes the image of a party still mired in an unthinking casualness. The writers’ protest, whether you agree with it or not, did at least revive and amplify a different symbolic repertoire. The Congress looked like a paltry follower.
One of the things the BJP government has got backwards is this: Undoubtedly, some writers and historians have political ties to the Congress. But many more are probably equally, if not more, sceptical of the Congress. The need to reinvent new repertoires of expression and protest has arisen largely out of a frustration that there is little hope of settled channels of politics, or even institutions (with the partial exception of the courts), being able to do the job of drawing the red lines that a society committed to freedom needs to draw. The challenge for the Congress is not just
the burden of its past misdeeds; it is that it gives no indication that it is willing to draw these red lines.
Part of the problem is that the Congress’s conception of toleration has become too metaphysical, rather than institutional.
What people are looking for is a new institutional articulation of freedom. Parties come and go. There will always be some people who spread the poison of hate.
But societies remain tolerant when institutions either do not curb freedom, or have the power to punish the intolerant. The Congress’s besetting sin is that it still does not grasp this.
It would have been nice, for instance, if the Congress publicly committed to an institutional charter of freedom. It is not a secret that the entire repertoire of laws and practices that have been used to curb freedom and dissent in India were active creations of the Congress party.
Would it have taken that much imagination for the Congress to now publicly commit to a manifesto that explicitly apologised for the creation of this apparatus, and committed itself to repealing it? There would then be substance to its reinvention. But the Congress is as afraid of coming clean on the question of freedom as the BJP is quick to exploit ambiguities on the issue.
In the current crisis of tolerance, a lot of different things are being mixed up. The critics of the government miss a trick when they present what is going on as a generalised repression of dissent. One of the silver linings has been the fact that thegovernment has been roundly roasted and criticised. This is not yet a generalised crisis of dissent, if by that we mean the ability to criticise the government. The specific issues are not captured by the term dissent.
These issues have a specific identity: The increasing use of poisonous speech and mendacious justifications by people in positions of high political authority, with what still seems like active approval of the top leadership. There is also still not adequate protection for events involving Pakistani artists in a place like Mumbai.
The second was a proliferating culture of bans, exemplified by the beef bans that gave the state inordinate powers to
interfere in the lives of citizens. Taken together, these two set in motion a pattern of subtle minority baiting. The third issue is the murder of rationalists like M.M. Kalburgi. Finally, there is also a battle between the forces of social conservatism and social liberation in all communities.
The problem for the Congress is this. On the general issue of freedom, it has no legs to stand on. It still seems to stand by every legal instrument governments can use.
Even Subramanian Swamy is more of a free speech radical on this than the Congress. On the issue of minorities, the Congress is still suffering from a trust deficit in states like Uttar Pradesh. The record of its own state governments on anti-terror arrests, lacking anti-discrimination oversight, has left it a timid champion of the assurance that no one in India will be targeted for being who they are on the ground of their ethnicity. Even on the beef issue, it spoke in forked tongues. Many of the attacks on rationalists happened under Congress regimes. And in terms of implications in local politics, whether it is the propensity to side with orthodox Lingayats in Karnataka (who still have books banned) or khap panchayats in Haryana, the Congress has never shown any courage of liberal conviction. It has politically often reinforced social orthodoxy — the single most insidious enemy of freedom.
The point is not to pick on the Congress as a way of establishing some kind of equivalence. The voters will judge whom they find a lesser evil. Nor is it to excuse, as this column made clear (‘The party and its poison’, The Indian Express, October 3), the government’s complicity in spreading the poison of hate. But the point is this: The crisis of freedom arises from social and institutional formations that go beyond pointing a finger at the BJP. The Congress hardly looks like the party to politically confront them. Partisans of freedom are still looking in vain for real political support. The real indictment of the Congress is not hypocrisy; it is that it is still a party that is a prisoner of the past, not the harbinger of the freedom of the future.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’
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