I have two countries: the United States, where I am based, and, for the past 20 years, India, where much of my work has focused and where I spend a good deal of time. I often organize comparative U.S./India projects, and I’ve been fascinated by the divergent directions the two countries have taken during this period. In 2002, after the massacre of innocent Muslim civilians by the Hindu right in Gujarat, I decided to take some time off from my usual work on social and global justice to write about the state of democracy in India. It appeared that the 2004 elections might bring the Hindu right to power with an outright majority. I spent the year studying the history of the Hindu right, and published the book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, in 2007.
When, instead, 2004 brought a resounding defeat for the Hindu right, but also a painful defeat for liberals in my own nation, I turned my attention back to the United States, producing an account of religious pluralism there to complement my India book: Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality. More recently, my law school established a partnership with Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi to study the implementation of affirmative action in higher education in the two nations. And my university is in the process of setting up an institute in India that will pursue comparative interdisciplinary research. In general, I always clarify questions for myself by thinking them through comparatively. So that is how I feel I need to approach this question of liberalism in 2010.
Basically, what I see is the gradual though as yet tentative victory of genuinely liberal thought in India, though with many problems still; in the United States, the progress of liberalism is hampered by a mistrust of government and the legacy of Reagan-era policies.
There are many reasons to compare India and the United States. Both are countries that have adopted a political and aspirational, rather than an ethnocentric, definition of the nation and of belonging. Both combine a written constitution, including an explicit statement of fundamental rights, with a common-law tradition, and in both a supreme court plays an active role in defending fundamental rights through judicial review. Both contain religious tensions and large economic inequalities, and yet both aspire to a politics of equal respect and entitlement.
Last year’s elections in India brought the center-left Congress party to power for the first time in recent years with an outright majority, so that the party need not rely on the parties of the communist left, or other more quixotic coalition partners. This means that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can pursue unfettered his social-democratic liberal agenda, and policies such as his rural employment guarantee stand a chance of addressing rural poverty, one of the nation’s most chronic problems. In the United States, we too have an outright liberal majority, but it is assailed every day by opposition from a public mistrustful of government. Policies gradually dismantled during the Reagan era are difficult to reassemble, and any small achievement requires lifting a great weight. There have still been important accomplishments, but there is no denying that progress has been much more difficult than President Obama’s supporters anticipated.
That’s the general picture. Now I turn to three central issues: religion, education, and corruption. In both the United States and India, liberalism has been assailed for many years by the politics of a religious right that seeks to define nationhood along religious lines. These two movements are quite different. India’s is basically a type of ethnocentric nationalism; the religious right in America is ethnically inclusive and focused on belief. India’s Hindu right has long sought second-class status for Muslims and Christians, and it has not been reluctant to use violence (against Muslims in Gujarat and elsewhere, against Christians recently in Orissa) to achieve its ends. The American religious right is not violent, and it does not exactly seek second-class status for non-Christians. Yet any form of religious establishment can, potentially, create a type of status hierarchy. Fortunately, India’s path now seems resolutely turned against the politics of religious hierarchy. I am not so sure that the same is true of the United States, where pressure to think of our nation as essentially Christian seems to be growing. Both nations should take pride in the fact that they have traditionally defined national belonging in political and aspirational, rather than ethnocentric or religious, terms, and both should resolutely pursue a politics of fully equal respect for all citizens, whatever their religion or non-religion. It would be most helpful if Obama would insist more boldly that our nation is about equal respect for the non-religious as well as the religious, and if he himself would stop alluding to religious symbolism in key public statements.
Both nations have another common problem, which I fear is becoming more severe: a neglect of the humanities and liberal arts as essential ingredients of education. This issue is rarely mentioned as a crucial one for the future of liberalism, but actually I think it is the most crucial, because institutions and laws are only as stable as the minds and hearts of the people who make them. Pluralistic democracies cannot remain stable without an education that cultivates the humanity of their citizens, teaching skills of critical thinking, subtle imagining of difference, and knowledge of world history. India, unfortunately, began to neglect the humanities at the dawn of the nation itself. Nehru, with his urgent desire for economic uplift of the poor, tended to think of the humanities as elite frills, and he set the nation on a course of focusing on scientific and technical education, both in schools and universities. This narrowness has only increased with the growth of the Indian economy. Nor is science taught in a way that nourishes skills of argument and imagination: Rote learning and regurgitation rule the roost even in the most elite institutions of higher learning. The United States can take pride in a robust tradition of liberal education that has shaped both schools and universities for many generations. But there are many signs of decline. I fear that in this important matter Obama has been siding with those who call for more technical proficiency, without saying anything at all about the importance of the liberal arts, indeed of the type of education that produced him!
In terms of basic attitudes to government and law, there’s an irony: The people of the United States have immense mistrust of government, even though the governments we have, while not perfect, are reasonably competent and honest. India’s people are much more ready to support government intervention of many kinds–and yet government remains plagued by corruption and inefficiency. (A few randomly chosen examples: Roughly 20 percent of government school teachers do not show up to teach on any given day; income tax audits are routinely understood as invitations to bribery; a woman who has been raped will have to wait on average nine years before her case gets to court, because continuances are for sale, and when she gets there she is likely to find that crucial evidence has vanished in the interim.) India’s leaders need not only to pursue their commitment to plans such as a guarantee of rural employment; they also need to confront corruption and cronyism everywhere, including in their own ranks. Of course this danger is always present in the United States as well, and constant vigilance is required. On this issue, Singh, personally a most honorable individual, has not done enough, not yet.
I end on a hopeful note. For many years, India and the United States were relatively cut off from each other, thanks to Nehru’s policy of non-alignment during the Cold War and America’s misguided support for Pakistan (misguided both because India, a true democracy, was a more natural ally and because we didn’t do any good in Pakistan, failing to support education and other aspects of civil society that might have contributed to genuine democratization there). Now that silly mistrust has gone away, and a new era of friendship has begun, inaugurated by Bill Clinton’s imaginative and passionate engagements with Indian development issues. Let us hope that this partnership does not become merely a thin cooperation in the pursuit of economic gain and nuclear technology (as it seemed to be during the Bush Administration), but that, instead, it produces genuine mutual illumination on issues including education, affirmative action, religious pluralism, the rule of law, poverty, gender equality, and many others. The two nations have an immense amount to learn from each other, so let’s hope that the new era contains not posturing but real listening and the vulnerability that comes with genuine curiosity. American liberals sometimes suggest that we have only to teach like-minded people around the world, striving to create American-style civic standards in their countries. But good ideas flow in both directions, and our own problems can only be solved if we listen and learn.