Last week, one of my friends, a right-leaning businessman who also has a strong liberal streak, was complaining to me about what he viewed as the NDA government’s intrusion on the private space of individuals.
Then, he saw SC lawyer Prashant Bhushan’s tweet calling Lord Krishna an eve-teaser (Bhushan has since apologised for and deleted that tweet). This liberal, who is a Krishna devotee, lost his cool.
After a short assal Marathi rant, he said “I can’t fight for someone who insults my bhagwan! Gele khaddyat, mala kay? (Let them go to hell, what difference does it make to me?)“
And I said to myself – how many such people the Left is losing politically with this culture war?
Culture War Unleashed on Social Media
Surely you have seen this culture war on social media. Sometimes it is feminists calling Hindu gods misogynists, other times it is a scholar whitewashing the deeds of tyrants like Aurangzeb and Tipu.
Only the other day, we saw Congress leader Digvijaya Singh batting for abandoning the Devanagri script for the Roman while writing in Hindi.
Right, because Devanagari written in Hinglish is what ails the Congress party at the moment!
Challenge for the Liberal Left
To understand the hopeless nature of this culture war, we should acknowledge that it is far easier for people to change political affiliation than for them to change their belief system.
If you want proof, make a list of your acquaintances who changed their political affiliation at least once. Then make another list of your acquaintances who either changed their religion or became atheists. The second list will be significantly shorter than the first.
In the context of politics, when you are building support for a wounded movement, like the Left is trying at the moment, you would look at a common minimum agenda for people to agree upon.
This is already a challenge for the Left due to some of their positions (their sympathetic stand on violent separatist movements is one example). Why someone would exacerbate the situation by also challenging the cultural ethos is beyond me.
Will Criticism Add On to Anti-Incumbency?
Two fallouts of this culture war also make the case against it even stronger. One, with this culture war, it is very difficult to build an anti-incumbency sentiment in the minds of the voters.
After three years in power, the core supporters of this government should be doing a performance evaluation. Every time someone from the Left fires a salvo in this culture war, he/she is distracting a government supporter from this evaluation that could add on to anti-incumbency.
Culturally, too, there is also no doubt that with this war, the Left has played into the hands of the cultural right who can now rightfully position their own cultural war as a mere response to the aggressions from the other side.
The fact that those from the Left indulging in this war are not faceless trolls on Twitter, but respected historians and media persons, only lends more weight to the argument.
Befriending Aurangzeb Won’t Help Either!
American scholar Audrey Truschke’s book about Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is a classic example of the Left’s needless, distracting culture war. In her book, Truschke has argued that Aurangzeb was far from the religious bigot that he has been portrayed as in the Indian discourse. I am staying away from the morality of her argument and only focussing on the effect it has on the Left.
First of all, whitewashing Aurangzeb’s image is unlikely to win the Left any new friends outside the liberal cocktail circuits. On the other hand, it risks alienating groups like the Marathas, a large community in Maharashtra which reveres Chhatrapati Sambhaji (Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son, whom Aurangzeb executed in the most barbaric manner).
Ironically, the Marathas have never been particularly close to the political right, so they should be a natural ally for the Left. But is there an argument that would let the Left support Truschke’s claims about Aurangzeb, and still win over Marathas? I don’t think so.
Am I then asking the Left to curb their freedom of expression, and go along with the majority? Of course not.
Historians like Truschke can write what they wish. However, if the politicians wish to turn the tide politically, they need to have a laser-sharp focus on a few key issues, and whether Aurangzeb was justified in executing his political opponents in a gruesome manner, is simply not one of them.
Focus on Economic Issues
There is enough data available to indicate that in normal circumstances, people vote for economic issues far more than cultural issues. But only if they are not feeling that their culture and belief system is under attack.
In the last few years, elections after elections have also demonstrated that nothing unites people like the perception of a threat to their long-held belief system. The Left would do well to focus on economic issues and relegate its cultural warriors to the fringe of the discourse.
In the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, Morgan Freeman’s character tells us – “Boxing is an unnatural act, everything about boxing is backwards. Sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back.”
India’s liberal Left needs to ask itself if it can deliver better punches by taking a step back from its culture war.
(The writer is an investment professional, author and stand-up comedian. He can be reached @freentglty. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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