A mood of gloom

The transition led by right-wing has impinged a grim mood in economies which were cradles of western liberal philosophy

"The mood of much of the world is grim these days", wrote Lawrence Summers and Kishore Mahbubani in an article published in the Foreign Affairs in June 2016. The mood has turned grimmer ever since, with no end in sight of issues which turned it grim in the first place. Europe continued to remain chaotic with Britain's decision to exit the EU which saw the exit of two prime ministers without the separation being sealed. US-China trade conflict continues uninterrupted. GDP growth rate is slowing down in all major economies. A new conflict in the block arose in the form of sanction against Iran. US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan's hostility over India's domestic policies are adding further to the muddy global water. Turmoil seems to be the new normal with no end in sight.

How much of the mood slide leading to an unchecked pessimism is connected to the change in voting behaviour in large democracies? It is not an idle thought if one looks at the increasing expression of gloom with the electoral success of the right-wing. India is a case in point. The centres of intellectual power, mentions Swapan Dasgupta in his book "Awakening Bharat Mata", resting with academia and media looked at BJP and its ideas with pity of sorts at best and disgust usually. For them, the sudden electoral victory of Narendra Modi, that too with an absolute majority – a feat that eluded all other national leaders barring the three members of India's democratic royal Gandhi-Nehru family – was an unmitigated disaster. More so, since Modi was viewed as the most partisan among the members of BJP whom many would have loved to hold guilty for the Gujarat riot of 2002. Since then, gloom and doom is the most prominent flavour of the Indian narrative.

The question that nobody addresses is how will the future historians, that is future Romila Thapar and Ram Guha, et al., look back on the Modi rule from a vantage point of view of later generations, benefitting or suffering from the policy initiatives of today. How will they view the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code which is helping the banking sector to come out of the slow poison called bad debt? Or for that matter, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, a uniform indirect tax system for the country? Will the future Thapar still call these moves fascist while talking to citizens of a vibrant growing and rule-bound economy? Let the future unfold in due course while we focus on reasons for the gloom and doom sentiment.

The rise of the right-wing came at a time when there has been a social media boom. This has given voice to many who could not even think of commenting in public domain. The only access for them was letters to the editor columns in newspapers with the page editor being the deciding authority on the opinion of the common letter writer. Not anymore. Nobody is a holy cow in the liberalised opinion-peddling world. This has taken away the glamour quotient of the opinion-peddlers in public domain. The internet warriors or trolls come when least expected, to abuse a well narrated argument in the vilest possible term. Trolls are no more fictitious, but "arseholes" on the Internet looking for attention, said one irritated commentator. A large part of the bitterness arise out of such halfwits finding new freedom through their handheld in attacking the sane voices.

The pain gets compounded when one comes across arguments on why liberalism failed. Or when traditionalists counter the left and liberals calling their ideas as imposing values on others. The issue is more complex in India since the history here had flown on a course set after the western imperialism took over the reins of the country. Even if that course ignored evidence unearthed over the course of a river in ancient times or created a narrative that gets challenged by the modern scientific evidence, the change of narrative did not find favour with the dominant section of intelligentsia. Interestingly, the changed narrative received support from those who were also close to the new power that won elections. The evidence, therefore, took the back seat and old prejudice prevented a fresh look at the new evidence. This merely illustrates how dogmatism kills ideas which were one of the reasons why communism died eventually. Unless liberals learn from this mistake of their current allies (but erstwhile enemies), even liberalism will find it difficult to survive in the same form. Of course, an idea that has its foundation in freedom for one and all, cannot die and will survive despite the follies of the present-day champions of liberalism.

Coming back to the prevailing grim mood in countries which were cradles of western liberal philosophy, India is also passing through a period of transition. There are two parts to this. One, arguably the most critical, is that the government of the day is, rightly, busy changing the aberrations which cropped up in the system of governance. This happened due to two factors. First, the complacency of the people running the system arising largely out of narrow self-interest. And second, the unwillingness of the leadership and their advisors to disturb the system which was caught in a low-level socioeconomic equilibrium trap. The steps initiated are critical for the country and its future but at the same time, the long term beneficiaries of the past dispensation, who occupied the positions of thought leadership, found the changes distasteful. They emerged as the peddlers of grim tales. The second category taking umbrage and joining the doom and gloom brigade are the intellectuals who had been hitherto comfortable in the old socio-economic suboptimum position. For them, to think afresh, and that too led by people who had so far been rank outsiders, mostly objects of joke and derision, seems unpalatable. Predictably, they too have joined the doomsday narratives.

Will the grim mood get cured soon? Unlikely. The friction will force changes in the liberal philosophy. At the same time, the present-day reformers will eventually lose their lustre. This will create a new narrative which will perhaps be happier. We all look for that change.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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