Given his provenance ~ his book, after all, is titled ‘What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea’ ~ it would be relatively easy for the administration and the BJP’s communication machine to dismiss and/or demonise James Traub as the archetypal Western liberal who is clueless about the Indic resurgence on the subcontinent.
They would be ill-advised to do so. For Traub, although his positions on the issues of the day are rooted very much in the knowledge claims of Western social sciences and he can fairly be described as a long-term resident of the left-liberal ecosystem which has romanticised the shambolic non-governance and rise of vicious identity politics in these parts over the decades in the name of democracy, is also an old India hand who has been reporting from and on the country from the days of the Emergency. Traub is a fine journalist with an inside track on the Joe Biden administration and what he has been hearing ~ as he writes in the latest issue of ‘Foreign Policy’ ~ ought to be of concern to New Delhi.
For President Biden is under pressure from within to ‘get tough on America’s friends’, especially those countries where the Democrats perceive there has been a marked democratic backsliding. And India heads that list. The fact that India is described as a “democracy in decline” in an influential journal, citing the recent crackdown on protesters and journalists in particular, and civil society in general, is not good news.
Even if one accepts New Delhi’s argument that such sweeping generalisations are an insult to India’s democratic vibrancy, values, and institutions, and conveniently elide the facts of particular cases whether relating to protestors, journalists or NGOs, it cannot be denied that Freedom House now ranks the country in 83rd place, at the very bottom of officially “free” states, and expresses the fear that the “values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi” could be getting “blurred”. Or that Reporters Without Borders ranks India 142nd on Press freedom – three slots below Myanmar.
New Delhi may well choose to hit back, and none of these organisations are free of bias. But just as it would have been a sober option to have ignored the tweets on farmers’ protests by international celebrities/influencers rather than mounting a clumsily orchestrated counter-campaign, it would make more sense to hear out these criticisms, course-correct where required, and ignore the noise for the rest. President Biden has been quick to denounce the recent goings-on in Myanmar, Russia, and China.
But how, as Traub asks, will an administration committed to restoring democracy at home and abroad deal with an “illiberal democracy” that is a rising power in Asia and a crucial counterweight to China?
The answer to that question may well lie in how the Indian establishment plays this going forward. New Delhi by all means should stick to its guns on the farm laws, abrogation of Article 370, the push for a uniform civil code, the Supreme Court mandated reconstruction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, and protecting individual liberty as well as fixing individual liability before the law. The sovereign domain in a democracy is non-negotiable. But we would do our cause no harm by being less abrasive and more open to conversations.