The illiberal face of the liberals is seldom commented upon in India because if you do, the pack labels you as illiberal. That is their power.

Few Indians today remember Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the US. He broke US law by obstructing justice and was forced to resign in 1974, halfway through his second term.

But today, by common consent, he is regarded as one of the three most successful 20th century US Presidents. But at the time the liberals got after him — even before he had broken the law.

Only those who have been persecuted by liberals know that when they get after you, they become almost entirely illiberal. There is no one more dangerous than a liberal out on a fox hunt. Ask Indira Gandhi.

Indeed, the utter illiberality of the liberals is one of the greatest paradoxes of our time. Academics have pondered long and deep over it and failed to come up with a solution. They seem as helpless as when trying to explain the depravities of the deeply devout.

What happened to Nixon is very similar to what has been happening to Narendra Modi since 2002. In a nutshell, the American liberals had decided that Nixon was unfit to govern the US and went after him.

In exactly the same way, the urban Indian liberals have decided that Modi is unfit to govern India. And they have been going after him, prepared like the Americans in the 1970s, to accept incompetents instead.

Modi’s mulishness

I have spoken to Modi only twice in my life. The first time was when, after reading something I had written in November 2009 (, he called me up and spoke at length about his government’s achievements.

The second time was a year later. I was visiting my cousin in Ahmedabad and, taking up his invitation, I called on him.

Mainly, I wanted to find out why he was shying away from cultivating the liberals of Delhi. It seemed to me that exactly like Nixon, Modi too seemed to have an inferiority complex and that this was preventing him from engaging with the liberals.

He insisted he would not come to Delhi to meet them. Then let them come to Gujarat, I said.

Organise stay-over seminars twice a year in remote places from where they cannot run off. Spend a weekend with them. But just as Nixon didn’t budge, Modi too has remained adamant.

Nixon paid a heavy price for this obstinacy in terms of his reputation, just as Modi is paying. Nixon could do nothing right, just as Modi can’t.

Silence of the lambs

This illiberal face of the liberals is seldom commented upon in India because if you do, the pack labels you as illiberal. That is their power.

To see just how illiberal the liberals can be, you only have to compare Rajiv Gandhi’s first week in office in 1984, when the anti-Sikh riots took place, with the Gujarat riots of 2002. In four days, over 3,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindus. Rajiv’s government, till late on Day Four, simply stood by and watched.

In 1998, after Sonia Gandhi became Congress President, a slow ‘liberal’ whisper began in Delhi. It said it was on Home Minister Narasimha Rao’s advice that Rajiv had not called out the army on Day One. It is now the received wisdom amongst the liberals of Delhi.

The differences between Rajiv and Modi are many, including crucially of class. But as far as reputation is concerned, there has been only one deciding factor: While Rajiv engaged with the liberals, Modi, like Nixon, detests them.

It helped that Rajiv was from Delhi and Modi isn’t. He even got away with persecuting an old Muslim lady, Shah Bano. Nixon was also not from the Eastern establishment.

Liberal labels

So who is a liberal, then? A liberal, by my reckoning, is a person designated as a liberal by other liberals, usually on a single communal sub-criterion. As a result, the most liberal person can be labelled illiberal by liberals and the most illiberal as liberal.

For instance, as long as Arun Shourie was raging against Indira Gandhi’s governments, he was a liberal. But when he attacked Rajiv’s government, he was labelled illiberal. The irony was that Shourie had himself played this game in his time.

He sealed his fate when he wrote those three books about — and not against, as the liberals will have it — Ambedkar, fatwas and Christians respectively.

I know him well and it was not he who changed. It was the liberals who changed their minds about him.

It is in this sense of shifting definitions that one has to sympathise with Nixon’s and Modi’s approach to liberals. Their shifting goalposts for defining a liberal make the effort seem pointless.

But is it really?

Most Indian liberals are wannabes. They are anxious to ‘belong’ and see selective liberal-certified illiberalism as the entry ticket to a certain type of social acceptability.

Their numbers may be small but can potential leaders of countries afford to treat them with contempt? I don’t think so.

Modi has probably already left it a bit too late. But there may just be enough time for him to build some bridges to the liberals. If nothing else, it will help him overcome his complex and he can fight another day.

But that’s his problem. What worries me is that after Nixon, the US got two highly ineffective Presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Who will we get?

What? Who did you say? No! You can’t be serious!

(This article was published on February 10, 2013)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.