Listen to article
By B Shruti Rao
The faults in the moral compass of the political left will continue to reflect in election results.
Keywords: Morality | Elections | Society | Nationalism | Majority-Minority relations | Indian Conservatism
The 2014 and the 2019 Indian General Elections kicked off an unequivocal resurgence of conservative politics in India. These massive mandates, come as they may have on the back of governance track-records and a promising leadership, demonstrated that the social conservatism of the Indian populace had finally found commensurate political expression. And while this expression, or assertion, might have been relatively new, its existence isn’t. The socially conservative moral intuitions of the Indian people had been long ignored, and it was about time that they found their rightful place in the nation’s political discourse.
Political movements and parties are largely morally motivated, and political discourse is successful if it appeals to the sense of morality of citizens.
Consistently the left-leaning discourse has portrayed conservative moral messaging as mere emotional manipulation. It ignores the many interests served by the moral capital of norms, practices, institutions of religion and family values in strengthening the social fabric and facilitating social altruism. This obfuscation of the importance of certain moral values by the left, whether deliberate or accidental, has however come under much scrutiny in recent times. Professor Jonathan Haidt, who teaches psychology at New York University, has in fact argued that political movements and parties are largely morally motivated, and political discourse is successful if it appeals to the sense of morality of citizens. In other words, ‘voters’ motives are, in part, to improve society as they understand it’.
Moral foundations, that are ‘often surprisingly similar across different nations, religions, and political parties.’
In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Professor Haidt writes that there are certain culturally developed, pan-human moral foundations, that are ‘often surprisingly similar across different nations, religions, and political parties.’ Five of the most significant moral foundations that find a dominant place in the world’s many moral matrices are Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.
Based on these moral foundations Haidt makes the claim that socially conservative political parties, in the case of the US- the Republican Party, are able to cater to a broader set of moral intuitions of people, which translates into electoral gains for them. For instance, Haidt points out that the Democrats overwhelmingly emphasize on the moral foundations of care (for innocent victims of policies and practices), and fairness (social egalitarianism, minority rights, multiculturalism,) etc. on which Republicans have a say too. But Republicans have a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues), authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions) and Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality.
Constant negation of India’s cultural past and its ideological sovereignty, selective apathy for the long-practised traditions and customs of the people can sometimes be rightly perceived by the electorate as an affront to its wider moral interests.
Similar to this is the Indian case where left-liberal parties, which largely depend on external developments for their social and political cues, and find support often in urban, socially liberal and university-educated classes, have little patience for the majority belief systems rooted in the moral values of sanctity. Denial of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, exaggerated sympathy for a conqueror’s mosque, studied campaigns against innocuous religious customs of the majority while turning a blind eye towards the regressive practices of minority communities, have become all but synonymous with the idea of the political left in India.Conscious disregard for the central moral values of Authority and Sanctity, for traditional practices and institutions, like religion and family values that are as intuitive to civilized societies as the values of Care and Fairness has continued to reflect in abysmal poll results of the centre-left political parties in India. Constant negation of India’s cultural past and its ideological sovereignty, selective apathy for the long-practised traditions and customs of the people can sometimes be rightly perceived by the electorate as an affront to its wider moral interests.
Around the world, left-liberals are known for a greater focus on the foundations of Care and Fairness, which does promote the well-being of diverse sections of the society. However, if the masses begin to feel that certain sections are being served at their expense, they naturally rescind their support. One needs little imagination to see how in India the watershed 2014 and 2019 General Elections make a case in point. Observers and commentators have spoken on similar phenomena playing out across the world. Author and Journalist David Goodhart, wrote of Britain’s similar experience in his 2017 book The Road to Somewhere where rooted citizens (the somewheres) felt unwilling to support the housing, education, and welfare benefits of those they considered outsiders (the anywheres) in their society, and hence, lent their support to the Brexit campaign.
Dereliction of the ‘sacred duty’ of creating oneness in the society by the Democrats has led to immense polarization in the American electorate.
In the case of the United States, Professor Haidt writes that the Democrats while pursuing the two-foundation morality of Care and Fairness, have ignored the other parochial yet innate moral needs of the masses. After all, the US’ official motto is ‘In God, We Trust’ and the unofficial motto has remained ‘E Pluribus Unum’ i.e. Latin for from many, to one. Dereliction of the ‘sacred duty’ of creating oneness in the society by the Democrats has led to immense polarization in the American electorate. Similarly, the left of centre parties which claim to be the party of the pluribus or many, who celebrate diversity without assimilation, refuse a national culture and refer to themselves as citizens of the world, fail to engender a basic level of affinity among the people which is foundational in binding a society into a unum. The writing on the wall that has escaped the conscience of the left-liberals for long is that any society will always be naturally inclined to care for the members of its own group, over benefiting those it considers others. Liberals wishing away these intrinsic feelings, will, therefore, find little favour beyond their circles in elections now and for times to come.
The focus of the national political discourse today must shift from appeasement to integration of the minorities into the mainstream, recognition and celebration of the common cultural heritage, and embracing of divergent sections into a more inclusive nationalist fold.
Any socio-political landscape dominated with the political discourse of minority rights will inevitably give way to a sentiment of victimisation among the majority sections. Therefore, the focus of the national political discourse today must shift from appeasement to integration of the minorities into the mainstream, recognition and celebration of the common cultural heritage, and embracing of divergent sections into a more inclusive nationalist fold. These steps will prove to be indispensable in escaping the quagmire of identifying the other in one’s own people.
It is about time that the Indian left-liberals learn to heed to the conservative moral concerns of the Indian people who largely have never been shy of reforming illiberal practices and shedding away religious dogmas from their day to day lives. Even Professor Haidt, who began his academic career as a self-professed partisan liberal, developed his appreciation of social conventions, and moral ethos of conservative societies through his time in India. Without a doubt, if the political left in India aims for greater individual liberty, and social equality it must seek its answers in the moral intuitions of the masses.