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Frequently – nay, always – does one read and hear discussions about right-wing politics and left-wing ideology in India, each being pit as the antithesis of the other. Countless hairs have been pulled in the quest to define the Indian Right, Hindutva, or whatever incarnation seems to be trending that day. Comparison to right-wing movements and leaders in foreign countries add an exotic flavour to this cacophony of generalisations. All the noise, however, is embarrassingly misguided for there is neither a Left nor a Right, as understood in the West, in India.

Coined to describe the accidental sitting arrangement in the French legislature after the Revolution, the Western political nomenclature of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ does not strictly apply to the Indian political landscape. Not only does the country have a different historical experience and political evolution but it is also at variance with Europe in its developmental trajectory. As a result, Left and Right are often highly misleading descriptors that find greater use as pejoratives than as meaningful categories. Closely examined, the division in Indian politics is perhaps better understood as between traditionalism and a modernity imported from the West. It goes without saying that there is a spectrum of thought within each of these groups.

So what are the politics of traditionalism and imported modernity? One site of conflict is culture. Traditionalists believe that India is a Hindu country with an undeniably Hindu past and one should not shy away from this fact. Acknowledging this does not make, ipso facto, India a majoritarian state. Modernists, however, wish to emphasise the plurality of Indian history and argue that a country as diverse as India can stay together only as a secular state. Traditionalists argue that secularism does not provide a level playing field between different belief systems as it does in the West. In fact, non-exclusive and non-proselytising systems such as Hinduism, Jainism, or Sikhism need to be protected against the predatory practices of faiths that are not so. The petty point that receives the most attention at the cost of missing this larger issue is whether the Congress Party, which has ruled India for over three quarters of the time the country has been independent, is genuinely secular or is a conniving player of vote bank politics. Many on the “Right” accept the modernist narrative of secularism as equality but accuse the Congress of minoritarianism, whereas traditionalists beg the question itself and prefer a localised modernity with an Indic soul.

A starker example of the failure of the Right/Left dichotomy in India can be found in economics. Conventional wisdom portrays the Left as socialistic or welfarist and populist while the Right remain the champions of capitalism, open markets and business. In India, the “right-wing” Bharatiya Janata Party has market-friendly economic thinkers like Arun Shourie and Subramanian Swamy and yet it also has Swaminathan Gurumurthy who is suspicious of the entire American financial model. In fact, some of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s views on community and economics mirrors Israeli kibbutzim of the early years far more than it does Wall Street. In between stands Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is not allergic to capitalism or the free market but is also reluctant to abandon the country’s public sector units. Interestingly, the BJP, in its earlier avatar as the Jana Sangh, had stronger positions against state interventions than in its current incarnation.

The same might be said of the “left-wing” Indian National Congress, that some of its younger members might have much more in common with Arun Shourie than their own leaders of yesteryear who advocated control over the commanding heights of the national economy. The Congress party has itself now advocated a mixed economy, building a middle path between state and private capitalism.

The other parties, such as they are, contribute just as generously to the confusion: Babasaheb Ambedkar was a strong votary of capitalism and free markets, but most of the parties which now worship Ambedkar would be reckoned to be broadly to the left of the political universe.

The marriage of the Right with welfarist economics, though rare, is not a new phenomenon. In Europe, Germany’s Bismarckian socialism and the Vatican’s Rerum novarum (and its three sequels), an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, are Western examples of a politics of tradition, nationalism, and welfare that are not identical but fairly similar to India today.

Another interesting variation on the international Left/Right political framework is the environment. It is difficult to pin down the BJP’s exact environmental policy as it has had very little time at the helm – it is easy to make speeches without accountability while sitting in Opposition. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently uttered repeatedly a concern for the environment. Some may indeed argue that the BJP’s actions do not match with Modi’s words but the net result remains to be seen. In terms of clean energy, both the Congress and the BJP are inclined favourably towards nuclear power; with the possible exception of France, worldwide, the Left has generally had its reservations on the matter. Similarly, the BJP is gung-ho on solar and wind energy which traditionally saw less support from the international Right – until recently.

It would be erroneous to conflate the traditionalist/imported modernity binary to regressive/progressive labels too. For example, it was India’s “progressive” first prime minister who introduced curbs on free speech and a “regressive” thinker like Vinayak Savarkar argued against untouchability and the caste system. Of course, these are singular examples but this mishmash of views is not uncommon and illustrates the care with which Indian politics much be approached.

None of this is to argue that India cannot learn from the West – it can and should without any shame or hesitation. However, it would not hurt to think through the political scene a little more carefully to make sure we are describing the reality of India and not the Republicans or the Labour Party. Perhaps then, India might start to make an iota more sense to observers.


This post appeared on FirstPost on March 23, 2015.

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