One of the heartening features of any election is the interest in politics it generates among the uninitiated. In the past few weeks I have met young people from different professions (but mainly in the financial services sector) who have expressed an interest in the Right.
I am reproducing an article I wrote for The Pioneer (on or around May 14, 2007). I feel there are issues that remain relevant. The immediate context of the article was Sarkozy's victory in the French presidential elections:
In a recent interview to Tehelka on his new book on post-Independence Indian politics, Ram Guha mentioned in passing that whereas liberals and the Left play a meaningful role in the country’s intellectual and political discourse, the Right has been hamstrung by its close association with Hindu nationalism. Despite professing a degree of respect for the erstwhile Swatantra Party of C. Rajagopalachari, Guha went on to argue that the intervention of the Right would acquire greater currency if its adherents cease to be “spokesmen” for the BJP.
Without going into the merits or otherwise of Guha’s idealisation of party-less intellectuals, the larger issue of a void on the Right needs to be seriously addressed. It is a fact that the boundaries of so-called “respectable” discourse have been shaped by a Left-liberal consensus. This is particularly so on the vexed questions of nationhood and national identity—what is known as the “secularism” debate. Even before the Ram Janmabhoomi movement sharpened the polarisation between India’s intellectual establishment and Hindu assertion, there was a significant mismatch between the Right’s electoral and intellectual influence. The fierce resistance to Murli Manohar Joshi’s assault on the Left-wing bias in history and the social sciences and the same elite’s acquiescence before Arjun Singh’s “detoxification” campaign are indicative of the lack of equivocation.
After it first tasted power at the Centre in 1998, the BJP leadership went out of its way to acquire social respectability and shed its outlander status. Dispelling all fears of India being turned into a Hindu fascist sate, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government moulded itself as a conventional Right-of-centre regime. It tried to blend market economics with a foreign policy that incorporated the nationalism of French Gaullism and the realism of Henry Kissinger. In their own ways, both Vajpayee and L.K. Advani tried to forge the BJP as the party of the Indian establishment.
The results were awkward. First, the NDA Government relied excessively on a bureaucratic elite that was inherently conservative, cautious and non-political. Governance and politics was projected as purely managerial issues.
Secondly, as a political party the BJP steadily acquired all the negative characteristics of the pre-1969 Congress. Dispensing patronage and collecting funds somehow became the rationale of its existence—a habit explains many of its post-2004 convulsions. The mission of being a “party with a difference” was lost sight of. Throughout the NDA’s term in office policy issues ceased to be the preoccupation of the party. In retrospect it can be argued that one of the main reasons why “India Shining” failed to motivate the electorate was its insufficient internalisation by those who were meant to disseminate the message to the grassroots. No wonder there has been an abrupt U-turn in the BJP’s approach to economic and foreign policy in opposition.
Thirdly, the controlling stake of the RSS in the BJP was sought to be significantly diluted, leading to prolonged tensions in the Parivar and accusations of betrayal. These problems haven’t been fully resolved.
Looking back, the NDA Government’s tenure was marked by many missed opportunities. To my mind, two are particularly glaring. First, in focussing on the co-option of an establishment that had been nurtured by the Congress over five decades, the BJP lost sight of the need to craft a counter-establishment. The failure was not unique. In other countries too, first-time rulers have often been beguiled into equating the culture of obsequiousness (one of the perks of the job) with institutional endorsement. No wonder that in opposition the BJP finds itself reduced to playing mindless anti-incumbency games.
Secondly, in attempting to forge an elusive consensus, the BJP proved incapable of grasping the simple truth that compromises were being made by only one side. The BJP owed its spectacular growth after 1989 to its willingness to question the fundamentals of the great Nehruvian consensus. When it abandoned this combativeness for short-term respectability, it lost momentum. In the process, the project of evolving a robust, intellectually vibrant Right-wing tradition also fell by the wayside. Today, we have the unseemly spectacle of the party having to disown crass propaganda CDs and maintain a distance from the loony Hindu fringe which believes in playing the moral police.
The creation of a vibrant Right has never been easy for the simple reason that it is not dependant on the revealed wisdom of a Marx or Mao. Social institutions and custom, including religion, have been the bedrock on which political conservatism rests. Grafted to these is the historical memory of both the nation and individual communities. Modern conservatism is a considered blend of these—the process of incorporation and exclusion is never-ending—tailored to the imperatives of a modern, ordered society.
No Indian conservative movement is possible without a meaningful participation of the RSS. Apart from the Sangh’s commitment to the India’s inheritance, its relevance stems from its vast organisation and network. However, in insisting that the RSS must have a controlling interest in the BJP, the Sangh has introduced some needless exclusionary distortions. First, it has created a divide between those who are from the RSS and those who found Hindu nationalism by another route. Secondly, by its stated over-reliance on one tradition, the BJP has failed to inject the dynamism of other social, cultural and religious movements into its bloodstream. It is particularly significant that the BJP has (except in Gujarat) failed to grasp the opportunities arising from the new Hindu evangelical upsurge. There is more energy in the Hindu groups whose advocates give discourses on TV channels than there is in the institutions of sanatani Hinduism.
It must be emphasised that conservatism is not the only basis of today’s Right. The American and European experience—and the awesome victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in France is still fresh in our minds—clearly shows that to be effective social conservatism has to be tied to audacious prescriptions for political change. Issues of national identity are important but if their invocations become Pavlovian responses to every situation, the results can be drearily predictable.
Despite some electoral victories in recent months and a horrible debacle in Uttar Pradesh earlier this month, the BJP has been inflicted by a collective non-application of mind on issues related to economics, national security and India’s relation with the world. Against Sarkozy who has bravely taken on and demolished the pernicious Left-liberal stranglehold on France and David Cameron whose “cool”, compassionate and contemporary conservatism has begun yielding results, the BJP is overwhelmed with its awesome show of deficiencies. Many of its top leaders are colossal intellectual embarrassments and the party’s parliamentary conduct is often loutish with sloganeering being used as a substitute for arguments. .
The Indian Right still awaits its moment.
I would love any feedback.