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Friday, March 20, 2009

An Indian Right

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.


doubtinggaurav said...


I remember your article. In fact that article made me realize the possibility of institutions. In my opinion there are two sets of problems, one is allying intellectual conservatism with electoral popularity, second is breaking monopoly of liberal-secular establishment. For first Indians can learn from American Conservatism, for second we must create alternative institution for media as wells as academia. Easier said than done

doubtinggaurav said...

Kind of offtopic, most probably you are already aware of, but National Review is a good resource for American Conservatism.

Youths Love India said...

Dear Sir,

Since last week when I got the link of your blog, I am regular visitor.

Please write blog post as well as paste your column articles from different publication at this one place so that we can follow you blindly at this one place online.

Indian youths are dying to have right wing popular media, if possible on the scale of CNN IBN or NDTV.

The BJP, RSS and all right wingers should campaign for The Pioneer at every right wing person's door step.

Sundararaman said...

Any ideology left or right needs to have a segment which is away from power politics for it to survive. The left ideology is surviving in India because the left parties at least till a few years ago were far away from the main theatre of power politics except for a brief period in 1967-69. The right wing ideology is adhered only by the Sangh parivar in India (though Rajaji's Swatantra had shades of right wing in him but he was a maverick like the present day Subramaniam Swamy). Post 1998, Sangh has also been dragged into the central theatre of Power by BJP and its various factions. The moment the segment which is to articulate ideology is drawn to power the ideology loses its puritanism.In a way Ram Mandir movement has made the entire Sangh parivar into a single behemoth and this has robbed the BJP of its independence in Social issues while this has robbed the determination of the Sangh in its ideological issues.

Balaji said...


Nice post. But I don't agree with the following comment of yours.

// 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.//

We do have our own set of idols like Fredrick Von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Deenadayal Upadhyaya etc.

Oldtimer said...

Very insightful observations. I'd make the same points in a slightly different way: the BJP's singular failure has been in not using its stint in power to forge a class of middle class people who were not only committed to espousing the cause of the Right, but who also depended on espousing that cause for their own livelihood.

The Right has many intelligent and articulate supporters. They even outnumber the vocal advocates of the left. However, the supporters of the right are in professions like science, engineering, management and entrepreneurship. For these people, advancement of their political beliefs is an extracurricular activity, not a necessity directly linked to their day jobs.

For the legion of leftwingers in academia, media and the arts however, their professions are synonymous with their activism. This seems to be true world over, not just in India, though in India they had the advantage of the likes of Nehru and Nurul Hassan. There is a bit of the usual leftwing hypocrisy in this. The left, represented by non-productive classes, is facing off the productive ones who largely veer toward the right! That's some Marxism for you.

To summarize, the left's supporters are "professionals" with deep-rooted vested interests in sustaining the status quo. The defenders of the right are at best "hobbyists". The BJP/NDA regime failed to change this equation.

Dhruv said...

I think your article is being a bit harsh on BJP.
A party, which tasted power the first time, with little governance experience and that too with a bunch of coalition partners to balance between, they were hardly in any position to make any drastic change the establishment and culture, in just 5 yrs, which the Congress had created in its 60 yr of rule.
Imagine if there was no BJP, there would have been no outlet, no representation for the voice of a middle-class majority of the nation.

I am not sure what the textbook definition of Left and Right is, but in case of India, Left has nothing to do with anything intellectual. They are just a failed ideology; they can turn into goons (Nandigram) in an instant when challenged. They already are a mafia in Bengal. They can no way be associated with the anything ‘liberal’, as can be seen they way the treated the Kerala politician for praising Modi's development work, rather calling them intolerant bigot better suits them.

Left and Congress is just a manifestation of everything wrong with Indian society. Hypocrisy is in there, talk big things about equality and justice for all, but don't even treat your neighbour well, leave alone minorities. Spit and throw garbage on roads, turn your environment and rivers into sewer, encourage corruption and inefficiency everywhere, destroy public property, regular bandhs etc etc. No synch between kathni and karnee!!

India as a nation is built on hypocrisy, propagated by the types of Nehru and the Congress. Millions both Hindus and Muslims killed in partition because of inaction and mishandling in the part of the politicians of that time. If it was not for Patel, we could never have been one country.
We have a bulky but ineffective constitution. Which pillar is working: - The Government doesn't work, the Judiciary lesser said the better, Police, law-n-order and Bureaucracy is a joke, the Presidential layer is a pure waste of taxpayer money, regional parties remind of the old riyasats. To add Education system thanks to types of Romila Thapar has created a lot of confusion in the minds of the young, brainwashing them through the Nehruvian education policy ...

What should we be proud of and what should we be ashamed of? Even the Indian PM is not sure of it. The Indian PM apologises in front of Sarkozy, calling Orissa episode a national shame, while in the same press conference Sarkozy refuses to buzz on the turban issue. Recently an important Gurudwara in UK was burnt. We can't expect even in dreams for Brown to apologise for that and remember he is not in the right or left of things in his country, he is in the middle of things. A law-n-order situation is regarded as a national shame, in front of a foreign president, in a foreign country, by India's PM… Shame on him!! That itself states how confused we as a country are?

Check out the West whose Standards we seem to be following, what standards do they have in-house for domestic issues and how do they perceive things abroad!! Gordon Brown asked the nation to move on when Price Harry was accused of racism regarding an Asian military cadet episode, London's Mayor asked the country to do the same thing when Thatcher’s daughter was accused of racist comment regarding a Tennis player... and there was no outrage, as we could have expected in India, thanks to our stupid and confused media ……Their most popular tabloids Sun and Daily Mail spew venom even on tax-paying immigrants for no reason, everyday, and even a left leaning newspaper like Independent never dare to go against the white majority.
I hope Indian learns something from their former master, at least the good things!!

Bhavananda said...

Although I agree with the general concept of your post, there are two points where I disagree. First one has been pointed out by Balaji. I too believe we have our own inspirations from Vivekananda to Savarkar. The second reason too has been pointed out by Sundararaman, albeit in a slightly different way. I agree that to establish a permanent foothold in Indian society, the right-conservative movement has to have a segment away from power politics. This way, failure of right political leadership (something bound to happen in the time course of politics) will not wither away the conservative movement. This, I think is a key reason why left liberals in India and right conservatives in the US has survived as a movement irrespective of the performance of their political counterparts. However one point I would like to add is that these segments should not be mutually exclusive, rather they should support each other remaining detached. Unfortunately, in India the religious conservatives and the political right are miles apart (except say during Ram Janmabhoomi movement) and it has been a colossal failure of the conservative movement in India to adequately support each other.
I fully agree with you that without the RSS there is just no hope. What I additionally believe that the RSS should, in addition to supporting BJP, should also take great interest in cultivating apolitical support. There is some encouraging developments like the success of vanvasi kalyan ashram. Another encouraging trend is the dominance of right-conservatives among the educated, upward mobile "net-savvy" youngsters. They are the future of the nation, and we must to seize this opportunity to move ahead of the left-liberals. That way, the left can be the past and right could be the future of this country

venkatesh said...

Broadly agree with your post. I am not sure I would even qualify the BJP as right. They are in my view centrist and painted by the left to be the loony right. The biggest failure of the BJP has to tear apart the ridiclous nature of the 'secular' discourse in India.

The BJP used to be the right in 1992 not any more. This is what in my view is one of the reasons why the BJP as a party has declined. Moreover, I think the party does not have intellectual clarity on how to approach Islamists. it needs to indicate that it has no issues with muslims, but islam in itself is something that the party will fight. I dont think an ostrich like appraoch is not going to help anyone. the enemy is staring at our face. The real question is can we stand and stare him down?

I think for the BJP to come into power they need to reinvent hinduism version 2 and stop being apologetic.

NK said...

This is not exactly related with the topic but I want to highlight one thing. I disagree with anyone who portrays BJP as a Conservative party. I think this is a myth.

In India, educated class is generally more liberal class. There are more liberals in metros, other big cities than in villages and small towns. And it is the cities which are BJP's main base as opposed to the Congress' (casteist, socialist, pseudo-secular party).

Truth is Hinduism is a very liberal religion. It doesn't have any single Book, rather Books ranging from Vedas to Kama Sutra (you can take your pick!). If someone stands for the indigenous faith, it can't be labeled as conservative. We need to see what kind of indigenous culture does the party stands for. BJP needs to market this sense better that BJP roots for the indegenous culture rather than getting bogged down by imported definitions from abroad for Right, Left, Conservatives, Liberals etc. That way BJP can appeal better across entire spectrum of people.

A Doosra Perspective said...

BJP desperately need a channel through which it can propagate ideas.There is a need we should create a Hindu vote bank to counter the minority vote bank. Media is going over drive to tarnish the image of BJP.
I am Tamil Nadu,BJP has a bright chance to open its account and it has a huge base among the middle class. It is time to do a operation Lotus in TN to bring leaders from other parties.

ayush said...

The Indian right still awaits its time, and the single most important reason for this has been the deliberate attempt of our politicians to keep a majority of our country uneducated / undereducated over the last 62 years. The day these "Vote Banks" start understanding "Right" , "Left" and "Centre" , they will know what is right and wrong !

The educated Left is a miniscule minority in this country and there is a major campaign by our main stream media (for what ever reasons) to increase their tribe with very little success .

Anonymous said...

Dr. Dasgupta
The most interesting features of the Vajpayee government – the most successful minister’s were not dyed-in-the-wool pracharaks. Jaswant Singh (the architect of the Gaul-Kissinger type policy), Arun Shourie (who took the divestment agenda by the scruff of its neck) and BC Kandhuri (the great highways) were all BJP insiders but Sangh Parivar-outsiders. The problem is not so much that the right is with the party – the problem is that the party-parivar combine seems to have a limited intellectual tradition. Look at them loudly thumping their chest about the “Gujarat Model” without articulating its finer details. Mr. Modi has deftly used the bureaucracy to service the province’s business and agricultural sectors. However, in the mouths of the national leadership it has been transformed to a mere slogan. The “model” is not replicable; it is premised on the existence of a self-starter entrepreneurial class and cannot be applied to a state like Jharkhand, to take an example. But to hear the senior neta’s in the BJP say it, you would think it is a panacea for all of our democracy’s shortcomings.
I think what we need is the equivalent of a Heritage Foundation in the BJP– to provide the intellectual rigor to the right. In India it is no use to have an independent think tank – it has to be wedded to a populist political party. To put it rather bluntly – we need populist leaders to win elections and realist intellectuals to govern. We need to incentive the BJP to adopt that “model”

P.S - i just discovered your blog. More power to your pen ... errr. keyboard!

Ghost Writer said...

Dr. Dasgupta,

I have a solution for you to get around the multi-crore entry barrier. I have advocated elsewhere that what we need is not a nationalist channel but a no-noise channel - something like a C-SPAN in America.

simply produce programming on the cheap by recording events / seminars / conferences and re-broadcast them (subtly biased toward the conservative tradition of course). that way you fully bypass these loud and uncouth TV anchors. incidentally - when cable tv first started in northern india there was a problem of the local cable operator broadcasting pirated movies on a local channel that he controlled. it led to rotten Bollywood loosing revenue - but I wonder why that cannot be extended to public affairs programming. Why can't cable operators in Bangalore simply tape and broadcast this video on conversions instead of pirated American wrestling

Hat Tip: thanks to Sandeep of sandeepweb for recording the event and putting it out to youtube.

Doc - you know some of these MP's. Put a word into their ears. The cable company that delivers to your house has plenty of bandwidth for local, public affairs programming!

DJ said...

Some suggestions to make you think otherwise on the possibilities.


1.Media is migrating from TV to the Web bringing more opportunities than impediments in setting up a nationalist 'web' channel

2.Politics is just one spoke of the nationalist wheel of concerns.The channel can have classified avenues(sub-sites) to address the same.The 'web' channel mode is the best way to address non-linear issues.think of this in terms of USP.


1. making video bytes available in both HQ and dial-up compatible sizes still need huge advertising and marketing budget


1. Why not start with a web based channel that picks up the anti-nationalist logical and factual blunders done by media 'a day before' and publish the same.
this would help in:
a. reduced head count(as the investigation is based on an already produced story.the channel just has to expose the fallacies)
b. positioning the channel uniquely as a critical review stop-shop
c.warning media channels that untruth,un-professionalism and paid-to-bias doesn't pay.It may eventual become other media agencies catharsis pill.

hope you read the comment.

did i miss mentioning that the nationalist channel would not be headed anywhere in absence of acclaimed & candid voices like you

Rider on the Storm said...

Dear Sapan,

I know I am a little late in replying on this post. I just discovered your blog!

You hit the nail on the head when you speak about some of the colossal embarrassments that BJP wallahs have been in Parliament and in TV. It seems they have so much to talk about, but present very poor points of argument to counter people like Guha. There are so many books and sources of inspiration for the intellectual development of the Right, but no one seems to quote them or use them. For example Koenraad Elst, Sita Ram Goel, Ram Swarup, Francois Gautier etc are brilliant and articulate right of the centre writers.One look at Sita Ram Goel's books will demolish the BMAC argument once and for all. Also the media very conveniently does not invite people like Francois Gautier on their shows. They only invite the Javdekars, The Venkiah Naidus, and others who play into the trap set for them Even the audience who come to these shows are carefully picked to be Anti-BJP. The moment a real debate happens, the Left will be left intellectually vacuous. It's time, Sapan that people like you were part of a Think-Tank that is the fountainhead of the Intellectual Indian Right. As Shabana Azmi said in reaction to Bush's "Either You are With Us or you are with them" , I am neither with the Loony or Left Leaning Intellectually Vacuous citizenry (the Pink Chaddi Buddy types) nor the Pramod Muthalik Loony Fringe!

Rider on the Storm said...

And my sincere apologies for misspelling your name.

Swabhimaan said...

True, a section of the upward middle class goes with the Right, but there is also a section that is easily influenced by the media. If we want people to think differently, they also need to be taught to question things...and question not just the Right views but also the Left-Liberal views. The problem is that most of them are not exposed to the Right arguments. They haven't even heard of them...the only Right arguments they know about are those given by Shri Ram Sene. Lot of work needs to be done here post polls otherwise we will have people who say
we are voting for the Congress because we like Rahul baba or Priyanka's saris!