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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is there a Right space in Indian politics? (December 5, 2009)

Or, have the BJP’s successive electoral setbacks dashed hopes forever? Swapan Dasgupta searches for answers

Sir Julian Critchley, who served as a Conservative MP through the tenure of five British Prime Ministers without achieving anything remotely memorable, once narrated an incident in what used to be the Smoking Room of the House of Commons. Relaxing with a book after, presumably, a leisurely lunch, he was spotted by a party venerable. “Young man”, said the grandee sternly, “it does not do to appear clever: advancement in this man’s party is due entirely to alcoholic stupidity.”
For a long time, and this was certainly the case till Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged the “counter-establishment”, the Right was equated with stupidity. The Conservative Party, which governed Britain through most of the 20th century, was, for example, treated as the Stupid Party by the intelligentsia. Conservatives were seen as mindless defenders of privilege, unthinking status quo-ists—in short, caricatured versions of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits. Conservative women were likewise dismissed as tweedy, giggly Sloane Rangers who cared more about their horses and Labradors than public life.
The image of anti-intellectualism—such a contrast to the earnest, liberated, Left Bank intellectuals who dominated the Left—was, ironically, something the Right revelled in. Echoing (quite unwittingly) George Orwell’s observations on Englishness, Lord Hailsham, a man who occupied some of the highest posts in government, once wrote that “Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life, the simplest among them prefer fox hunting—the wisest, religion.” No wonder London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is such a darling of Tory party conferences. Despite his formidable scholastic achievements, Johnson has wilfully cultivated an endearing flippancy that distinguishes him from earnest busybodies.
As someone whose political attitudes originated, not in Harrow but further south, down the Finchley Road, in trendy Hampstead, Jawaharlal Nehru mirrored this frightful image of the Right. Transposed into the dust bowls of Hindustan, the Right meant the over-dressed occupants of the Chamber of Princes, it meant arrogant Brahminism, it meant compador capitalists lusting after knighthoods and it meant indolent zamindars and taluqdars who spent their countless leisure hours frolicking with nautch girls and impressing the local district magistrate. To Nehru, the Indian Right was invariably prefaced with another loaded term: reactionary.
Unlike the Left which could boast 57 varieties of doctrinaire nlightenment, the Right has always defied coherent definition. There were the Tories in the Anglo-Saxon mould that brought together land and industry in a framework of common sense; there were the Fascists who combined their loathing of the Reds with fearful xenophobia and authoritarianism; and, finally, there was what the philosopher Roger Scruton described as “a natural instinct in the unthinking man—to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born.” To add to this mixed bag, there emerged, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the economic Right which deified free enterprise, individualism and minimal government interference.
In the India of Nehru and his daughter, India had its share of all these different tendencies. The feudal spirit, marked by deference and noblesse oblige, outlived the abolition of zamindari and uneven land reforms; Hindu resistance to the secularisation of society and the pampering of minorities flowered in small towns, among the dispossessed from Pakistan and followers of Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar; and Nehru’s drive to enlarge government and the public sector to the detriment of private initiative encountered pockets of resistance from the notables of another era. Politically, the Right occupied fringe status. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was driven by the RSS but embraced other representatives of the cultural Right including the likes of Raghu Vira and R.C. Majumdar. It was ambivalent in its opposition to Nehruvian economics but was unambiguous in its pro-Hindi, anti-cow slaughter and anti-Pakistan thrust.
On its part, the Swatantra Party, founded by C.Rajagopalachari, was more akin to a traditional Conservative Party. It was unequivocal in its denunciation of Nehru “prosperophobia” and espousal of free enterprise. Its ranks included the glamorous Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, farmer’s leader N.G. Ranga, former ICS officials such as the legendary V.P. Menon and pillars of industry like Sir Homi Modi. Its fellow-travellers included constitutional lawyer Nani Palkhivala.
The Indian Right got a fillip in 1969 when the Congress split. The breakaway Congress(O), derisively dubbed the Syndicate, trained its guns on Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and her marked pro-Soviet tilt but, in essence, it encapsulated the urges of earlier pragmatists such as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad who had been thwarted by Nehru. In alliance with the Jan Sangh and Swatantra, the Congress(O) forged the Grand Alliance to take on Indira.
The enterprise proved an unmitigated disaster. Indira was able to paint the Grand Alliance as a front for the princes, the capitalists and Hindu communalists—hence the injection of “vested interests” into the political vocabulary. Her promise to eradicate poverty won the day handsomely.
The 1971 defeat was a body blow to the very idea of an Indian Right opposed to socialism. State-sponsored development and curbs on the private sector became the basis of a new political consensus. Even the Janata Party, made up of the earlier Grand Alliance plus a clutch of additional defectors from the Congress ranks, didn’t dare depart from this path when it won the referendum on the Emergency in 1977. In the three years it was in power, it persisted with Indira’s regressive populism.
The failure of the Indian Right in the 1970s owed to a multitude of factors. First, at the international level, socialism appeared as the idea of the future. The defeat of American power in Vietnam and Cambodia and the youth rebellion in the West rendered any critique of the Left singularly unattractive. Indeed, the debate now centred on which particular variety of socialism was most appealing. Secondly, the association of the Right with the defenders of archaic rights of the erstwhile maharajas, the opponents of nationalisation and discredited political bosses stood in sharp contrast to the youth power Indira unleashed. Finally, state-sponsored development and the continuous expansion of the public sector created a constituency of new beneficiaries and aroused expectations of more populist lollipops. Indira’s aggressive socialist evangelism transformed the mindset of a very large chunk of the electorate. A tradition of individual and community initiative was subsumed by a culture of entitlements: the state gave and the people received. For those with enterprise, cronyism was the only way forward. The creative impulses of India were channelled in what Dhirubhai Ambani used to describe as “managing the environment.”
There were two pockets of resistance to this assault on India’s self-respect. The beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, usually farmers belonging to intermediate castes, couldn’t reconcile themselves to the Congress’s patronage of those on the margins of society. They formed the backbone of opposition to the Congress in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Secondly, the trading community rued the overdose of bureaucratic controls and shortages. Since this section already constituted the social base of Hindu nationalism, an economic grievance was complemented by exasperation with ‘secular’ politics. The early-1980s witnessed an epidemic of communal riots in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These in turn fuelled the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the leading party of the Indian Right. This time, and unlike the post-1967 phase, the opposition was not centred on economics. Cultural and religious symbols constituted the new Left-Right faultlines.
The long road to the demolition of the “disputed structure” in Ayodhya established the BJP as the primary party of the Indian Right. However, although the battle against the Nehruvian consensus was fought over religio-cultural symbols, the conflict had a strong economic underpinning.
By the time India entered the 1990s, the socialist experiment had visibly faltered. The economy was stagnant and unable to counter crippling shortages and deprivation. The labyrinthine maze of controls and regulations became an instrument of rampant corruption and by the time the Chandra Shekhar government sent out an SOS to the IMF, India seemed precariously close to becoming another failed state. Internationally too the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union punctured illusions of a socialist utopia. India was faced with an existential dilemma and the Ayodhya movement encapsulated a growing anger and frustration with a bankrupt order. The Hindu rage was also a revolt against socialism.
The course correction undertaken by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh proved too late to save the Congress from electoral rout in 1996. Yet, the liberalisation of the economy undercut the steady drift to extreme religious polarisation. The BJP didn’t junk Hindutva but it complemented it with a market-friendly agenda that ended the sluggish Hindu rate of development. In a span of some 15 years India witnessed a capsuled surge in economic growth, a feat unmatched in at least three centuries. The dismantling of the iniquitous license-permit-quota raj and a hesitant acceptance of globalisation produced newer opportunities and enlarged the mental horizon of the middle classes. With the breakdown of the joint family system and the atomisation of urban society, many of the older assumptions governing politics started disappearing.
For the Indian Right, this transformation was momentous. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when the material base for the emergence of a non-statist model was lacking, 21st century has established the primacy of the private sector. High interest rates and punitive rates of personal taxation which deterred entrepreneurship under socialism are no longer viable in a country where the quest is for rapid growth and better standards of living.
Unfortunately, following two successive election defeats, the BJP has been engulfed by an unwarranted insularity. Rather than re-fashioning the party to take advantage of spectacular opportunities, it has abdicated the modernist agenda and fallen back on sectarian certitudes. Rather than allow pragmatic politics to determine its future course, the party has been hijacked by a small cabal whose understanding of contemporary realities is remarkably feeble. Any RSS takeover of the BJP is bad news for the Indian Right.
There is an emerging space for the Indian Right centred on the promotion of decentralisation, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, sustainable development, responsible environmentalism, gender equity, consumer rights and an overall culture of efficiency. The Congress has reinvented its paternalism in the guise of welfare—a wasteful endeavour that may drag India into a needless fiscal crisis; it has expanded the bureaucracy without making it more accountable and efficient; and it has lauded modernity without embracing meritocracy. The Congress has prospered electorally by preying on the sectarian vote banks which have viewed the Right as the proverbial Nasty Party.
The Indian Right has allowed the battle to be fought on terms set by the Congress. It must now redefine its political priorities to avail of an ever-expanding political space. The Swatantra Party failed because it was ahead of the times; the BJP may falter if it doesn’t move into the 21st century.

Times of India, The Crest Edition, December 5, 2009


Crest, December 5, 2009


Balaji said...

its entirely disappointing that at the end of a nice essay, you refrain from recommending the destruction of the BJP, to be replaced by a truly conservative party.

Indian Conservatism is an idea whose time has come. This generation or the next is not gonna put up with either Indira's socialism or RSS/BJP fascism.

Arun Italics said...

Alone, BJP will shrink further‏. It has become an easy target for its opponents. Plus its own destructive leadership makes things worse.

A new and young party is needed to complement the old BJP and to spread to all parts of India. Only when this happens are we gonna see expansion again.

socal said...

Lionel Trilling's (mis)characterization of conservative positions as "irritable mental gestures" comes to mind while reading Swapan above. Although even liberalism was in wilderness, and a pejorative term, in the good old USA before the advent of Obama. Conservatives are well ensconced in think-tanks and foundations in the US, but that still hasn't helped them shed their caricature as party of stupid, largely due to liberal domination among the media and university structure. What helped liberalism in US largely is cyclical luck regarding the economy and changed demographic arithmetic. What can help the conservatives is still not known. A changed image is definitely helping the right in UK. How that can be imitated in India is a question though. The right has to fight the twin disadvantage of the feel-good economy and the surging minority demographics. I doubt a mere redefinition of position will get the right anywhere in the near future except perhaps in few states.

zoomindianmedia said...

Time for Swatantara type Right is passe.

Hindu rate of growth and development as manifested by BJP in Gujarat is the way to go - An environment where rabid, medieval, totalitarian, intolerant, dogmatic and disruptive weltanschuangs such as isalm/xianity are kept on a tight leash and focus is on development with Hindu Dharma as basis. This is the best we can hope for in the short run and the closest we can come to what you may like to call Indian version of Right - "Right Sized Government - Maximum Goverance".

NaMo and to a lesser extent Manohar Parrikar have shown Indian Right centred on the promotion of decentralisation, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, sustainable development, responsible environmentalism, gender equity, consumer rights and an overall culture of efficiency plus keeping islamofascism/xian evangelism on tight leash (a necessary condition for growth which cant be wished away)

ABV, LKA and team lost the game by their confusion and inability to present sustained credibility.

Despite its known weaknesses, RSS with its stalwart Swayamsevaks like NaMo, Mohan Parrikar et al seem capable of nativizing governance, take the battle to corrupt congress I (islami-isai) camp, which with all its pretensions of equitable development, remains committed to keep natives tied to the auspices of equitable poverty.

RS said...

It was a pleasure to read “Is there a Right space in Indian politics” because it was eloquent and encapsulated the history of rightist movement in India lucidly.

While I agree with you that there is a vast space for articulating the economic right in India, I’m not so sure if Indian media or people by and large understand what the economic right means. Yes, the higher echelons of media especially business journalists will understand, but for a standard reporter or common citizen to understand why the centre-right platform is best for his good, is generally difficult to comprehend. Speaking to a vast number of people, including journalists I feel, that people simply do not understand how the light and facilitating hand of the govt benefits them. The exception to this is people in places like Gujarat, and non-Gujratis who have lived there for a while, but those are small, in terms of Lok sabha seats.
Speaking to people and also reading about India/Hindus from different authors such as Nirad Chaudhary, Naipaul , Sudhir Kakar, Ashis Nandy etc I’m convinced the Hindu mind is different to the Protestant mind (content of my earlier mails). Hence for the BJP to be an Indian version of the UK Tories , and articulate a sort of Tory position on the economic -right , will not be easily comphrehended by voters. The 2004 election is a case of the electorate not understanding the economic right platform. So the BJP has to think of very effective ways, perhaps employing ad agencies to communicate what it means to be on the economic right.

Also on a related note , since the RSS is adamant on its archaic Hindutva agenda, one possible way a to create a win-win for the RSS and BJP, could reinventing Hindutva by reforming it , something like the Brahmo Samaj. I don't know if its feasible or has been done, but a forward looking stand where the RSS says they are against the caste system etc, could possibly win urban votes. Also as I have put to you, the BJP could say it is a party which defends the wholesome aspects of Hinduism such as its globally respected aspects -yoga, ayurved/meditation etc.

Pranav said...

Swapan da,

The Congress is occupying the minoritarian-right space. The natural agenda of the BJP has to include protection against minoritarianism.

What did the BJP do to secure autonomy for temples, to remove illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh? Or against corruption? There was a feeble attempt to correct the distortions in the way history is taught, but it was done in such a ham-handed way, that it only ended up providing ammunition to the minoritarians.

Furthermore, the BJP made disastrous decisions like allowing foreign ownership in the media, and introducing riggable EVMs.

Under the Vajpayee-Advani duo, the BJP has seemed incapable of advancing the genuine interests of the people in a sane, non-violent way.

Even small time politicians like Jayalalitha have their own media strategy, but the BJP is content to get slapped around by Burkha and Sagarika 24x7.

Anonymous said...

Hai koi jawaab?

Anonymous said...

The people of India (a successful approximation of the liberal class) see the BJP as a British equivalent of the BNP and not the Conservatives
(albeit with a much larger support base).

This is because of a relatively large Centre and Left space.

Today the Indian Right has no meaning except for a few redundant promises.
Gujarat should have been their model for the ppl, but unfortunately for those hypocritical Delhi based liberals, Gujarat and it's inhabitants are untouchables.
I hope S.D. explains to us why the Right do well in Europe including the EU and the recent Switzerland minaret referendum.

aw said...

Hi Swapan,

Great article!

1. Please stop cursing the RSS for the BJP's troubles. You are beginning to sound like Sudheendra Kulkarni. If LKA really wants this party to outlast him then he should do the one thing I have not heard him do. Show that BJP leadership is accountable. After all replacing RSS with another coterie is not really a recipe for growth. To grow you need to aggregate others not lose the committed ones. In any event the only lasting solution is to set BJP on a path to being a modern party committed to a positive agenda by unrolling a roadmap of a responsible and an accountable leadership at every level of BJP. Arun Jaitley or Nitin Gadhkari or Manohar Parrikar is irrelevant if all are aware of how they will be judged. Prove your worth or make way for the next guy. Leaders should not be appointed but elected. Ordinary Indians will participate and bring fresh energy and ideas if they are given an opportunity to help. Currently politics has become the domicile of the rich - having samosa and tea in one Dalit house and sleep-over in the next Dalit house is impossible for vast and growing middle class who have to get up and rush to make a living. It is they who you need to attract.

2. BJP should be become a forum of competing ideas. After all what makes you and me so certain what BJP's economic philosophy should be. I am not certain Shivraj Singh or Vasundra Raje or Namo or Yeddy represent the same economic strain. In fact many in RSS have a distinctly left of centre economic view. Where they differ from the left is the cultural mooring. Show by example in the states that you govern how the BJP's model is better. Raman Singh is winning but not by espousing right of center economics but following welfare politics of the Congress.

3. Consistency of thought is as important as the thought itself. We cannot have a successful dis-investment philosophy in power followed by a disowning of that when out of power without any reason for the about turn. Elections cannot become the excuse to debunk any particular way of political behavior without proper analysis.

4. Conduct of office bearers of any political party is extremely important. BJP has to get its Integrity Quotient up a lot.



Sharan Sharma said...

> a market-friendly agenda that ended the sluggish Hindu rate of development

Humble request: can we please stop using the phrase "Hindu" rate of development/growth. Maybe "Nehru rate of growth" might be appropriate for that timeline?

Indian Nationalist said...

Swapan Das could be right about his criticism of RSS and how BJP must shift from its prehistoric agenda inorder to establish itself in the hearts and minds of the Indian populace.

But what kind of replacements is Swapan suggesting?. If it is Arun Jaitley then im sorry. We do not need another Corrupt "modern" person to rule a political party in India.

None of the so called Advani "Coterie" has any relevance or have any ideas to improve India. They are selfish bunch only waiting to have their pie like everyone else.

Narendra Modi probably looks to be the only "leader" who works for the people without caring for his "pie". But again he is tainted by his communal image.

If Narendra Modi is able to successfully transform himself into a true Secular man, then I am all for him for he becoming the PM of India.

Anonymous said...

All this talk of left right stuff is intellectual exercise. Good for filling columns.

Congress victory is nothing but coming back of the Nehru dynasty. Once the dynasty weakens and over time it will, there will be room for claimants.

What is right and what is left. BJP govts are distributing rice etc and 2-3 Rs for poor people. At the same time you could be tough on terror. So it is a vector of issues and one leans to different position on each issue.

Also, people should stop complaining about RSS interference in the BJP etc. People in the BJP who are complaining thus should go out and create a new party and prove their mettle.