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Friday, June 6, 2014

Chipping away: A 'right wing' bhadralok's ringside view of change

By Swapan Dasgupta

In last week's Spectator, Hugo Rifkind, a distinguished journalist in his own right but also the son of a more distinguished Scottish Conservative and former Foreign Secretary, spelt out the travails of having a politician as a parent. Apart from the usual pitfalls of reflected glory or infamy, Rifkind was also exposed to the bizrre predicament of his father being a Jew, a Scot and a Tory at the same time--a novel combination in a part of the United Kingdom where Margaret Thatcher was seen with about the same fondness as Mahmud of Ghazni was in Somnath. Rifkind recalled the experiences of his mother --who held a normal job in the state-run National Health Service--meeting friendly strangers who invariably began a conversation with the statutory disclaimer: "I don't agree with your politics, but..."

Throughout much of my adult life, indeed ever since I branched out into writing political columns and proffering my sharply-held positions on TV chat shows, my experiences have resembled that of Rifkind's mother. Family friends and strangers have occasionally complimented me for my willingness to describe a spade as a digging instrument. Others have flattered me for my unceasing willingness to see contemporary parallels from some long-forgotten event in history. But, inevitably, there is the obligatory postscipt: "Of course, I don't always agree with your conclusions." 

Of course you don't and on the rare occasions you do, there is the rider: "For a change, I agree with you." 

This is not to say that I don't have a modest fan following. But they tend to be the techies with a passionate interest in a political cause and those who intervene aggressively on twitter. Among my peer group and those who I meet on social occasions or those who are regulars at, say, the Jaipur Literary Festival, I am an oddity: the right -wing bhadralok. 

Needless to say, it was far worse in the 1990s. At that time, being perceived to be on the Right of the political spectrum was the equivalent of swearing by Catholicism in Elizabethan England. No one was burnt at the stake and no heads were lopped off. But short of being declared a non-person, the full weight of social and intellectual derision was heaped on you. 

You could, at a stretch, be permitted the luxury of advocating market economics and criticising India's socialistic pattern of development. But since the Swatantra Party had gone into voluntary liquidation in 1973, this was an indulgence the socialist Establishment conceded to those whose only expression of organised opposition lay in attending Nani Palkhivala's annual Budget sermons in Bombay and Calcutta. 

There was a well-defined Lakshman rekha you could not cross, not if you were engaged in the English language and the intellectual professions. You could be a Communist of any abstruse shade of your choosing. In Calcutta, for example, left-of-centre was the default position. And in Delhi, you could either be an Establishment leftie or even nurture a soft corner for the Naxalites. What was unacceptable in 'respectable' circles was to believe that the Bharatiya Janata Party was also a force for the good. That was tantamount to crossing all bounds of decency and tolerance. 

At a time when the BJP has won a convincing majority in the Lok Sabha with the resounding backing of the middle classes, it is difficult to imagine an India when it was plain bad form to be saffron. In the citadels of genteel existence, the BJP was not only the stupid party, it was also the nasty party. It was the party of the Hindi chauvinists, the Hindu bigots, the pan-chewing lalas who adultrated cooking oil and, above all, the rioters who would suddenly emerge from the woodwork in their khaki shorts. It was electorally marginal and aesthetically unsound. As a throwback to a grim past,  the BJP, it was made sufficiently clear to those who wanted to progress personally, was anathema to 'modern' India. 

It was also the butt of jokes. I distinctly recall a 'progressive' notable of Delhi University chuckling merrily over the difficulties faced by the Sanskrit department: most of their teachers had been packed off to jail for real or suspected RSS leanings. That was in July 1975, the first month of Indira Gandhi's Emergency to save India from 'fascist forces'. And he thought this was funny!

The jokes didn't cease in 1990 when the reality of Ram Janmabhoomi hit the intellectual classes. But they were now couched with a tinge of alarm. In October 1990, having observed the mass upsurge that accompanied L.K. Advani's Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra, I wrote in that Hindu nationalism had finally come of age and that Hindus could no longer be the objects of secularist condescension. It became a controversial article for one principal reason: it was written in English and published in Times of India. 

Rebuttals by concerned academics were entirely in order. What, however, was unanticipated was a letter by about a dozen prominent academics (mainly historians) suggesting that articles such this had no place in the mainstream media. The principles of free speech, they implied, didn't extend to those who violated the secular consensus. 

That I survived this secularist rage owed to two factors. First, by 1990, it was clear that there was no longer a united phalanx of English-knowing Indians willing to accept every tenet of secularist orthodoxy. A significant section of modern India was discovering the delights of being "political" Hindus. Clearly, the editorial classes could not be entirely unresponsive to this churning and certainly not after the 1991 election established the BJP as an alternative ideological pole.  

The second factor was, doubtless to say, class. A Hindi-medium type could be brushed aside with a show of intellectual arrogance but it was harder to completely disregard someone who had been to the 'right' school and college and was familiar with Anglophone social codes. Expediency demanded that the editorial class preserved a tiny corner for the 'right wing' oddity. Of course, I was not alone: the battle against the consensus also included the likes of the redoubtable Girilal Jain and the crusading Arun Shourie. 

From the 1990s to the election of 2014 has been an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Old and dear friends have been lost and new ones made. Personal hardships have been offset by the professional achievement of having detected a trend that others were either too cowardly or disingenuous to acknowledge. Politicians have been friended and unfriended and hitherto 'unfashionable' causes have moved from the political fringe to the centre-stage. But these are incidental details in the larger ferment India has witnessed in the past 25 years. 

As someone who had a ringside view of this political and intellectual transformation, I can readily admit that an electoral victory is only a small (and, perhaps, necessary) step in the larger battle for hegemony. The real relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru and, indeed, the Nehru-Gandhi family wasn't merely that they governed India since 1947. Far more important was their role in shaping a Nehruvian common sense. Narendra Modi has won a decisive political encounter. But his role in history will be determined on the strength of one of two possible outcomes: either as the force that destroyed a dynasty or as a harbinger of an India that began to think differently. 

I would like to think that chipping away at the old consensus at a time when it seemed Don Quixote-ish helped in the creation of something better. 

The Telegraph, June 6, 2014


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your article. Particularly, I got intrigued by your rather brief description of your journey as a right wing nuisance in a pool of highly educated left liberals. I wonder, some day you will write an elaborate version as book, or as a series of articles. Still, in 2014, Nehruvian consensus is so deep rooted, that just a month ago it was nearly impossible to even initiate a plausible Modi debate. They would reject you as a ludicrous hindu bigot who supports a party which will bring India to stone ages. I, being a right wing supporter, need to know the view from right side of 70's and 80's when majority of India was enamored by Nehruvian standpoint. There has been a deficit in right wing viewpoint in Indian history, and I believe it is time to fill it.

RS said...

A delightful article and what a charming characterization -“aesthetically unsound”.
I too hope India can move to a sort of W. European centre-right model.

As you rightly say, the economic right is more acceptable now, than in the 1990’s and hence there are more right leaning columnists, but may I say, without any hyperbole- your work is exceptional because your writing is often witty, charming, and is layered with weaving in history, contemporary idioms, expressions etc and much else.

We owe a great debt to you and some of your minuscule fellow travelers, who crafted this centre-right space in the media, at a considerable cost to your selves. This is a formidable task in India, as we are subservient to prevalent fashions, icons and dogmas, consequently media opportunities are also small for polemicists.

So many thanks Swapan babu.

anylvaz said...

Right on..

Anonymous said...

Mr Modi's role in history need not be just one of the two possibilities you suggest. It could easily be both!

Vivek Sanghi said...

One of the oft stated was " Are u a closet nikarwala" and then some ridicule about the salute and the attire.

It was difficult to be honest about ones beliefs, understanding and most important explaining why the Nehruvian thought was defective & further distorted by the neo-jholawalas & dadiwalas :-).
Kudos for the excellent piece.

Vivek Sanghi said...

and the comment " are you a closet nikarwala" followed by a ridicule of the dress, salute etc.

Loved it and related much to it.

Konark said...

It did, dada, it did. Thanks for persevering. Of course, of late, you have had Ashok for company

anylvaz said...

Right on ..

Anonymous said...

Sri.Narendra Modi would always be extolled as a Leader " as a harbinger of an India that began to think differently ".

That he also managed to destroy useless leftists , congress party and equally useless paid media is incidental.

Narendra Modi would also be praised as one who did not play communal and casteist politics.

Above all he is an excellent trouble shooter full of refreshing ideas. Whatever qualities we praise among the Westerners like committment , integrity, punctuality -we find in an Indian like Narendra Modi also. Hence he will be liked by the West also( read America).

As Anupam Kher said "he made me feel patriotic" with his "YES...WE CAN" conviction (not presumptuous swagger like Obama)resuscitated thoroughly demoralized Indians (read Hindus).

Anonymous said...

Another equally interesting and important aspect is Narendra Modi's dress. He has very good taste.

Mercifully we are spared the congress topis and bandhgalas or whatever you call them.

Above all his indomitable courage.
To make himself acceptable to all does not call himself an agnostic/atheist/ secularist...
Instead wears his heart on his sleeve.

Dr. M M said...

Interesting article. Only thing is that most of the mainstream media that ridiculed you are now singing praises of Modi.

So you were a pioneer.

kalyan chakravarthy said...

your english is simply, how should I put it, is your article. you have and you are serving the nation well by putting things in the right perspective.

Azzazin007 said...

Enjoyed reading this but I certainly would have liked a bigger article.

Priyanka said...

Being in the age group of twenties and the 1st prime minister whom I remember Atal Bihari vajpeyi of BJP, left ideologies seem so wrong and harmful to India. We simply don't understand intellectuals who justify all the wrongs of left to center parties. They seem old guards who are just not aware of the young sentiments in this globalized world.
Today youth is so much well informed that their anti BJP stance make them suspicious of their intellect and integrity.

You definitely deserve our appreciation for guiding and well informing us for an unbiased political thought and so you have a young brigade of followers :)

Jitendra Desai said...

"Right"!Though neither a young person nor a techie, I have been following you since so many years now.You are right about "Right" being orphaned after departure of Rajaji and Atalji getting in to Gandhian socialism mode in the eighties.One can imagine your predicaments while tackling those left tangles.You have come a long way sir!
PS: After UPA I was formed in 2004, Rahul Gandhi told a TV reporter that he and his friends thought "BJP was a joke" He must have picked it up from the circles described by you.Now the joke is on him.
Modi will be remembered for exposing and defeating the cabal that passed off as Nehruvian Congress.It was not.
Besides creating this mess, Left and the leftists also deprived us of our humour.Time to add fun to what we say, write and even do.

sayantani gupta said...

Mr Dasgupta, excellent article. Empathize totally. Like you I have an Anglophone Calcutta upbringing. But unlike you for a long time I held on to outdated views under pressure from Left Liberal peer groups. Till UPA 2 proved how deluded and out of touch with on the ground realities people like us were. Hats off to you Sir for seeing the truth a long time back.

kunshah76 said...

Had to comment on the emotion emanating from your blog which a thus far lonely Right ranger shares. I started my own blog 'Policket' just before the exit polls and the first piece I wrote titled 'The Right Decade', besides other things shared the same emotion. The link for the same is

kunshah said...

Share the emotion emanating from your blog. As I said in mine, it is redemption rather than ecstatsy

Shivangni said...

Have always wondered at your courage to speak out your mind in the face of obvious hostile, biased environment. When ms Kiran Bedi announced her support for Modiji, Arnab at times now ran it as headline as if she were out of her mind! Same when Gen. V K Singh shared stage with him, it was as if a crime had been committed.
Your article is thoroughly enjoyable for its refreshing style apart from putting everything in perspective.
Feels good to know that electorate made up its own mind, in-spite of court jesters masquerading as intelligentsia's best efforts

Anonymous said...

If you remember, in response to one of your tweets, I had said about the liberal opinion makers,that aske to kneel they will bend. That now is the situation. As you say yourself, every body is seeing reaso, method and logic in what Modi does.

Anonymous said...


There is no doubt that journalists such as yourself and Arun Shourie have played a key role in exposing the double standards of the left-dominated mainstream Indian media and in general its deep-rooted hatred for the Hindu religion.

While the poor journalistic standards of mainstream Indian media were always known, the fact that some so-called reputed publications such as The Economist and NY Times are no better was an eye-opener.

Hope history gives you the due credit for braving all the personal intellectuals attacks while fighting for true secularism and economic freedom.

- Pessimist

Arun Prakash said...

"I dont agree with your politics but" what a delightful piece!!!

Basudev said...

Thank God for such Bhadralok like you! You keep the flag flying for the dying breed of Bhadraloks in our dear Bengal!

Raghu Shetty said...

Kudos to Swapan. I have been following since 1977 and has become your fan . Continue your good work and we need more such people like you both in Print media and TV.
Raghu Shetty

vijayashankar metikurke said...

Nice piece of writing. I have been reading your write ups for a long time now.I wonder how a lotus dasgupta bloomed in the midst of sickle and hammer.

Neel Chatterjee said...

Swapan, wonderfully put.

I too shared many an anguished moment supporting the Jan Sangh and then the BJP. I still think that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Gandhis to give the BJP such a huge margin of victory in so short a time. Did not think that I would live to see the day when 'right-of-centre' would hold a majority in the lower house.

Sensible, but frustrated (up to now) CMs like Mr. Naveen Patnaik and Dr. Jayalalithaa will now get to fulfil the growth agenda in their states.

Subha said...

Kudos to you and other real journalists like Arun Shourie,and Tavleen Singh who have braved the onslaught of the leftist media all these years. In the last few years, social media has furthered your cause and has brought about a mini revolution.

sri said...

Swapan, you are THE voice of the 'Hindu' in India. Not the Hindu imagined by the pseudosics but the educated, nationalist, genuinely secular (read no pandering to anybody) Hindu. You kept our morale up in the dark days from the last two decades and it is nice to be able to see providence deliver us from the Dynasty in our own lifetime.

v.sriharsha said...

A great piece. Rightwing politics is not confined to India alone.It has been gaining ground in democratic countries like the Netherlands' Freedoom Party , France you have the National Front with open racist positions bagging 15%, only 1% less than Sarkozy and in the UK, the United Kingdom Independece Party (UKIP) made inroads into the traditional boroughs of both Conservatives and Labour.
Across Europe too, right-wing charismatic leaders like Geert Wilders of Netherlands and Heinz Christian Strache of Austria are cracking the extreme right whip rather in the same manner. Right-wing politics is unfortunately seen as retrograde and as a bad omen for democratic countries.
For over 60 years, the indians were fed with the Nehruvian conesnesus values and the Congress has only scared the voter by showing the darker sides of 'Hindutva' politics. The debate over secular and communal politics for over decades has not given any direction and purpose for India's growth. Modi had only underscored the futility of harping on those issues when the country has to look beyond these issues. Surely, Modi's developmental politics would silence those who still cling to rejected scare politics of communalism and attempts to divide society for the sake of votes.

Indian said...

"pan-chewing lalas who adultrated cooking oil"

Hilarious! :-D

truth_i_speak said...

Your high intellectual standards of thinking and equally high standards of English...just delight!
You can't believe you had done a great great job soothing our heart burns when we watched biased and pre-planned Leftist debates. you have nullified their attacks. Appreciated!

truth_i_speak said...

Superb intellectual show with proficient English!