This week, I had a small role in a very interesting discussion, which included activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey as well as Carnatic singer and writer TM Krishna.
Roy and Dey are part of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a movement whose efforts gave India the Right to Information Act. Roy was also on the National Advisory Council of the previous government, under whose guidance India framed humane laws such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and the right to food and right to education Acts. I cannot remember another five-year term of a government in Indian history during which such terrific laws were legislated, which of course is the primary task of the administration.
At the end of the discussion, Roy was asked why she opposed only the Right Wing in India and not the Left Wing, which isolated the Centrists. In response, she said she had never been associated with any Left party. She then asked whether it was appropriate to tag as Leftists those who fought for the rights of the poor to food or education. The activist emphasised that these are basic human rights that should be available to all, and it need not offend anyone of any ideology when such rights are demanded.
She was absolutely right. What also interested me is that in the last few years, the terms 'Right' and 'right-winger' have emerged in India. We should continually examine what they mean in our context. In Europe, where the term emerged because of the seating arrangement in the French Parliament, and in the Unites States, where it became firmly defined, 'Right' in politics meant something quite specific — the movement to preserve social hierarchies and promote conservatism.
So what does 'Right' mean in the India context, and what do its supporters want?
To understand that, we must first understand the words 'liberal' and 'Left'. 'Left', too, comes from the seating arrangement in the French Parliament. Today, it refers to those who wish to see more socialism in the state, which means having the government deliver more state-owned services to citizens and having a general suspicion of private businesses. Being 'Leftist' also includes insistence on the state's championing of the poor — the working class and the peasantry.
The Left in India — and elsewhere in the world — defines itself with the word and has no objection to the tag. 'Liberal', too, is a universal term. A 'liberal' is defined as someone "willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one's own" and as someone "favourable to individual rights and freedoms". Again, liberals have no objection to being called so, and looking at the dictionary definition, it is easy to see why it is something one can aspire to be.
Now let us turn to the word 'Right', which is used in India to define the politics of only one the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is interesting that the BJP does not refer to its ideology as being Rightist or conservative, and this is true of its policies and agenda, as well. The Right in the US stands for specific issues — on social subjects, it stands for anti-gay rights and being anti-abortion; and on economic issues, it stands for lower taxes and is opposed to government participation in the market.
Can we see such a difference between 'Left' and 'Right' in India? The answer is no. The BJP is not opposed to either abortion or gay rights. In fact, it was the Congress government that first opposed gay rights in court and later reversed its position. Does the BJP stand for lower taxes? Again, this government has raised the tax burden on citizens. While I believe it was the right thing to do, the move is not associated with the 'Right'.
The other aspect to the term is conservatism of social order. In India, that means caste system. But the BJP neither promotes the continuation of the caste system, nor does our Constitution allow it. So we must agree that the BJP does not fall into the 'Right' category, nor do its policies conform broadly with what the world defines as 'Right'. The fact is that the BJP has a clear definition of its ideology, and it has a name: Hindutva. We should not use and confuse the word 'Right' to define Hindutva. Doing so blurs the issue because it gives the party attributes that it does not have and does not want.
The ideology of the BJP is aimed at a particular section of Indian society. This is not an accusation, but is how the BJP has framed it. It would benefit us if we were clear in our terminology when talking about it, regardless of whether we support it.
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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 10:34 AM