Left-wing or Right-wing: Why labels simply don't capture India

“The natural rhythm of India is and has always been “Liberal Right wing”, was the motion for discussion at the Network18 Think India summit at which Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was the speaker. The six decades since Independence when the Nehruvian socialist leviathan state oppressed the Indian’s natural genius for free enterprise, were posited as an aberrant period in India’s long history of business, globalisation, small government and quest for individual freedom. All of these features define the “Liberal Right”. It was argued that the “Liberal Right (as opposed to the loony Right of the religious hotheads and terrorists) is an ideology naturally in tune with the Indian DNA, while the anti-business Left-wing ideology has always been a misfit in India.

The Liberal Right is defined by a commitment to a small state, belief in individual freedom, in a fiscally prudent government, a rejection of subsidies, rejection of special status for Jammu and Kashmir, and a commitment to a Uniform Civil Code.

There is a rightward lurch at the moment. The mood--at least among dominant sections of the intelligentsia, social media, students and thinkers--is that Left is bad and Right is good. The Leftist with his pro-subsidies, pro big government, minority-appeasing policies, human rights concerns and weak-kneed approach to law and order is seen as passe. Instead a Right-wing line of strong yet small state, Uniform Civil Code, Hindu-isation of the cultural landscape, and an unapologetic pro-business stance, is the need of the hour. The mood has shifted Rightward and “Left liberals” or “libtards” as they are called in social media, are seen as isolated, in an India swept by fervour for business, equal laws for all communities and rolling back the state.

 Left-wing or Right-wing: Why labels simply dont capture India

The RSS has a rather Leftist economic agenda. PTI

Yet can the rather restricting terms “Left” and “Right” really describe the diversity of the Indian experience? Can entire civilisations be characterised as Left or Right-wing, terms better suited for individuals than for countries as a whole? Surely the terms Left and Right which date from the French Revolution can hardly be used to describe realities that existed before the 18th century.

No doubt India’s socialist economy has now been widely acknowledged to be a disaster and the current anti-industry tirades seem to care nothing for wealth and job creation for the 250 million job-seekers set to enter the Indian workforce by 2030. But can the entire Indian complexity be pigeon-holed into a “Liberal Right” ideology? Are we mistaking aspiration for an urge towards the Right?

If Left and Right are the only intellectual categories by which we view India’s history, what are we to make of the anti-hierarchy movements of Tamil Nadu, the iconoclasm of the Bengal Renaissance, the Maharashtra social reform movements, the Bhakti movements, the religious reform movements of Buddhism and Jainism? After all, an essentially Right-wing conservative society, would not, at periodic intervals, seek to radically overturn the status quo through collective action.

India may have had a long history of global trade and the socialist state may not be part of our historical DNA, but iconoclasm, rebellion, collective action against caste oppression, spiritual revolts against religious oppression have been as much a part of India as the quest for free enterprise. The cry for Liberte egalite and fraternite has echoed in Indian history as much as the zeal for the free market.

And has Right-wing in India ever been liberal? Just as the Left in India has hardly ever been liberal with its doctrinaire hostility to free thinking, Right-wing forces in India have mostly been religious, dogmatic, majoritarian, anti-lower caste and pro Hindutva. Among the adherents of the Sangh Parivar—India’s cultural Right—the takers for Right-wing economics are in fact few. The Sangh’s economics are more Leftist than Right. Govindacharya, once an ideologue of the BJP, was described as “Hindu CPM” with his anti MNC, anti-big business, pro Hindu, pro- swadeshi views. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the CPM have a great deal in common in their economic outlook. That Manmohan Singh, a dyed-in-the-wool Nehruvian economist who grew up in the license permit era became the inaugurator of India’s Right wing economy, is in itself an illustration of the fact that Left and Right in India have always mixed and merged

For example, is BR Ambedkar a Rightist or a Leftist? He was a champion of individual freedom (which would make him part of the “Liberal Right” as given in our earlier definition) but he was also in favour of collective action against caste oppression. This would make him a believer in social collectivism, a believer in caste revolution and thus place him on the “Left”.

What about Gandhi? Was he Right or Left? Gandhi combined a pro free enterprise stance and a belief in business with a kind of personal bohemianism—rejection of conjugal rights in marriage, experiments with celibacy, ashram living et al—which would place him outside the pale of social conservatism and make him a personal radical. This means Gandhi straddled both a liberal Right view when it came to business but a Left view when it came to rejection of or certainly a questioning of social institutions like marriage, caste rituals, Untouchability and religious identity.

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were liberal rather than authoritarian and both believed in profound social transformation. How about Nehru, who in spite of his commitment to Leftist economics and the socialist state was also a believer in individual freedom when it came to politics? Nehru’s economics may fall in the Left camp but his politics falls in the Liberal Right camp, as per our definition of the term at the Think India event.

Today, is gender justice in India a Right-wing or a Left-wing cause? The feminist world straddles both silos where corporate women and NGOs, women of both Congress and BJP are co-operating to bring changes in legislation and attitudes. Kiran Majumdar Shaw MD of Bicon and Kavita Krishnan of AIPWA are united in their support to progressive legislation on women.

Is protecting the environment, a Left-wing or a Right-wing cause in India? Socially conservative groups like the temple trusts of Varanasi or sadhus of Uttarakhand are taking up this seemingly Left cause along with Medha Patkar and even an Arundhati Roy. Is the campaign for a Uniform Civil Code part of the agenda of the liberal Right? Or is it now a campaign in which Muslim women, feminist groups and civil groups have all joined, in pursuit of Gender Just Civil Code, making it also an agenda for the Left.
The definition of the political Right- wing in the rest of the world rests broadly on campaigns such as opposition to gay marriage, anti-migrant campaigns, Christian revivalist campaigns, anti-abortion campaigns, pro-gun lobby views, fiscal prudence, limiting government spending—this is the intellectual infrastructure of the traditional Right- wing.

Even the BJP isn't a right wing party. Reuters

Even the BJP isn't a right wing party. Reuters

But in India there is no such Right-wing party and no such monochromatic Right-wing view. Here small government and private enterprise co-exist with collective action, revolutions against social oppression and hierarchy. Broadly, the liberal and authoritarian traditions have been historically opposed to each other but chasing a binary opposition of Left and Right through the labyrinthine alleyways of India’s diversity may not be too fruitful.

The modern Indian is as much descended from modern Right-wing thought as she is from the Left. Pro-business, small government and fiscal prudence of the Swatantra party has shaped us as much as collective revolts against brahmanical oppression, freedom from feudal land laws, the struggle for a secular state and the struggle to secure modern legislation for women—all these are derived from Left or liberal led campaigns against religious and social fundamentalism of all kinds.

Where does a Right-wing person in India stand in terms of religion? Is he an upholder of religion and religious identity as a “proud Hindu” or a “proud Muslim” or does he question the oppressions that organized religion metes out to women on grounds of individual freedom? Where does a Right-wing person stand in relation to the morality police? Does he defend Operation Majnu as an assertion of bharatiyata where it’s against “Indian culture” for young boys and girls to kiss in public, or does he defend the right to public display of affection on grounds of modernity? If the BJP is a party of the economic Right why does it oppose FDI in retail? If the Congress is a party of the Nehruvian Left, why is it pushing economic reforms as best it can in the last few months of its existence in power?

Perhaps it’s best to accept that India—indeed no country or civilization-- is not inherently Right or inherently Left. Yes, for decades the socialist state played havoc with our economy, yes politicians have been timid about openly embracing business oriented policies. But to seek a change in anti-industry rhetoric by arguing that today’s children of liberalization are demanding the whole shebang of a Right-wing state and Right-wing social policies is, in my opinion, to ignore the inheritance of modern India.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor CNN-IBN. The Think India summit was organised by the Network18 Group. Firstpost is part of the Network18 Group.

Updated Date: Apr 24, 2013 10:11:27 IST



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