Not Hitting the Right Chord

The intellectual poverty of the Right has ushered in a situation where national life is now organised around the binaries of Hindu and Muslim, secular and religious

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In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Rajasthan decided that a Class 10 textbook would have an entire chapter devoted to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a key ideologue of the Hindutva world view. In this episode of the culture wars that have raged across a variety of social, political and educational contexts, Savarkar was granted the popular epithet ‘Veer’ (brave). He was, the chapter noted, a “brave revolutionary” who opposed the Partition and underwent imprisonment for his beliefs. He stood, it went on to say, in strident opposition to various political positions championed by Jawaharlal Nehru. Hagiography—whether it concerns Nehru, Gandhi or Savarakar—has been a fundamental aspect of what passes for educational activity in India, and the ‘re-evaluation’ of Savarakar’s role in national life was neither surprising nor unexpected.

In May 2019, it was reported that the Congress, which came to power in Rajasthan after defeating the BJP, had decided to revise the chapter on Savarkar, inserting material that referred to the fact that he asked for forgiveness from the British. It also removed the ‘Veer’ prefix. BJP leaders sought to counter the move by protesting that it amounted to an anti-Hindu strategy.

In the period after the general elections, where the “Hindu sentiments” are imagined to have carried the day for the BJP, this might well be thought to be an appealing line of argument. However, more importantly, the episode also illuminates the history of the so-called right wing in Indian political formation. I say so-called because we have never really had right wing thought as an aspect of modern Indian thought. We have only had a body of right-wing sentiments.

This means that while Indian liberalism—the usual counterpoint to the ideas of the Right—has an elaborate corpus that is given serious consideration around the world. Assertions of the right are usually judged as knee-jerk philosophy. In terms of gaining and exercising power, this may not matter much. For Indian elections are a witches’ brew of strategies of sentiments and we are swayed both by messianic appeal as by cargo-cult desires. Hence, right-wing political strategies derive largely—if not exclusively—from a civilisational characteristic: the politics of the ‘hurt-sentiment’. The retort to changing Savarkar from Veer to merely Vinayak is predictably on the grounds of these hurt sentiment. We receive no arguments whatsoever about the historical significance of his thought for contemporary political and social life.

Now, the history of sentiments is an important part of showing how social and cultural life is formed by all kinds of unpredictable and erratic actions. It usefully undermines the facade—maintained by both conservatives and liberals—that there are systematic grand theories of behaviour and change. However, sentiments as history is pretty much all that the Indian Right has offered as a philosophy of life. The effect of this is a poverty of thought unlike in many other parts of the world where conservative thinking has produced vigorous and weighty narratives on its view of life. The key aspect—failure, in fact—of this lies in the inability of the Indian right-wing thinking to be anything but religious thinking (and hence religious nationalism). The inability to produce serious right-wing philosophy—amplified by the size of the Hindu Right—has meant an intellectual stunting of this side of the political divide.

The national consequences of the almost exclusive focus on religion rather than, say, economic policy, institutional reform or urban policy have been disastrous. Historically, there has been very little—if at all—to distinguish the Right from its opponents as far as matters not relating to religion are concerned. And, that has been the key problem in terms of the lack of development of serious thinking in matters of state as well as personal life. So, if the Left opposed globalisation in the name of protecting national sovereignty, the Right could do no more than parrot the same argument through organisations such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. And, as far as “anti-state” activities are concerned, both the former UPA government and the-then opposition NDA spoke in one voice on the Salwa Judum operations designed to counter Maoist insurgency in Chhattisgarh.

Electoral politics and success do not, however, thrive on ideas of sameness and confluence. And the inability of the Right to develop a distinct voice on a vast range of issues that relate to public welfare, trade, finance, human rights, etc. has led it to concentrate on that most divisive of human inventions: religion. It is, in fact, the intellectual poverty of the Right—rather than strong powers of persuasion—that has ushered in a situation where national life is now organised around the binaries of Hindu and Muslim, and secular and religious. It is, in effect, the inability of the Right to excise the ghosts of Savarkar and Godse—men whose politics was expressed both through the vocabulary of righteousness and hurt sentiments—that have institutionalised the process of the majority appeasement. And this, in all societies, lies at the heart of social strife: for it is majoritarianism that requires interrogation regarding its claims to universality rather than its antithesis.

Why is it then that the Right in India has—unlike that in many countries of the West—failed to develop a body of thought that reflects upon the wide diversity of activities—beyond religion—that affects human affairs? For all their ills, why don’t we in India have, for example, the equivalent of the American neocons or the UK’s Thatcherites? These are political positions that have moved beyond the exclusive focus on an us-and-them religiosity and though Christianity might form an aspect of their positioning, the latter does not exclude those of other religions from joining.

There are, at least, two reasons for this. The first of these has to do with the Right’s consistent appeal to hierarchy rather than equality as the fundamental element of ‘Indian tradition’. That is to say, there has been historically an explicit emphasis on a variety of hierarchies as the ‘essential’ elements of Indian-ness. So, emphasis on hierarchies of gender, caste, knowledge (Vedic knowledge as against other varieties for example) and food habits (those with ‘unacceptable’ food habits have lower moral position) has been a consistent aspect of the Right’s discourse. What is remarkable, of course, is the fact of the deployment of the discourse of hierarchies in a context of a democratic polity. However, and this is crucial to understand, the discourse of hierarchies (Modi might be from a “lower caste” but he defers to the hierarchies of caste) is a way in which the Right has differentiated itself from its opponents: it is its way of talking about democracy with Indian characteristics.

Democracy (and modernity) with Indian characteristics has been the Right’s trump card. Hence, unlike the Left, it can claim to draw from Indian traditions to refashion modernity (and hence, democracy). It is not dictated by democracy—a Western import—but is able to dictate what kind of democracy India should have. This is a consistent theme through the writings and utterances of right-wing ideologues such as Savarkar, KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar. And herein lies the problem for the development of right-wing ideology in India: the clearest justification for the naturalness of hierarchy comes from religion. Abjectness is a fundamental aspect of genuine religious belief. Hence, the stymied nature of right-wing thought lies fundamentally in the attempt to foreground the naturalness of hierarchies. It has hobbled and circumscribed what is imagined as original and significant to Indian thought. It has reduced Indian conservative thought to an endless engagement with the Hindu past.

Secondly, and this is linked to the idea of democracy with Indian characteristics, ideologies of the Indian Right are almost invariably connected to specific figures—almost exclusively men—rather than forming a body of thought that can be separated from the fountainhead. So, whereas an Ayn Rand can be identified as taking inspiration from certain strands of conservative thought, the thoughts of Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar are almost invariably attributed to their charismatic personalities.

When we engage with the writings of Rand, we are led to an understanding of and reflection upon social and political conservatism. The cult of the father figure does not, on the other hand, allow us to think about the relationship between the past and the present.

Located in the cult of the father figure, the debilitating aspect of right-wing thought in India is that it is unable to put forward genuine alternatives to what it sees as strands hostile to its own position.

It must rely on the cult of personality as an alternative narrative. Of course, it is true that the cult of personality is not the sole preserve of the Right. However, the Indian Right is particularly marked by the fact that apart from personality-as-ideology, it has little else to draw upon. And if truth is a person, then how does one debate the truth?

While it is frequently argued that what we are witnessing is the rise of right-wing populist movements around the world; this is an inadequate way of understanding the history and appeal of events in this part of the world. What we are witnessing, in fact, are very Indian ways of being right wing where appeals to sentiments —as distinct from history— righteousness and the father figure are crucial to our present.

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