Reporting January’s general election results, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper classified parties into four blocks: Arab parties, Centre-Left, Ultra-Orthodox and Right. Two of these, the first and the third, are religious categories, the other two are ideological.
If we were to classify Indian political parties how would we? Let’s explore this because there has come to be in India recently a class of public intellectuals who refer to themselves as being of the “Right”. Writer Swapan Dasgupta says: “The Right is an endangered community in India’s English-language media. I happen to be one of the few to have retained a precarious toehold in the mainstream media.” Right is not an Indian term. What does he mean by it?
To be of the Right in Europe and the US is to be conservative. What does the conservative seek to conserve? Tradition. Certain values. Which?
The modern American conservative movement is defined by the Catholic writer William Buckley. His thinking produced the breakthrough candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and consolidated the South for the Republicans.
In American politics, Right means supporting the following:
1) Low taxes
2) A strong military posture
3) Family values like marriage, opposition to abortion and to homosexuality
4) Free market capitalism
5) The death penalty
6) Organized religion, opposed to secularization of the state
7) Opposition to entitlements, social welfare
8) States’ rights.
Which Indian party would we associate these values with? Let’s quickly look at the record.
We are a nation of thieves who avoid paying tax anyway, so the first issue is immaterial. On the second, it is the Congress that partitioned Pakistan in 1971. It is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that surrendered at Kandahar, and helped give birth to Jaish-e-Muhammad. In any case, a nation most of whose people are poor, malnourished and illiterate should not be having Curzonian fantasies (Sheikhchalli na vichaar, as Gujaratis would say) of empire.
Next, BJP leaders—Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Narendra Modi—are often those who reject marriage and family. And it is the Congress that is shamefully waffling on homosexual rights in the courts.
Fourth, it is the BJP that resists foreign investment in retail. The Right’s economic ideologue, Deendayal Upadhyaya, in fact had a problem with capitalism itself and thought “there should be limits to the ownership of property” (Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, Ideology and Perception, Part IV, Integral Economic Policy). “These limits would be defined in terms of needs of the individuals and their society,” the commentary adds, a suspiciously unfree sentiment.
Fifth, the Congress’ Pranab Mukherjee is on a hanging spree, while the BJP’s A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was an abolitionist. Sixth, the BJP requires all members to sign a declaration that they “subscribe to the concept of a secular state and nation not based on religion”.
Seventh, the world’s largest entitlement and social welfare programme is the Congress’s MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act), true. But L.K. Advani praised it in the United Nations on 9 October saying that it “has helped break down social inequalities, empower rural people, build up rural infrastructure and revive economic growth”. Last, the encroachment of the Centre on states’ autonomy is a matter raised by all parties. It is the BJP that wants constitutional autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir eroded.
Something is clearly wrong in our classification if we think of the BJP as being Right. On the other hand, recent issues, such as renewable energy and conservation, reveal no evidence that the Congress is liberal. It has promoted coal mining aggressively through allocation of deposits.
Does this make the Congress our party of the Right? In a nation which adores kings, it is the Congress that has set up an autocratic dynasty, not the BJP.
The primary facet of Hinduism is caste. From Vivekananda downwards, the heroes of the Right have been dismissive of caste. They are reformist, not conservative. Vivekananda casually writes that some fishermen became Kshatriyas because wandering sages found them athletic and martial in spirit.
The man who defined the modern Right in India was The Times of India editor Girilal Jain. He provided the intellectual justification for the Babri Masjid’s vandals. In his book The Hindu Phenomenon, he explains violence against Muslims as coming from “the reintroduction of the Kshatriya element in the urban Hindu’s personality”, adding that “In my view, the second phase of the freedom struggle, the struggle to regain its Hindu identity, will involve a reconstitution of the fragmented Hindu personality along lines different from the pursued so far, so that the missing Kshatriya constituent of the old Hindu personality is restored.”
He means Hindus must become more aggressive with Indian Muslims.
And so here it is that we arrive at last at the true meaning of Right.
It means a Hindu who dislikes Muslims. All the rest of it can be compromised and has been, as we have seen, because it is unimportant. The core of the BJP and the Right is the desire to put Muslims in their place.
We can see it in the three issues that made and defined the BJP: The Ram temple (Muslims shouldn’t keep their mosque), Article 370 (Muslims shouldn’t keep their autonomy) and Uniform Civil Code (Muslims shouldn’t keep their personal law).
Right means bigot. This is why the great hero of the Right is Modi, the man who put Muslims in their place and is celebrated for doing so. The Right in India is not conservative. It is radical.
The prodigy Dhiren Bhagat defined his conservatism in The Contemporary Conservative in this fashion: “For the conservative the organic nature of society must be studied before change is contemplated; if the proposed change violates the organism of local institutions it is not a wise change, and cannot have the desired effect.”
This is an excellent formulation, which I accept. I think of myself as one of the few writers respectful of caste in the sense of culture, if not by way of hierarchy and division, which is the conservative’s approach.
On Karan Thapar’s show a few weeks ago, the BJP’s Chandan Mitra, who owns The Pioneer, dismissed my views as those of a “limo liberal”.
The limo bit is accurate, of course. It is liberal that I’m unsure of.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns