Today, the Indian Right has a breathtaking opportunity that may not come its way again for a long time if it fluffs it. To seize that opportunity, the conservative Right and the liberal Right have to bury their differences and work together.
One and a half years after Narendra Modi became the head of India’s first unapologetically right-of-centre government, is there a rightist ecosystem beginning to develop in India? Could a broad coalition of different hues of liberal-conservative thinking be coming together into some kind of a right-wing rainbow?
Three years back, either scenario would have been unthinkable. Though right-left distinctions have become meaningless, broadly the “left” space was occupied by those who believed in some form of socialism (from the benign to the extreme variety), were social and cultural liberals and claimed they were “secular” (which only meant that they were against majoritarian communalism). They dominated the entire intellectual arena—the academia and the media—and manipulated the historical, cultural and economic narrative. Though their monopoly on the economic discourse was challenged (not very successfully) by the economic right—where is the liberal Economic and Political Weekly?—they still could drown out contrarian voices.
The non-left space was occupied by two broad groups. One was the classical liberals and libertarians—believing in free markets, individual freedom, minimal government interference, whether in the economy or in social and cultural matters.
The other was the conservative-nationalistic group, whose economic ideology was more mercantilist and protectionist, which was socially orthodox, chauvinistically nationalistic and unabashedly majoritarian. This is largely the Hindu right (strangely in India, Muslim and Christian fanatics sharing the same attributes as the Hindu fanatics are put in the left-liberal bucket) and many of those in this group are either active BJP supporters or voters.
The divisions between the two right-wing groups was watertight, each uncomfortable with, and wary, of the other. What they had in common was a discomfort with the left, for which they were both objects of derision. As a result, both groups were largely on the defensive, though there were some aggressive elements among them.
This is changing, making the two scenarios at the start of the article possible.
Certainly, being right-of-centre is no longer something to be apologetic about. This started happening well before May 2014, but has definitely picked up pace since then. Earlier, because of the electoral successes of the left-of-centre groups, both the liberal-right and the conservatives were jeered at for not resonating with the masses. That more or less ceased with the stupendous success of Modi in the 2014 election, riding on a liberal economic agenda focusing on inclusiveness as well as the work done by the sangh parivar foot soldiers.
There also appears to be a certain amount of fluidity among the two rightist groups now, a faint readiness to engage with each other to expand the space for a right-of-centre discourse, instead of wasting resources fighting the left coalition individually. Both groups see Modi’s ascent to power as an opportunity to break the stranglehold of the left on the intellectual space, with the liberal right focused on pushing its agenda of minimum government and further liberalization of the economy.
This was evident at the second India Ideas Conclave in mid-November organized by the India Foundation. The India Foundation is closely linked to the BJP (its governing board is overwhelmingly peopled by party leaders) and ideological fellow travellers do make up the bulk of the attendees. However, those who attended the first conclave last year noted that there was a larger participation from the liberal right this time around.
The theme of this year’s conclave was “Learnings from Civilizations”, and given that former RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav, a director at the Foundation, was one of the key organizers, one would have expected the conference to push a strong Hindu line. But barring one session on Rise of Radicalism, which focused only on Islamic radicalism, and another on the RSS and its cultural agenda, there was no overt Hindutva tone to the conference.
Writers Patrick French and Tavleen Singh did face some aggressiveness from the audience when the former was sympathetic to those returning their awards and the latter said the right did not have academic and intellectual heft, but there was no nastiness. By and large, there was acceptance of the fact that it was necessary to address the glaring lack in the right-wing intellectual space that Singh had pointed to. Yes, the issue of beef bans and provocative statements by BJP and RSS leaders were glossed over, but one can hardly expect a conference to criticize its own organizers.
What was also striking was that a significant number of young BJP members—urbane, westernized men and women in their twenties and early thirties—were more akin to the liberal right. These were not the right-wing goons and bullies that often make it to the headlines. They wanted Modi to remain focused on economic reforms and not to encourage the social and cultural bigots in the larger sangh parivar. They toed the party line as disciplined members but in private conversations, it was evident that they would not eventually evolve into Hindutva hardliners, though they were ever ready to take on and demolish Congress/leftist arguments. In fact, they were actually dispirited that the Modi government has not yet been very successful in changing the discourse that had been set by the left.
That lament was echoed at another conference, Liberalism in India: Past, Present and Future, on Delhi, a couple of days after the India Ideas Conclave concluded in Goa. This one had the liberal right discussing approaches to hot-button issues like reservations, religious and cultural freedom, welfare-ism, human rights versus security, how to make liberalism resonate with the masses and the like. Conversations on the sidelines focused on how to expand the space for the liberal point of view.
The establishment of right-wing think tanks (the India Foundation, the Vivekananda International Foundation, to name just two), the launch of an unapologetically ideological Swarajya in the media space, the fact that the rightist point of view is not only being articulated by more and more people but is also getting forums to air them, all shows that a fundamental shift in India’s intellectual landscape is taking place. The left hold on India’s mind is beginning to be prised open.
Unfortunately, the wariness between the two right-wing groups has not disappeared entirely.
The liberal right’s willingness to work along with the conservative right has been put under strain by the latter’s confrontational stance on social and cultural issues. Many who belong to this group are not comfortable with the constant glorification of the civilizational heritage that the Hindu right indulges in, especially when it is in the form of wild claims, unsubstantiated by any evidence, about ancient Indians having invented flying machines and nuclear bombs.
The traditionalist right, for its part, feels the liberal right is being opportunistic, using Modi to push its own economic agenda (which it does not agree with) and sees the liberals as a westernized elitist bunch, rejecting its cultural and civilizational roots, and with limited value. The social liberalism that the liberal right advocates is something the traditional right just cannot reconcile with.
Both groups need to get over this mutual distrust and realise that they need to work more closely with each other.
For this, the conservative right has to recognize that the liberal right alone will be able to bring the fence-sitters over to this side. Being contemptuous towards them is not going to work, especially when many of its own supporters are uncomfortable with social and cultural bigotry and intolerance, even as they defend it against leftist attacks. The majority of the youth—even those who are not from urban, western-educated backgrounds—value individual freedoms and reject oppressive social structures and hierarchies.
The appeal to cultural values has to be put in a more modern context. The liberal right does not deny the appeal or importance of cultural values; it just objects to a forced uniformity being imposed on the country. The conservative right must appreciate the fact that the liberal right condemns minority communalism as much as majoritarian communalism. More importantly, the liberal right is more articulate and can take on the left-seculars in debate far more cogently and coherently than the traditional right can.
The liberal right, for its part, also needs to stop turning up its nose at even the saner elements in the conservative right. It need not—indeed, should not—compromise on social and cultural tolerance, but there is no point in being snooty towards the glorification of India’s civilization by the conservative right. At the India Ideas Conclave, the three speakers at a session on Indic Economics were all from the liberal right—one of them was a Christian—and they quoted from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, and ancient and medieval Indian history to make a compelling case for minimum government, a liberal economic order and a tax payer-friendly tax system.
There are many lunatic claims, no doubt, but there are some genuine claims as well, which can be backed by scientific evidence and this distinction has to be kept in mind, instead of a wholesale rejection of all claims.
The left-secular ecosystem is a formidable one built over 60-odd years with State patronage. Forget dismantling it, even breaking its monopoly is not going to be an easy task. Discrete efforts by different groups will not provide that challenge. Moderate elements within the sangh parivar and BJP as well as the more pragmatic elements within the liberal right need to work together more closely than they are doing right now. The left-secular brigade co-opts anyone who is non-right into its broad coalition. A similar coalition of the right needs to emerge.
Today, the Indian right has a breathtaking opportunity that may not come its way again for a long time if it fluffs it. To seize that opportunity, the two hues of the right must form a right-wing rainbow.
They cannot afford not to.