Three years ago to this day, it seemed like the alliance between the economic and cultural right in India would last and grow stronger. Three years on, it is all but broken.
Starting today, there will be a profusion of assessments across print, online and electronic media of Narendra Modi’s three-year record as prime minister. But 16 May 2014 was not just about Modi’s unexpectedly stupendous rise to power. It was also about a faint expectation that a right-wing eco-system, representing all shades of the right wing, could now develop in India. Three years on, that prospect has all but vanished.
Though right-centre-left labels are not very relevant anymore, right-wing here is a broad term covering liberals (which does not include socialists and communists) and libertarians as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party/Sangh Parivar loyalists. There are sub-categories like the economic right, cultural right, religious right, social liberals, social conservatives – and these are not watertight, mutually-exclusive compartments; people can belong to one or more of these categories.
There was a time when the idea of these two right-wing groups coming together was unthinkable. Their world views were completely different, both held the other in contempt, and the only thing they had in common was a distaste for the socialist-communist edifice and the desire to see the leftist domination over academia and intellectual discourse broken.
Modi provided a bridge between the two. Though there were some liberals who wanted to have no truck at all with him, the BJP or the larger Sangh Parivar, others were willing to set aside their reservations so long as Modi delivered on the economic right agenda and kept the conservative/hardline/fringe groups in check. Sections of the BJP-Sangh Parivar loyalists were also willing to engage with the liberal right, more out of recognition that the fight against the leftist cabal needed a combined effort.
The two groups did work together in a loose fashion in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Modi’s ascent to power saw them coming closer. Large sections of the liberal right didn’t hesitate to call out the hypocritical and selective outrage of the Modi-hating liberals (MoHaLis) and the left; to question the manufactured narrative of attacks on minorities based on conflating random petty larceny incidents into `synchronised church attacks’; to counter the deliberate distortion of facts to suit the fascism-around-the-corner narrative. At the same time, they also didn’t hesitate to criticise the Hindutva fringe groups whenever they issued outrageous statements or took the law into their own hands.
But this tentative fellowship is unlikely to last. The Modi factor may have brought these two groups together but has not proved strong enough to keep them from drifting apart.
The liberal right’s disillusionment with Modi is growing. Even as they cheer the economic reforms that have been initiated, there is disappointment over the lack of a clean break with UPA-era policies; they were never interested in a more efficient implementation of those policies but had wanted a complete break. They are disappointed at his inability to get the BJP-ruled state governments to rein in the hardline/fringe elements and vigilante groups. And large sections have been completely devastated by the anointment of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (they may not be outraging hysterically over his every move, but they are extremely guarded in supporting him).
But the break between the two groups has less to do with Modi and more to do with each other. More specifically, the liberal right’s discomfort with the continued and growing stridency of the pro-Modi/BJP right. What was initially tolerated as an explosion of pent-up frustration and anger is – three years on – beginning to grate.
The first breaking point was the intemperate utterances preceding the exit of former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan from office. Among the liberal right, there were quite a few who disagreed vehemently with him on several issues. But they were dismayed by the attacks on Rajan as well as on anyone who spoke in his favour or merely criticised the attacks. The same happened with demonetisation; taking even a nuanced position, let alone criticising it, invited retribution.
The divide isn’t limited to government policy. The liberal right is increasingly uncomfortable with the hyper-nationalism on display, dietary directives, vigilantism, the growing tribe of self-appointed definers and defenders of Indian culture and history, not all of which is government-driven. They understand the cultural and religious right’s concerns with leftist propaganda on Hinduism and Indian history and the need to counter it but would like to draw a distinction between assertiveness and aggressiveness. They are distressed that the cultural/religious right (which is also disappointed with Modi) is not raising the level of the debate with the left and that the former come across as just a bunch of ranters.
When they give voice to these concerns and suggest course correction, they come under attack from the cultural/religious right as well as a group that economist Surjit Bhalla calls the non and anti-intellectual right (NAIRs). `Liberals’ has now become a term of abuse (next only to leftists), thrown at anyone who does not agree with the BJP/cultural/religious right (other labels are Hindu-haters and colonised minds). This sneering usage is not limited to social media warriors; well-regarded intellectuals among the cultural/religious right (many of whom are also economic and social liberals) do the same.
Unfortunately, this lot also remains a mute spectator to the belligerent brigade, who think nothing of vandalising film sets or art exhibitions or disrupting talks and plays on topics they deem taboo. Sometimes, they even start rationalising these acts of violence. There is a knee-jerk defence of the weirdest of whackos just because the left and the liberals criticise them. As a result, the liberal right gets even more disillusioned and begins to distance itself.
Equally unfortunately, some elements of the liberal right – notably the MoHaLis – have displayed their own brand of intolerance. This lot indulges in public breast-beating about the end of discourse and nuance and then proceeds to demolish anyone who does not share their visceral hatred of Modi and the Sangh Parivar as being either of questionable intelligence or integrity.
This tribe grew post-demonetisation when any economist, no matter how celebrated, speaking in favour of the move was rubbished as seeking rewards from the government. Everyone in the religious/cultural right – even the scholars – is caricatured as a nutcase. Intellectuals of the cultural/religious right with an enviable body of work are deliberately airbrushed from the picture and the lie that the right-wing has no intellectual worth the name is perpetuated. Sexist, sneering comments and distasteful lampooning is par for the course. Just like the religious/cultural right expects people to conform to its definition of Hindu/Indian, this small bunch devises its own litmus test of liberalism and anyone who fails it is deemed not worthy of being called a liberal. Not only does this get the back of the religious/cultural right up, but makes the rest of the liberal right also uncomfortable.
The chasm between the two groups of right is not going to be bridged any time soon; it is growing and will continue to grow. Both sides have not learnt anything from the left, where different shades of opinion – the fringe, the mainstream and the centre – co-exist under a large umbrella.
As a result, there is going to be no right-wing eco-system representing all shades of opinion, the way there is a left-wing eco-system. A right-wing eco-system may get built, but this will be monochromatic, not multi-hued. And India’s right-wing will have only itself to blame.