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Searching for the Indian right

I am often intrigued by supporters of this government who describe themselves as being right wing.

Because they love the description so much, the social media shorthand for such people has become “RW”, an indication of the political position they claim to subscribe to.


As political terms go, left wing is not difficult to define.  People who claim to be leftists usually believe in certain things: The importance of the role of the state as an agent of change, a suspicion of private capital and those who control it, and a commitment to welfare measures.


   This description clearly applies to India’s Communist parties and to the Left Front in Bengal and Kerala. It applies also to the changes Indira Gandhi made in Congress policy in 1969 when she nationalised banks and placed enormous hurdles in the way of private industry.


   Abroad, the term “left” is used to describe the same sort of ideology. The left wing of the British Labour Party, for instance, favours higher taxation of the rich and stricter regulation of private industry. In the US, when men like Donald Trump refer to Democrats as being “left wing”, they mean that these Democrats want a bigger role for government, more welfare measures (such as medical aid) and more taxes on the rich to pay for these measures. Regulation of business (say, the much discussed break-up of the giant social media companies) is put in the same “left wing” category.


   But what does “right wing” mean? Well, that’s where things get more complicated. In simple economic terms, “right” is the opposite of “left”.  So a right-wing economist is one who believes in encouraging private industry, is suspicious of big government and wants as little regulation as possible.


   When we talk about the right wing of, say, Britain’s Conservative Party or America’s Republican Party, we often use the term interchangeably with “free-marketers”.  When we say that India turned right after the 1991 reforms, we mean that many of the old regulations were removed and private industry was given incentives to grow.


   There is, however, another sense in which the term “right” has come to be used and that sense is social rather than economic. In much of the Western world, the term is used to describe policies or politicians who always favour the interests of the majority on race-related issues and have less time for the rights of minorities. So, in the UK, the right wing of the Conservative Party will oppose immigration and may be against such legislation as the Race Relation Act. In the US, the opposition to Civil Rights legislation (and now to Black Lives Matter) came from politicians who were proud to call themselves right-wing.


"So is this the Indian definition of left and right wing? And is the major distinction between left and right framed not in terms of policy but on the basis of prejudice?"

   In the post-Second World War context, the term has also been used to describe fascist and totalitarian groups. When we say that neo-Nazis are part of the far right, we use “right” as a description of fascist or quasi-fascist views. Such “far right” forces also hate left-wing economics and all of the social welfare measures that the left supports.


   Which brings us to India. When we used the term right-wing in the 1960s to describe the Swatantra Party or the Jan Sangh, we referred to economics. Swatantra was the party of free enterprise and of business-friendly policies. The Jan Sangh was opposed to state control of businesses and wanted liberal economic policies that benefited its supporters (these followers tended to be drawn from small and medium-sized businesses).


   But now, when Narendra Modi’s supporters define themselves as right wing, the economic context is missing. Mr. Modi believes in welfare measures. His government is not particularly pro-business (as Piyush Goyal reminded the CII last week) and he is actually keener on scrutiny (if not harassment) of businessmen and their assets and practices (through the Enforcement Directorate or the Income Tax department) than, say, Manmohan Singh’s government. Every welfare measure that the Congress introduced has been retained and many more have been added.


   I doubt very much if even Mr. Modi himself would describe his economic policies as right wing. When he addresses the nation he likes to use I-am-all-for-the-poor rhetoric that sounds as left wing as Indira Gandhi’s speeches used to sound.


   So, in what sense is this government right-wing? Why are its followers so eager to call themselves that?


   Well, one possible answer is that subconsciously they want to identify with the right wing groups (such as the Nazis) who the RSS praised in the middle of the last century.


   Alternatively, they feel some sort of kinship with the far right groups for whom the term is usually reserved in the West.


   Just as the defining characteristics of many Western right Wing groups are their views on race and their negative view of minorities in their countries, the defining characteristics of many people who are proud to be called right wing on Indian social media is the manner in which they regard Muslims.


   They are happy enough to support a government that follows economic policies that might reasonably be called “left wing.”  Their problem is only with an inclusive vision of India that treats Hindus and Muslims as equal citizens. That is what they regard (as illogical as this sounds) as left wing.


   So is this the Indian definition of left and right wing? And is the major distinction between left and right framed not in terms of policy but on the basis of prejudice? If you are not keen on Muslims, then you are right wing. If you believe in a secular pluralistic India, then you are a lefty.


   Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps there is some other way in which a government that follows the economic policies of the left is actually right wing.


   But frankly, apart from the Hindu-Muslim issue I cannot think of a single defining characteristic of the Indian right. It was a good enough distinction for Golwalkar. And I guess it is good enough for today’s sanghis.




  • Ramamoorthy 24 Aug 2021

    Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has noted that the American political spectrum shifted to the right a few decades ago where Democrats are the Right and Republicans have fallen off the spectrum, they behave like a radical insurgency rather than a political party in a democracy. Hillary for eg. was akin to a moderate Republican. In India, we err to the Left. BJP is the real left wing (in values) n Congress, Commies n libbies, just radical insurgents destabilizing India. Part 2..

  • Siddhartha 21 Aug 2021

    Very correct. Their antagonism toward particular community is major factor which make them pro Modi.They all need jobs,food,security, prosperity and english medium school for their children but above all they want 'Hindu Rastra.'

  • Ramamoorthy 19 Aug 2021

    The current Left wing is a 'coalition of foreign interests' in India and the aligned locals...interests Head Quartered outside of is the BJP and its supporters that are the real left...liberating Ayodhya, fulfilling the promise of 370, etc. are all ideas that'd qualify as left in Indian context, if we're being honest...massively pro environment, poor, non-war like, equality for all...BJP is the real left... Part 1..

Posted On: 17 Aug 2021 07:27 PM
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