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In India, all that matters is where you stand on secularism

 The closing debate of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is the main event of the entire festival.


The front lawn, the largest space in the festival complex, is always jam-packed with an engaged audience which listens as two teams of top-notch debaters discuss an issue of current importance. And then, the audience gets in on the act, asking questions to the speakers.


Though the debates always have an edge and the debaters can tear into each other, the hostility remains mostly at a civilised level of intellectual disagreement and banter. There are no hard feelings and the debaters walk off the stage laughing and joking with each other. It is very different from a debate on a news channel.
   I moderated the debate for the first time last year and was impressed by both the quality of the arguments and the level of audience involvement. For some years before that, I used to moderate the debate at Mumbai’s Tata Lit Live. And though that was always fascinating, it was hard for the speakers to be anything but polite to each other in the sophisticated South Mumbai environs of the Tata Theatre at Nariman Point. But they made sharp points anyway.
   While I love the cut and thrust that is on display at these debates, my real fascination is with what these events tell us about the mood of the urban middle class and about the kinds of arguments that go down well with educated audiences. Often they tell us something about the speakers themselves. In South Mumbai, any team that includes Shashi Tharoor starts out with a huge advantage. In Jaipur, any speaker who is as comfortable in Hindi finds it easier to appeal to the audience.
   And it is a measure of the polarisation of the public mood that no matter what the motion says, the debate ultimately becomes about the left versus the right.
   Except: in the Indian context what exactly is the left wing? And what constitutes the right wing? This year the JLF took that subject head on with a motion that suggested that the right and the left could never bridge the gap between their positions.
   As the debate progressed, it became clear how difficult it is to use either of these terms in the Indian context. Each team described left and right in terms that suited their purposes.
   One team (Jawhar Sircar, Purushottam Agarwal and Vandana Shiva) said that the two sides could never meet, called itself left wing and defined being leftist as being on the side of progress, the poor, of public good, etc.
   The other side (Pavan Varma, Makarand Paranjape and Priyanka Chaturvedi) avoided right and left categorisations (at least in the beginning; everyone’s positions collapsed halfway through the debate), arguing plausibly enough that these were foreign terms that had no relevance to India where all of us always work together. (Really?)
"As the debate went on it became even more obvious that neither side could explain the relevance of left and right distinctions in terms of Indian politics." 
   But the audience wasn’t buying any of this. It treated the apparent lefties as Congressis. And the other side were treated as BJP-wallas. I tried explaining how wrong these caricatures were. Pavan Verma has always criticised the BJP (he even fell out with Nitish Kumar over the latter’s alliance with the BJP) and Priyanka Chaturvedi has spent much of her political career (now with the Shiv Sena and with the Congress before that) fighting the BJP. Similarly, Jawhar Sircar is no leftist (his party, the Trinamool Congress hates the CPM) and, like the rest of Trinamool has no great love for the Congress. Vandana Shiva has opposed nearly every government over the last three decades on issues of principle so she can hardly be treated as a Congressi.
   But no, when it was time for the audience to ask questions, the attack on the people who believed the gap could be bridged was all about the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Gujarat riots and the Modi government’s attitude to free speech. To which Purushottam Agarwal and Jawhar Sircar added a gratuitous attack on Gautam Adani which had absolutely nothing to do with bridging the gap between right and left, but which they clearly enjoyed.
   What each of these debates demonstrates is that when it comes to the urban mindscape, many educated Indians still see politics as a battle between the Congress and the BJP. No matter what the motion is or how varied the backgrounds of the speakers are, we are now so polarised that all political issues must be recast in BJP vs. Congress terms.
   As the debate went on it became even more obvious that neither side could explain the relevance of left and right distinctions in terms of Indian politics. Traditionally, the right has always believed in small government, fewer controls on industry and in as small a welfare state as possible. But the Modi government, which would probably see itself as right wing is all about Big Government, about a massive welfare state and sadly, an Inspector Raj that has industry terrified.
   During the debate, Indira Gandhi was referred to as a leftist. But in many ways, it is very hard to tell the political differences between Mrs. Gandhi and Mr. Modi. Both were or are absolute rulers who long to be global leaders and who are not thrilled when they are criticised. Mr. Modi has yet to throw the BBC out but Indira Gandhi did exactly that in 1971 (long before the Emergency) because the BBC telecast a documentary that she regarded as anti-Indian.
   As the debate went on it became apparent that, at least in the minds of the audience, lefties were people who believed in secularism while the right wing supported a Hindu rashtra. This seemed to be the only distinction.
   Obviously this is a simplistic view. On the other hand, given that both sides broadly agree about economic policy and perhaps even foreign policy, it is hard to find another area where the positions are so sharply different.
   So perhaps, that is the real point of ideological difference in India. Forget about left and right. All that matters is where you stand on secularism. And the audience may have got it right after all. Deny the plurality of India and you destroy the India the framers of our Constitution envisaged and change the course of our history forever. So yes. This may be the only distinction that really makes a difference.
Posted On: 27 Jan 2023 02:13 AM
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