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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

Left, Right, and Out of Step

February 21, 2003

The Old Left, Rajeev Sreenivasan observes, is dead -- and thankfully so. The terminal anti-national ideologues, their opportunistic brethren, the fools convinced of the truth of their one-fold path, and those led naively down the ruinous road have all been buried under the weight of their irrelevance and replaced by a resurgent cadre of thinker-leaders who are humanist and progressive. One can hardly argue with that; since much of the recently dominant Leftist leadership comprised only this assortment of the misguiding and misguided, their demise is cause for celebration.

I would add a caveat nonetheless; that these worthies never really represented intellectually defensible Leftist thinking of any sort, and instead merely appropriated the mantles of secularism and progressive politics to suit their narrow and often dictatorial political ends. They especially deserve the label 'those who call themselves secular progressives.' This body of persons existed -- and exists -- only as a political class, not as an ideological one; the beginning and the end of their claim to progressive action lies in emblazoning the words 'pro-poor' and 'bhai-bhai' into an occasional speech or two a few days before every election. The truly progressive and secular, on the other hand, have never actively sought this tag.

There is a second line to Mr Sreenivasan's analysis, though, and here we are entirely on separate paths. The Hindu Right, he argues, is much the same as the New Left; he even calls for a coalition between the right-leaning neo-liberals and the progressive humanists. To make his case, he gives us a few organising principles that the New Left embraces -- the cause of native cultures and traditions, small-is-beautiful economics, eco-sensitivity, non-traditional science and medicine, and the rights of minorities and women -- and observes that in large part these are also the concerns of the Hindu Right. That's a fantastic spread of things to agree on, and if well-founded, would mark a great opportunity for nation-building that all classes of Indians can share in.

But alas, it fails an important test. To both the New Left and the Hindu Right, the causes he lists are not founding elements of their ideological politics, but merely a set of objectives fortunately aligned at this time with those of the other group. An alliance built around this will be one of political opportunism today for eventually divergent goals, and would be unsustainable.

The defense of native traditions, for example, is offered by the Right in India mostly from the 'strong offence is good defense' reasoning. Dormant Hindu voices have found the strength to challenge the State-led skew towards other faiths that conquest and colonialism bequeathed us. Both among the people and in the courts, there is a growing movement to place the various religions of the land at par. To the progressives this is fair, but not necessarily important. Religion itself remains at the margins of progressive politics, and they will not lament its continuing decline, whether it be Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Further, they cannot ignore the obvious -- the 'parity' the Right seeks is merely the immediate goal; the occasional voices that look beyond this and call for a Hindu India are not dimmed entirely, even by the need to govern by coalition.

From the New Left perspective too, overlapping interests with the Hindu Right are mere coincidence. The New Left's embrace of the validity of all traditions stems chiefly from a constitutional understanding of individual liberties. In other words, the validity of a tradition must be partly judged by the freedom it affords individuals to maintain independent beliefs. Historically, ruling traditions have sought to override this right, and the New Left is correct to support its restoration. The Right, on the other hand, seeks to maintain political dominance precisely by placing the 'group' rights of its believers above the rights of individuals with the group. Its identity politics, for instance, includes some who would deny Hinduism and others religion itself, as well as many who would claim a non-traditional Hinduism. But right-wing politics ignores this. Large-scale tribal re-education towards Hinduism would hardly be necessary in an 80% Hindu India.

The Right's support for non-traditional science and medicine, similarly, is an extension of its conservative Hindu moorings; this support merely reiterates that there is considerable value and virtue to these traditional systems. On this, though, there is far more common ground with the New Left. Both groups would be happy to restore these ancient systems to some degree of broad acceptance for limited ends, and maintain a parallel focus on modern science and medicine. Most patients, I suspect, would support that dichotomy, placing all traditions on par in preventive medicine and in treating many illnesses, but placing a higher value on hospitals and biotechnology in more complex matters.

To a lesser degree, the 'small-is-beautiful' economics and the eco-sensitivity of the Hindu Right must also be understood as coincidentally overlapping with New Left philosophy. Opposition to globalisation, the WTO, multinationals, and entities of that ilk is to be expected in both camps, but for different reasons. The 'free-trade' policies of the West are immediately and extremely threatening to a broad range of Indian industry, both because those policies are an unvarnished attempt at economic colonialism and because Indian institutions are ill-prepared to compete in a world of rapidly vanishing borders. To the Right, and the business interests of the upper castes who mainly constitute it, the turn to protectionism is a must.

Their 'small,' in other words, isn't beautiful at all; it is simply too small to stand up to the dominance of the free-traders. The Hindu Right has very little trouble with Indian entities setting up huge shops in other lands, and hasn't particularly lashed out at our mega-houses of commerce. It has merely recognised that the 'cottage industry' and the native traditions it supports are respected by the New Left, and seized upon this to demand protection for anything and everything by recasting its interest in the garb of nativity. The Left, for its part, is wary of this opportunism, and is keenly aware that Indian companies aren't above their own brand of economic aggression, nor is Mother India safe from exploitation by them.

On other issues, there is outright disagreement between the New Left and the Hindu Right. The rights of women and minorities remains at the very heart of the former's politics, and by no stretch of political imagination can that be said of the latter. True, no political organisation in India has a creditable record of advocating women's rights. The Left has always viewed minority faith with discomfort, wishing it would rather clothe itself in the language of liberty instead. Majority faith has fared even worse on the Left, and
sometimes criminally so. Still, it is fair to say that the Left's notion of liberating women from traditional roles is a better guarantee of women's interests than the Right's claim to 'protect' them within the fold of conservatism. As to religious minorities, the divide between the two forces couldn't be larger; the rightist approach doesn't speak to minority women at all.

In every aspect of this apparent confluence of interests, then, there is an underlying weakness that would hinder collaboration deeply. In many respects, the Left has always been similar to the Hindu Right. But consistently over the decades, the intellectual leadership and reasoning that gives political credence to the Left has viewed the Hindu Right with distrust. Equally, the corps of believers among the Right (both Hindu and non-Hindu!) whose political interests can never be discounted does not trust the Left; Old or New, either would impose a broad understanding of individual liberty upon the citizenry that can only be threatening to all religion. Perhaps the two find unexpected similarity now, but in seeking widely different Indias, they will remain apart.

The current confluence of interests does have political significance, though, and that cannot be discounted. The similarity of interests encourages New Left voters to believe that the BJP is the likeliest political vehicle by which to advance its objectives. In the absence of a nation-wide Left-leaning party, and faced with a Congress that cannot get its act together, a few voters will likely cast their ballot for the NDA alliance, believing it to be a better guardian of Indian self-interest, Bharat-bhoomi, and tradition, even at the risk of vesting runaway power with an aggressive leadership. One consequence of this political confluence between Right and Left will be the re-emergence of the Congress party as a more Left-leaning organisation than the one that Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao presided over. But of that, another time.


Ashwin Mahesh


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Number of User Comments: 4




Sub: RE:comment on Ashwin Mahesh: Hindu Right New Left

in the Soviet Union or in Latin America until about 10 years ago, there certainly were genuine adherents to faith who were also 'leftist'. Similarly ...


Posted by Ashwin Mahesh





Sub: Brilliant Article

I cannot agree more with the author. I wish that some political party in India has ever had this sort of conviction and clarity of ...


Posted by Prem





Sub: comment on Ashwin Mahesh: Hindu Right New Left

Ashwin's ideas on the Old Left, the Hindu Right and what may be the New Left are very interesting and his way of arguing is ...


Posted by Victor A. van Bijlert





Sub: Ashwin Mahesh

I have discovered Ashwin Mahesh's articles only recently and intend to read all of them. From a few that I have read today, I find ...


Posted by Imtiaz Ahmed




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