Or, have the BJP’s successive electoral setbacks dashed hopes forever? Swapan Dasgupta searches for answers
Sir Julian Critchley, who served as a Conservative MP through the tenure of five British Prime Ministers without achieving anything remotely memorable, once narrated an incident in what used to be the Smoking Room of the House of Commons. Relaxing with a book after, presumably, a leisurely lunch, he was spotted by a party venerable. “Young man”, said the grandee sternly, “it does not do to appear clever: advancement in this man’s party is due entirely to alcoholic stupidity.”
For a long time, and this was certainly the case till Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged the “counter-establishment”, the Right was equated with stupidity. The Conservative Party, which governed Britain through most of the 20th century, was, for example, treated as the Stupid Party by the intelligentsia. Conservatives were seen as mindless defenders of privilege, unthinking status quo-ists—in short, caricatured versions of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits. Conservative women were likewise dismissed as tweedy, giggly Sloane Rangers who cared more about their horses and Labradors than public life.
The image of anti-intellectualism—such a contrast to the earnest, liberated, Left Bank intellectuals who dominated the Left—was, ironically, something the Right revelled in. Echoing (quite unwittingly) George Orwell’s observations on Englishness, Lord Hailsham, a man who occupied some of the highest posts in government, once wrote that “Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life, the simplest among them prefer fox hunting—the wisest, religion.” No wonder London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is such a darling of Tory party conferences. Despite his formidable scholastic achievements, Johnson has wilfully cultivated an endearing flippancy that distinguishes him from earnest busybodies.
As someone whose political attitudes originated, not in Harrow but further south, down the Finchley Road, in trendy Hampstead, Jawaharlal Nehru mirrored this frightful image of the Right. Transposed into the dust bowls of Hindustan, the Right meant the over-dressed occupants of the Chamber of Princes, it meant arrogant Brahminism, it meant compador capitalists lusting after knighthoods and it meant indolent zamindars and taluqdars who spent their countless leisure hours frolicking with nautch girls and impressing the local district magistrate. To Nehru, the Indian Right was invariably prefaced with another loaded term: reactionary.
Unlike the Left which could boast 57 varieties of doctrinaire nlightenment, the Right has always defied coherent definition. There were the Tories in the Anglo-Saxon mould that brought together land and industry in a framework of common sense; there were the Fascists who combined their loathing of the Reds with fearful xenophobia and authoritarianism; and, finally, there was what the philosopher Roger Scruton described as “a natural instinct in the unthinking man—to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born.” To add to this mixed bag, there emerged, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the economic Right which deified free enterprise, individualism and minimal government interference.
In the India of Nehru and his daughter, India had its share of all these different tendencies. The feudal spirit, marked by deference and noblesse oblige, outlived the abolition of zamindari and uneven land reforms; Hindu resistance to the secularisation of society and the pampering of minorities flowered in small towns, among the dispossessed from Pakistan and followers of Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar; and Nehru’s drive to enlarge government and the public sector to the detriment of private initiative encountered pockets of resistance from the notables of another era.
Politically, the Right occupied fringe status. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was driven by the RSS but embraced other representatives of the cultural Right including the likes of Raghu Vira and R.C. Majumdar. It was ambivalent in its opposition to Nehruvian economics but was unambiguous in its pro-Hindi, anti-cow slaughter and anti-Pakistan thrust.
On its part, the Swatantra Party, founded by C.Rajagopalachari, was more akin to a traditional Conservative Party. It was unequivocal in its denunciation of Nehru “prosperophobia” and espousal of free enterprise. Its ranks included the glamorous Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, farmer’s leader N.G. Ranga, former ICS officials such as the legendary V.P. Menon and pillars of industry like Sir Homi Modi. Its fellow-travellers included constitutional lawyer Nani Palkhivala.
The Indian Right got a fillip in 1969 when the Congress split. The breakaway Congress(O), derisively dubbed the Syndicate, trained its guns on Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and her marked pro-Soviet tilt but, in essence, it encapsulated the urges of earlier pragmatists such as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad who had been thwarted by Nehru. In alliance with the Jan Sangh and Swatantra, the Congress(O) forged the Grand Alliance to take on Indira.
The enterprise proved an unmitigated disaster. Indira was able to paint the Grand Alliance as a front for the princes, the capitalists and Hindu communalists—hence the injection of “vested interests” into the political vocabulary. Her promise to eradicate poverty won the day handsomely.
The 1971 defeat was a body blow to the very idea of an Indian Right opposed to socialism. State-sponsored development and curbs on the private sector became the basis of a new political consensus. Even the Janata Party, made up of the earlier Grand Alliance plus a clutch of additional defectors from the Congress ranks, didn’t dare depart from this path when it won the referendum on the Emergency in 1977. In the three years it was in power, it persisted with Indira’s regressive populism.
The failure of the Indian Right in the 1970s owed to a multitude of factors. First, at the international level, socialism appeared as the idea of the future. The defeat of American power in Vietnam and Cambodia and the youth rebellion in the West rendered any critique of the Left singularly unattractive. Indeed, the debate now centred on which particular variety of socialism was most appealing. Secondly, the association of the Right with the defenders of archaic rights of the erstwhile maharajas, the opponents of nationalisation and discredited political bosses stood in sharp contrast to the youth power Indira unleashed. Finally, state-sponsored development and the continuous expansion of the public sector created a constituency of new beneficiaries and aroused expectations of more populist lollipops. Indira’s aggressive socialist evangelism transformed the mindset of a very large chunk of the electorate. A tradition of individual and community initiative was subsumed by a culture of entitlements: the state gave and the people received. For those with enterprise, cronyism was the only way forward. The creative impulses of India were channelled in what Dhirubhai Ambani used to describe as “managing the environment.”
There were two pockets of resistance to this assault on India’s self-respect. The beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, usually farmers belonging to intermediate castes, couldn’t reconcile themselves to the Congress’s patronage of those on the margins of society. They formed the backbone of opposition to the Congress in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Secondly, the trading community rued the overdose of bureaucratic controls and shortages. Since this section already constituted the social base of Hindu nationalism, an economic grievance was complemented by exasperation with ‘secular’ politics. The early-1980s witnessed an epidemic of communal riots in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These in turn fuelled the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the leading party of the Indian Right. This time, and unlike the post-1967 phase, the opposition was not centred on economics. Cultural and religious symbols constituted the new Left-Right faultlines.
The long road to the demolition of the “disputed structure” in Ayodhya established the BJP as the primary party of the Indian Right. However, although the battle against the Nehruvian consensus was fought over religio-cultural symbols, the conflict had a strong economic underpinning.
By the time India entered the 1990s, the socialist experiment had visibly faltered. The economy was stagnant and unable to counter crippling shortages and deprivation. The labyrinthine maze of controls and regulations became an instrument of rampant corruption and by the time the Chandra Shekhar government sent out an SOS to the IMF, India seemed precariously close to becoming another failed state.
Internationally too the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union punctured illusions of a socialist utopia. India was faced with an existential dilemma and the Ayodhya movement encapsulated a growing anger and frustration with a bankrupt order. The Hindu rage was also a revolt against socialism.
The course correction undertaken by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh proved too late to save the Congress from electoral rout in 1996. Yet, the liberalisation of the economy undercut the steady drift to extreme religious polarisation. The BJP didn’t junk Hindutva but it complemented it with a market-friendly agenda that ended the sluggish Hindu rate of development. In a span of some 15 years India witnessed a capsuled surge in economic growth, a feat unmatched in at least three centuries. The dismantling of the iniquitous license-permit-quota raj and a hesitant acceptance of globalisation produced newer opportunities and enlarged the mental horizon of the middle classes. With the breakdown of the joint family system and the atomisation of urban society, many of the older assumptions governing politics started disappearing.
For the Indian Right, this transformation was momentous. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when the material base for the emergence of a non-statist model was lacking, 21st century has established the primacy of the private sector. High interest rates and punitive rates of personal taxation which deterred entrepreneurship under socialism are no longer viable in a country where the quest is for rapid growth and better standards of living.
Unfortunately, following two successive election defeats, the BJP has been engulfed by an unwarranted insularity. Rather than re-fashioning the party to take advantage of spectacular opportunities, it has abdicated the modernist agenda and fallen back on sectarian certitudes. Rather than allow pragmatic politics to determine its future course, the party has been hijacked by a small cabal whose understanding of contemporary realities is remarkably feeble. Any RSS takeover of the BJP is bad news for the Indian Right.
There is an emerging space for the Indian Right centred on the promotion of decentralisation, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, sustainable development, responsible environmentalism, gender equity, consumer rights and an overall culture of efficiency. The Congress has reinvented its paternalism in the guise of welfare—a wasteful endeavour that may drag India into a needless fiscal crisis; it has expanded the bureaucracy without making it more accountable and efficient; and it has lauded modernity without embracing meritocracy. The Congress has prospered electorally by preying on the sectarian vote banks which have viewed the Right as the proverbial Nasty Party.
The Indian Right has allowed the battle to be fought on terms set by the Congress. It must now redefine its political priorities to avail of an ever-expanding political space. The Swatantra Party failed because it was ahead of the times; the BJP may falter if it doesn’t move into the 21st century.