What lies to the right of centre in India?

The cohabitation of traditionalists and market liberals

Ever since India’s 2009 general election, it has become fashionable for many politically-minded people in the country to style themselves as being “right of centre”, “centre-right” and other terms where “right” and something else is joined together with a hyphen.

It is clear what people who label themselves thus are against — the Congress party, and especially the family that constitutes its apex leadership. Mostly, they oppose its “appeasement” of minorities, especially Muslims. They oppose its propensity to create “entitlements” in the form of reservations, quotas, subsidies and special treatment. They oppose the cronyism in the economy and political corruption in governance. They oppose its pusillanimity in foreign policy. There are many more, but these strike me as the big ones.

It is less clear what they stand for. Many of our self-styled right-of-centrists are strident opponents of liberalism. Many have deep misgivings, if not outright opposition to markets and free trade. The most coherent “right” in India is the Hindu right, which is clear about its commitment to Hindu nationalism, broad or narrow. However, even the Hindu right does not have an economic agenda that is consistent with its political ideology: should the Hindu nation rely on individual liberty and free markets, or should it construct a strong state that draws lines on individual freedom and controls the levers of economic power? During and after the 2014 election campaign, market liberals and social illiberals found themselves in the same “right of centre” camp, often having to pretend to be each other in order to fit in.

This ideological confusion and political tension within the segment that calls itself right-of-centre in India comes because our political context and historical development is different from that of the West, where the Right and Left first came into existence. I’ve written about this in my Niti-Mandala post, constructing India’s political spectrum. I was reminded of it last week as I read Jonah Goldberg’s statement of the Conservative position in the United States: which connects tradition and markets and forms the basic worldview of the American Right that the Republicans used to champion before Donald Trump, er, shook things up.

As a Chestertonian at heart, I like and respect old things. I like it when stuff beats the law of averages for reasons we cannot easily fathom. The Hayekian in me thinks old things that last often do so for good reasons we just don’t — and sometimes can’t — know. Unfortunately, we live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how. [National Review, emphasis added]

The same argument would be self-contradicting in India: where there are inhuman inequities embedded in caste discrimination and social practices. You can either defend the traditional Indian social order or individual liberty (and markets and so on). You can’t defend both, because the former is constructed without regard to, and often in suppression of the latter. This explains the confusion and tension among our “right of centre” compatriots, who are at best, — to turn a phrase from a best-selling novelist — Half Right. No pun intended.

They can either be traditionalists who seek to defend the old order from social revolution, and therefore come into tension with the Constitution that demands it. Or they can be liberals who pursue individual liberty and free markets, and thereby come into tension with everyone else who opposes either individualism or markets or both. They can’t be both.

Logical consistency apart, the practical question is to what extent can the two Half Right constituencies come together in politics. Is the tension between them bridgeable? Well, that’s hard to say, but the side with greater political clout will force the other into submission. Market liberals are not driving policy in the Modi government today.

The arrangement will hold to the extent that their dislike for the Left outweighs their dislike for each other. If the Congress party sheds its baggage — and that’s a big, big if — or another party takes up its Centrist space, it is likely that the the more liberal of the liberal Half Right will gravitate towards it. Until that time, the liberal Half Right will cohabit with the traditionalist Half Right, because most who seek the security of an ideological label are likely to lack the courage and commitment to stand apart, because that means standing alone.

And who will do the protecting?

Amnesty International sounds like Al Qaeda

Mukul Sharma, of Amnesty International, does the Amnesty International thing in the Hindu. Terror must be countered with justice he writes, which is all very fine. But Mr Sharma is also against special laws that can used to bring terrorists to justice. All he has to say is:

The only way people can be protected — from both governments and suicide bombers — is to treat every single human being as possessing fundamental rights that no government, group or individual may ever justifiably take away. Human rights are grounded in fundamental values that create ‘no go areas’ — acts that one human being must never do to another. [The Hindu]

And who can disagree with that? But Mr Sharma doesn’t say who it is that should do the protecting, the government or the suicide bombers? If indeed the government should do this, it must bring the terrorists to justice, for which it not only needs laws, but needs to carry out investigations today, not at an ideal time when law enforcement agencies are perfect.

But then, Mr Sharma comes out against forceful investigations because of “the actions of certain groups and individuals, entire communities are being viewed with suspicion…If whole communities are antagonised and alienated by the security forces using terror, aren’t those communities more likely to respond with supporting the use of violence?” That’s a series of specious arguments—it is not reasonable to contend that a government of a multi-religious state can investigate and fight terrorism born of Islamic radicalism without antagonising a proportion of the Muslim community. Defeating Khalistani terrorism involved antagonising many Sikhs. Fighting ULFA antagonises many Assamese. Fighting LTTE antagonises some Tamils. The question Mr Sharma must answer is whether the cause of human rights is served by setting aside the pursuit of justice just because it would cause this antagonism?

The second specious argument, and a more egregious one, is that it is somehow justifiable for “antagonised and alienated” communities to respond with violence. So just how different is Amnesty International from Al Qaeda, then? “If governments abandon the rule of law and use methods of terror,” Mr Sharma asks, “then won’t groups fighting governments feel justified in using methods of terror themselves?” That’s an explicit apology for terrorism and political violence, disguised though it is as a rhetorical question. Neither jihadi groups nor Naxalites really need external justification for their violence. Armed struggle is a core belief. So passing off terrorism as a “reaction” to some failing of the government is wrong, and even if were right, cannot be morally justified.

The case for human rights is built on a bedrock of morality, so it is not least paradoxical that an organisation claiming to defend those rights can throw up arguments based on vacuous morality.

Related posts: After terrorists, their apologists strike

After terrorists, their apologists strike

Can “human rights” activists be far behind?

We know the routine. ‘Concerned citizens’ write open letters and petitions on the pretext of condemning “cowardly acts of violence”. Once the obligatory boilerplate is dispensed with, they come to the point—that it is the state and its agencies that are really at fault. We’ve seen this in the case of Naxalites and as Yossarin points out, ‘concerned citizens’ have turned up to make a statement in the case of the Jaipur terrorist attacks too.

Let’s take the statement apart. Continue reading “After terrorists, their apologists strike”