Niti-mandala – The Indian Political Spectrum

Beyond simplistic notions of left, right and centre

Nitimandala - The Indian Political Spectrum
Where do you stand?

Where do you think you stand?

An explanatory note

This chart is the result of years of agonising over the fact that India’s political discourse is ill-served by oversimplified and effectively meaningless labels of “Left”, “Right”, “Secular”, “Communal” and so on. Perhaps the only meaningful label was “Communist”, which unfortunately still has its adherents.

The question was—below the slogans, rhetoric and ’causes’—what might be the real bases on which we could determine where Indian people and their political parties stand? Identity is certainly one dimension. It animates our politics, even if it is considered politically incorrect. There is politics around local identities (caste, community, ethnicity, language and geography). There is politics around nationality. And there is politics of internationalism (ideological or religious) that goes beyond nationality. So identity is assigned the horizontal axis.

The other important dimensions along which there is real variation in our politics are individual freedom and economic freedom. There are people who believe in one but not the other. We could these on axes of their own, resulting in a three-dimensional space that would be more accurate but would drive away most people. If we divide each axes into low, medium and high, there would be 27 pigeonholes. Indian politics is complex and even 27 pigeonholes may be too few to fully describe it, but such a model would surely fail as a tool of building political awareness, which is the purpose of this exercise.

So I flattened reality into two dimensions by combining individual and economic freedoms into a composite dimension called liberty. This makes sense because the two ought to go together. It does lose some detail because in reality there are people who do not see the two as going together, for real people are not bound by the need to be logically consistent.

Once we cast the mandala in this manner, we have nine types of political ideologies. Libertarians (or classical liberals), Socialists, Communists and Centrists are easily understandable. I have argued the case for Liberal Nationalism on this blog. Cultural Nationalists are those who believe that Indians ought to respect traditional values and practices either through social mores or through legislation.

While working on this, I found the third column most interesting because it threw up unexpected results. Among those who centre their politics around narrower identities, for instance around their state, linguistic group, caste community, local identity and so on, are there those who differ in the extent they uphold liberty? Examine state politics and you’ll notice that there are. Although few state political parties go about claiming to be “Liberal Regionalists” or “Parochialists”, in practice, some are more tolerant, laissez-faire, market-friendly, business friendly and open than others. These state- and sub-state level distinctions are seldom captured in India’s overall political discourse.

And then, there are the Conservatives. Because of the immense diversity, conservative Indians are not Indian Conservatives. The former are usually ‘local’ conservatives, seeking to preserve and perpetrate local values and social structures. Indian Conservatives are more likely to be Cultural Nationalists, who defend the cultural unity of India, albeit on their own terms.

The Niti-mandala project is a work in progress. It seeks to promote an informed political discourse by providing a graphical representation of the reality of our politics. It is not fully complete or wholly accurate—it cannot be, unless we bring in n-dimensional hypercubes, and increase ‘n’ to larger and larger values until they tend to infinity. Whatever its academic appeal, the complexity will drive away most people (even those who, like me, have had to deal with n-dimensional hypercubes before graduating). Its purpose is served if it helps us go beyond the ridiculously oversimplified categories of Left, Right and various points in-between.

Finally—the lines separating the pigeonholes are arbitrary. But just as seven colours in the rainbow are a useful simplification, these boxes are too. It is good not to take these lines and boxes too seriously. The danger of labels is that they compel you to behave as the label expects you to. Avoid falling into that trap.