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.

On liberal nationalism

Connecting liberalism, nationalism and realism

Let’s start with an axiom: all individuals are free, and from this freedom, they possess certain inalienable rights. They possess these rights and freedoms at all times, but in a state of nature, their ability to enjoy the freedom and exercise the rights is circumscribed by their individual power. In Indian philosophy, the state of nature is termed as matsya nyaya, or the law of the fishes, a condition under which the stronger fish eats the weaker fish. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, describes this as the time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Life, therefore, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To better enjoy their rights and freedoms, individuals trade-off a part of their freedom for the security offered by a state. Hence Kautilya writes

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.[Arthashastra I:13]

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate: in his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights to a government that rules by the consent of the governed.

This trade-off forms the basis of modern liberal democratic states. The exact implementation differs from state to state, and depends on a number of factors. But most often, the social contract is codified in a constitution. Constitutions are not, and do not have to be either perfect or immutable. To varying degrees, they affirm the rights of the individual and offer an enlightened method to settle the differences between the interests of individuals. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan, modern constitutions also, to varying degrees, make the government itself subject to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the state is necessary for the practical enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. The survival and security of the state—often termed “the national interest”—is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom. Put in another way, the “national interest” is the well-being and development of all its citizens.

If we adopt this people-centric definition of the national interest, how should one regard territory? Is territorial integrity uncompromisable? Not quite. To the extent territory is necessary for the well-being and development of all citizens, holding the territory is in the national interest. Where territorial compromises enhance the well-being of citizens, they are in the national interest. In the state-centric formulation, the objective question is whether acquiring, keeping or parting with a particular piece of land enhances the survival and security of the state, or not.

While the establishment of a state allows individuals to enjoy their rights—abridged as they are—the relationship between states remains in the world of matsya nyaya or anarchy. To an extent, the development of international law and institutions like the United Nations allow states to pursue ‘rules-based’ relations. But the ultimate arbiter of international relations is power. It follows that to protect its national interests—whether expressed in the people-centric or state-centric terms—states have to maximise their power relative to others. This results in an international balance-of-power, which can be stable or unstable depending on the power dynamics obtaining at a particular moment in time. The objective of the state then, is to maximise its own power to ensure that the international balance-of-power is in its favour.

This is how liberalism, nationalism and realism are connected with each other. Liberalism (or libertarianism, in its American usage) is concerned about individual freedom. To enjoy freedom in practice, the individual gives up some of it to the state. The state, a nation-state in India’s case, exists to ensure the rights, freedoms and well-being (yogakshema) of its people. So ensuring the survival and security of the Indian state—by maximising its relative power internationally—is wholly consistent with allowing its citizens to live in freedom.