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.

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.