India’s Right Wing: The Power of Labels
(This article is at best of a speculative nature, with me writing out my own understanding of the current political climate, providing whatever evidence or support for my claims as and when I can.)
While it would be misleading to think of religious nationalism as a new concept, either in India or anywhere else in the world, the revival of this concept, mixed with the advent of anti-secular and anti-liberal rhetoric in India, has granted it powers that it hasn’t wielded since the time of monarchs. This power, afforded to it has only increased thanks to changes in the pattern of political discourse which have also changed the manner in which political positions are considered. For example, the current controversy surrounding the construction of the Ayodhya temple is in my opinion missing the true tragedy. By showing liberal outrage directed at the construction, rather than the underlying religiously charged rhetoric behind it its mixture with contemporary politics, India’s left wing is doing itself a disservice.
In this article I intend to analyse exactly how the Indian Far-Right has managed to control political discourse, legitimised ad hominem arguments and how the Left now suffers from political polarisation and anti-intellectualism all thanks to the power of labels.
Not Just the Temple:
As said previously, the current media coverage of the temple construction shows a picture of liberal outrage against the act of construction itself. Whether this is a true representation matters not, especially in the current climate of sensationalist news coverage which intends to entertain rather than inform. Still, it is important to consider two views on this motif, one of a domestic publication and one of an international one and see how the perception of the construction and the structure of reporting changes.
This article by the New York Times starts with the premise of the Ram Mandir construction, then provides a brief idea about the government’s performance regarding the coronavirus outbreak and finally presents a string of government policies on issues such as citizenship and Kashmir to illustrate the point of a growing religious colour behind the policies of this government.
On the other hand, in this article on the News 18 website we see that the focus is not on the Ram Mandir construction as part of a larger pattern, rather it is seen through the lens of party politics, with a highlight being showcased on statements of both the BJP spokespersons and ministers as well as those of the opposition.
Now, obviously no two articles will be the same, in their format, content or tone, but it is interesting that the analysis and linking of the temple’s movement (not just the construction) to previous governmental policies is lacking in most domestic publications. Therein lies the problem. The liberal, secular message that stands as dissent against the government is myopically being portrayed as a matter of party politics, not as an ideological conflict. Moreover, there is the misguided perception of liberal outrage being against the temple, rather than what the temple, and the movement surrounding it entails.
For we must not forget, though the temple construction has come through the orders of the Supreme Court of India, that is not the only event in this saga. Even in the case of the verdict that came in from the Supreme Court there were multiple experts who weighed in, considering the verdict to be influenced by majoritarianism, though I will not go into detail with the verdict, a brief summary can be found in this article.
A Shift to the Far Right:
The first term of the Modi Government was a remarkable one in retrospective, due to the lack of communal overtones in a large number of its policies, in fact at a time the Modi government seemed more focused on infrastructure, the economy, innovation, at least in campaigns and manifestos, rather than spreading and strengthening its parent ideology. This however did not last and towards the end of the first tenure of this government the radical Hindutva rhetoric rose, reaching a fever pitch near the elections, at which time multiple promises were made, not from the perspective of development or economic growth, rather for the purpose of galvanising India’s Far Right. It worked of course and with an increasingly polarised political climate the government has continued down this path bringing into force multiple controversial policies. Therefore, from a moderate Right-Wing government, focused on growth and development, the Modi government embraced aggressive political rhetoric and shifted its main policies to the Far Right.
This shift also marked a change in perception of this government and the Prime Minister at the helm in the eyes of foreign media. This Huffington Post article best chronicles the tale of how media perception regarding the new government has also shifted over the course of its first term. The current feelings are best encapsulated by this quote from the article:
“The recent coverage, however, reflects international media’s exasperation with Modi and his government’s policies, as well as the state of the economy. The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post have all carried articles that have been extremely critical of the Modi government’s push on Kashmir and the CAA. They have extensively covered the lockdown in Kashmir and how security forces have arrested thousands of people.”
Nonetheless, this shift is not something that the Indian diaspora hasn’t grasped, even those who are least interested in politics would have noticed the stark rise in controversy regarding the central government’s recent policies, which when coupled with polarisation and the BJP’s history of association with fundamentalist Hindu political ideologies has mobilised multiple sectors of India’s opposition.
This opposition however, has failed to create a singular campaign against governmental policies and worst of all has failed to have a clearly marked ideological objection to the BJP’s Hindutva platform. This marked failure will lead to erosion in the ranks of India’s Left and one could argue that it already has with the success that the government has had so far in connecting terms such as liberal and secular with negative connotations. The Indian Left is losing this frenzied battle and the reason behind it seems rather clear to me. The Left has allowed religion, mythological figures and religious concepts to fall into the hands of the right, to be used extensively in their political dialogue.
To Claim a Religion:
This tactic isn’t India specific by any means, in fact most right-wing authoritarian ideologues attempt to base their political ideals in the majority religion of their nation. A fact we’ve seen in the current Israeli regime that seems to be leading the nation down a path of theocratic and ethnic nationalism. The same may be found in the Iranian government that after overthrowing the monarchy founded a republic of sorts on theocratic, fundamentalist Islamic ideals. Even in nations such as the United States with a large number of religious minorities, the Right-Wing is markedly evangelical. In fact, in Barrack Obama’s case the right-wing resorted to questioning his religious beliefs, labelling him a Muslim to galvanise the religious Right.
Still, the big caveat in the case of Hinduism is that unlike the aforementioned Abrahamic religions, Hinduism is largely uncodified and many of its ideological tenants are a matter of interpreting the multifaceted tales that are so richly ingrained in the religion. So how has the Indian Right-Wing been able to stake a claim to this seemingly open-ended religion?
In a previous guest article, I had written for Vimukt Vichar I had explored the case for a Hindu Rashtra and gave my counterpoints to the official RSS article on the same. In that article I was able to gain insight to the arguments that the RSS and its ideological family espouse which included painting Hinduism, not as a religion, rather as a cultural-ethnic identity. This conflation of religion with culture has enabled the Indian Hindu Right-Wing to associate all Indian activities and by extension all “pro-Indian” beliefs as inherently ingrained in India’s majority religion.
Using mythological stories and heroes of Indian epics as their poster boys and associating them with their politics has allowed the Indian right to convince the unsuspecting that their ideological beliefs are in fact religiously backed, motivated or even mandated. This has allowed faith to enter the fray of politics, with the left being painted as anti-Hindu. What is worse however is the manner in which any semblance of religion and politics being kept separate has been abandoned, in favour of an emphasis being put on “cultural revivalism” that once again equates culture with religion to the ultimate degree.
Another tactic that has been employed, to an effective degree is the stirring up of anti-elitist sentiments, which the Right has coupled with the perception that all scholars, and by extension liberals fall into this category. That these individuals are separate from the common man, in dreams, thoughts and aspirations and as such cannot be considered as legitimate members of discourse. In their series on religious populism Nadia Marzouki and Duncan McDonnell encapsulate this sentiment by saying:
“At the same time as proclaiming potential doom, however, Right-Wing populists offer their followers exculpation. They tell them that the country’s problems are not their fault. Rather, the people are morally upright citizens who are victims of the elites and all those “others” who do not look like they do, sound like they do, or believe the same things they do.”
Any semblance of dissent from scholars immediately becomes an issue, not of ideological incompatibility, rather the ‘un-Indian’ conduct of these scholars who are then painted as being tainted by ‘Western Ideals’
Perhaps even more alarming is the manner in which religious institutions have been used as political tools, to gain legitimacy, rouse sentiments and galvanise support. Multiple religions have waded into Indian politics, setting bad precedents for the principle of a secular divide between church and state. This further increases doubts as to the manner in which, legislative bodies composed of religious heads and those in power in religious institutions will be able to take actions in a neutral and unbiased manner.
The Double-Edged Sword of Polarisation:
Political polarisation, a growing worldwide phenomenon, especially as politics becomes organised and mobilised on digital platforms, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, with proper utilisation, a solid base of support can be cemented, one which would not waver even in the face of damning evidence. On the other hand, however, critics no longer have room to compromise, every single policy issue becomes a life or death struggle. Therefore, the amount of opposition faced by the government increases substantially. This is something we’ve observed in the months that led up to the lockdown due to the Shaheen Bagh anti-NRC/CAA protests which not only endured through months of political uncertainty but also multiple governmental attempts at conciliation and compromise.
Thus, as social media is weaponised and polarisation takes root, it takes away from the overall discourse that characterises a healthy democracy. In such circumstances, politicised militancy, often on the edge of violence becomes the norm, something we’ve seen with the growth of Hindutva influenced militant groups. This status of militancy is internationally recognised and the continued existence of organisations, on either side of the aisle which indulge in violence only feeds into the ideological isolation that happens due to political polarisation.
Furthermore, at this stage, the ideals of political moderation, centrism and pragmatism have been completely abandoned in favour of a ‘us versus them’ approach to politics. The Indian Right Wing has managed to conflate the liberal tag with ideas such as anti-nationalism, Naxalism, separatism etc. This manner of attack isn’t something that the liberal wing hasn’t seen before. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s The American Prospect he explores the liberal brands image in US politics.
"Branding" refers to the process of turning connotations into denotations. At the outset, words such as liberal or conservative have what semanticists would call "attributive" definitions--they simply mean "one who believes or advocates such and such." Over time, though, a label may be associated with various connotations and stereotypes until it ultimately becomes "referential" rather than attributive--its definition is less a matter of "one who believes" than of "that sort of person.”
The same can be seen in India wherein the terms urban naxalities has been used to mark anyone who may be left leaning, this concept of urban naxalism (which is a real phenomenon first documented in the CPI(M) paper, the Urban Perspective, a banned document in India) has been once again muddled and it’s definition left unclear to be used to politically stigmatise all those who voice dissent. A brand tag is enough to ascertain the political positions of an individual and thus deem them anti-national, jihadi etc. Name calling becomes the norm of political discussion, debates devolving into strawmen arguments and eventually leading to the total breakdown of all forms of actual, constructive argumentation between political ideologies.
Thus, in such a polarised climate, where you are either ‘for India or against India’ by which the current Far-Right ideologues in power mean ‘of our ideology or not’, it is hard not to imagine a scenario where this short-sighted, ham fisted attempt at silencing and ostracising opposition will only fuel the Left Wing extremist ideology the current government wishes to eradicate.
The culmination of this religious fundamentalism, Far-Right extremist rhetoric and political polarisation is found in the sentiment of anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism is a newer addition to India’s political rhetoric but has already taken roots deep within the psyche of multiple types of voters.
Mona Mehta in her article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research explores anti-intellectual rhetoric as employed by India’s political populists. She states that based on the classification of India’s liberals into either the ‘Urban English Elite’ or ‘Regional Liberals’ the reaction of India’s Right-Wing populists are as follow:
“The Hindu nationalist parliamentary election campaigns of 2014 and 2019 unleashed a scathing populist attack on ‘English liberals’ as the enemies of the people. In addition to being accused of corruption, these elites were scorned for claiming to champion the liberal ideals of the Indian Constitution while being culturally westernised, out-of-touch with grass-roots/rural India, lacking facility in regional languages, and being ashamed to embrace the dominant Hindu Brahmanical culture.”
“The slain rationalist and medical doctor Narendra Dabholkar, labour organiser and human rights activist Govind Pansare, the Kannada language poet-academic and Lingayat social reformer MM Kalburgi, and anti-caste writer-activist and publisher of a popular Kannada language tabloid Gauri Lankesh were the very epitome of ‘regional liberals.’ Their brutal murders between 2013 and 2017 by conservative groups attest to the threat their written works and social engagement posed to the hegemonic social order in Hindu society.”
However, I find that this sort of rigid classification doesn’t fit well, especially now that the political battleground has shifted to the digital domain. Despite this however, the limited influence that the “English Liberals” (myself included) wield compared to more charismatic, politically involved individuals is palpable.
A lack of true, on ground connection between liberal intelligentsia and the common citizenry has only helped perpetuate the stereotype of the left being compulsively anti-India or anti-Hindu. This is in contrast to the approach that Indian socialists took pre-independence, wherein connection with the people, mobilisation of grass-roots movements etc were undertaken, not only by those who lived in those regions but also by the intellectual powerhouses of this fledgling ideology. Another issue is the active acceptance of western political strategies such as internet cancel culture, rabid identity politics etc which do not hold true in India’s multi-layered, culturally diverse populace. As Asim Ali puts it:
“There are lessons for the Anglophone liberal-Left ecosystem to be drawn from the defeats of their Western cousins. You don’t persuade by either patronising or condemning, only by engaging. And you deplete your own strength by ‘cancelling’ people broadly on your side, whether historical figures such as Gandhi or even the much-despised elite liberals.”
Like most other concepts discussed here, anti-intellectual rhetoric isn’t an India only concept.
Anti-intellectualism is in fact a major phenomenon in the US, one which has been explored in various articles, studies, journals and books. Michiko Kakutani would describe the effects of anti-intellectualism as follows:
“Conservatives have turned the term “intellectual,” like the term “ liberal,” into a dirty word, in politics policy positions tend to get less attention than personality and tactics in the current presidential campaign; and the democratizing influence of the Internet is working to banish expertise altogether, making everyone an authority on everything.”
This phenomenon in the US is often compared to the McCarthyism of Cold War (or some would argue, even present day) America, wherein an ideological disagreement is enough to paint one’s opponent as against the cultural values, patriotic symbols and overall ethos of the nation, a comparable technique to present day Indian internet political discourse.
Nevertheless, both in and outside India anti-intellectual rhetoric remains on the rise, for it is a reactionary concept, borne from the suspicion of a perceived liberal advantage in the academia and those involved in higher education. In India this has manifested as a disdain for intellectuals such as Ramchandra Guha and Romila Thapar. These individuals, experts in their fields are objected to because in the words of one BJP leader:
“We said we want intellectuals in our educational institutes and not anti-nationals”
Those who disagree with India’s Far-Right thus become anti-nationals, faux intellectuals and westernised Indians.
Therefore, India’s Far-Right today claims the tag of patriotic, nationalistic, pro-Hindu and wishes to continue its hegemony on these concepts. Using the power of controlled discourse, anti-intellectualism and political polarisation, the current political scenario of India seems bleak, on the edge of militancy and political violence.
At this point, it becomes important for both sides of the aisle to understand the need for civil, constructive discourse, at the same time the Left must revitalise its grassroots support, both to build a solid political platform and to dispel with rumours, stereotypes and negative media images about the Left.