Aatish Taseer and Amulya Gopalakrishnan on India’s Right Wing Populist Fog
The New York Times - November 29, 2016
Does India’s Right Wing Have Any Ideas?
by Aatish Taseer
GOA, India — The three places to which I am connected by birth, origin and marriage — Britain, India and the United States — have now experienced revolutions at the ballot box. In each, an election has revealed that liberal, globalized coastal elites stand at a tremendous remove from heartlands in open revolt. The revolt does not look to the left for inspiration but to the right. Make no mistake: “Liberal” and “left” are now said in the same breath as “corrupt establishment,” and those with torches and pitchforks are nativists, populists and nationalists of every stripe.
In India, the left lost the battle. But this month, at what was described as “a conclave of ideas” organized by the Hindu right, I was reminded of a simple truth: Winning is not everything.
The right wing won an electoral mandate in 2014, but it still has a tremendous sense of intellectual inadequacy. The conclave here in Goa was about building what is regularly described on Indian social media as a “right-wing ecosystem” to counter the left’s alleged control of the news media and academia.
We came to this sleepy seaside state — more familiar to me, a louche liberal, as a backdrop for raves than for heated discussion about Hindu civilization — to address what the historian Ramachandra Guha has described as the “paradox” at the heart of Indian public life: “While the country has a right-wing party in power, right-wing intellectuals run thin on the ground.”
The conclave was organized by the India Foundation, a think tank that “seeks to articulate Indian nationalistic perspective on issues.” It is openly supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and I was invited to the conclave by the party’s general secretary.
It was a ragtag coalition that collected at a sprawling resort, with a golf course and a swimming pool overlooking the Arabian Sea. In addition to the senior leaders of the B.J.P., there were right-wing Twitter personalities who had taken to social media because of what they described as the “inherent bias” of the traditional news media; there were American Vedic experts who railed against a secular state that rejected its Hindu past; there were Muslim baiters; there were pseudo-historians who have rewritten Indian history to fit the political needs of the present.
What all these people had in common was an immense sense of grievance against an establishment they had vanquished electorally, but whose ideas still defined them. As the journalist Ashok Malik said while pointing out the right’s many victories, “Rather than confidently advance tomorrow’s agenda, the intellectual warriors of the right are still comfortable fighting the battles of yesterday.”
The targets of their rage are internationally familiar: the liberal elite, the news media, academia. But in India there is an added twist, a double sense of affront. It was not merely elitism that the New Right is reacting against, but an elitism that had the secret backing of the West, through its various newspapers, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks.
“So if you are an embattled Hindu, or even an atheist Indian,” Rajeev Srinivasan wrote in the right-wing magazine Swarajya, “you feel there is an entire constellation of powers with a negative intent arrayed against you, and that they have created a galaxy of sepoys, especially in media and academia.”
Historically, a “sepoy” was an Indian soldier serving in the British Army. It has become a favorite jibe on the right for an Anglicized liberal elite that was seen to be working against its own country.
At first glance it would seem that Shaurya Doval, who had organized the conclave, is part of such an elite. His father had been the director of India’s internal intelligence agency. He grew up in privilege, traveling the world. He has a business degree from the University of Chicago, and spent 10 years as a Wall Street banker.
But Mr. Doval, in fact, represents a new pain that globalization has wrought: the pain of cultural loss. In America, he had a revelation. “The eureka moment,” he told me, “came when I discovered the disconnect between what India really is, and who I am.”
It was true. The Indian elite had gloried in this disconnect; “foreigners in their own land,” Gandhi had called them in 1916. Even the modern state had in many ways been an extension of colonial power. Here, in Goa, it was as if the entire intellectual enterprise was suspect. Many felt that Western ideas like liberalism, secularism and freedom of speech had been used cynically against them to maintain the power of a cultural oligarchy. These exalted words were now terms of abuse.
But that did not mean the right wing had ideas of its own. Mr. Doval spoke of the need for “modern Indian state players” to make “a connect” with “India’s civilizational ethos.” He felt India had not been able to unlock the potential of its young, energetic population because the modern state represented too abrupt a break with the continuity of old India.
But was it really possible to reverse this process? Could modern India be remade to fit these sentimental longings? And didn’t all modernity represent a rupture with tradition?
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which had, until recently, dominated politics since independence, was the supreme political achievement of an older English-speaking elite. Mr. Modi’s election was the crowning achievement of this new Indian elite.
The writer Patrick French, who was also at the Goa conclave, said of the right, “I’ve never ignored these people because I could see they had a political future.”
And he was right. But their success had also awakened them to the pain of their history: 800 years of Muslim rule, then two centuries of British rule and, even when independence came, India’s uncolonized Hindu majority felt oppressed by a Westernized elite whose power was inseparable from Europe and America. Many felt that the West, in confusing India’s liberals with its own, had ended up in cahoots with what was not merely India’s 1 percent, but its 0.001 percent.
As Nirpal Dhaliwal wrote last year in the Indian blog Daily O, “The West’s viewpoint of India is profoundly skewed by the fact that English-speaking Indians have historically come from highly privileged and secure backgrounds — people whose views are to be the most distrusted because they are precisely the people most unsettled by India’s increasingly upwardly mobile population.”
But all that was finished now. What the ascendant right wing needed was something more than a sense of hurt. They needed ideas.
It was precisely these that were in short supply in Goa. Mr. Doval’s vision of “a deeper connect” with old India was determinedly vague. As with so many utopias — “Make America Great Again”; the golden period of the Prophet Muhammad — it seemed to be more a critique of the present than an informed vision of the past. I felt that what lay behind it were the passions of people who had felt marginalized in a country where they were the majority.
After the conclave, I drove to the airport with a small-time B.J.P. politician from Delhi. When he heard I had been to college in America, he said with pride that his daughter had just started her first semester at New York University. It made me smile: The Indian revolution was following a familiar pattern. Its children wanted what those before them had had. One elite had been supplanted, but the marks of prestige were the same — it would not be long before a new generation of sepoys was born.
Aatish Taseer is a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of the novel “The Way Things Were.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 30, 2016, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Does India’s right have any ideas?.
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The Times of India - December 6, 2016
Of elites and underdogs: Right-wing populists strike anti-rich poses but undercut equality in practice
by Amulya Gopalakrishnan
Everybody hates ‘elites’ these days. Demonetisation, with the economic turmoil it is wreaking, might work out for Prime Minister Narendra Modi only if people feel that some rich person somewhere, is suffering more. BJP is trying its best to stoke this sentiment; the PM has reminded everyone of his chaiwala past, claiming to serve a strong brew that the poor liked, and the rich did not.
Whipping up feeling against elites has a long history in India, and has been a winning strategy around the world. In the UK and US, in Hungary and Poland and Turkey, right-wing populists have come to power by attacking the establishment ‘swamp’. Modi’s 2014 campaign made much of his rattling the Lutyens’ cabal, the Delhi sultanate.
But what almighty establishment are these right-wing revolutionaries attacking? Traditional right-left categories are scrambled in these times of runaway populism. For some, ‘the elite’ might mean tycoons and their fixers. Others despise drawing-room liberals and professors and opinion-shapers. For some, they are civil servants and judges. For others, they are neoliberal technocrats. They might be traditional inheritors, or meritocracy’s winners.
The word ‘people’ is just as fuzzy a category. It is composed of students and farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, servicemen and corporate executives, Muslim women, Brahmin men, sexual minorities – with different, sometimes clashing interests. By collapsing politics into an emotional confrontation of People vs Elite, we look away from the actual choices that a party makes as it governs.
The populist imagination dramatically pits ‘the real people’ against those in charge, and leaves the details for you to fill in, as politics scholar Jan-Werner Muller has analysed in his recent book. Modi is a populist demagogue from the right, Kejriwal from somewhere leftish. But always, when a populist leader says ‘the people’, she or he is implying the popular will wants only one thing. They ignore or demonise the voices who don’t agree.
In perfectly circular logic, the populist leader says, “Only I represent the people, only those who vote for me are the real people.” If they lose or stumble, it’s because their opponents have rigged the game. Right-wing chatter is full of conspiracy theories about how the opposition, the media and other Lutyens’ forces are plotting to make demonetisation fail.
Many Modi supporters are insecure in victory, seeing sabotage everywhere. They are a majority that can’t shake off its sense of injury. Most voices that champion their cause are no less privileged than the liberals and progressives they resent, but are permanently aggrieved. The American political analyst John Judis suggests that left-wing populism is a binary of people below and elites above, while right-wing populism is triadic – people accuse the elites of coddling a third out-group – minorities or immigrants or whatever.
Right-wing populist leaders often hold out their own life stories as parables. Modi presents himself as the OBC chaiwala who made good, as the fakir with few belongings. When asked about policy choices that hurt the poor – like his attempts to dilute MGNREGA or bring in a harsh land acquisition law – he rakes up his own past poverty, as though that excuses him from having to equalise opportunity for others. Populism can hurt the poor even as it gives rousing voice to their dissatisfactions.
By contrast, while UPA cronies made out like bandits in those years of high growth, that government oversaw the steepest fall in poverty, set impressive records in nutrition, education and life expectancy. Modi has kept some initiatives, Aadhaar to Jan Dhan accounts to skilling, but his big moves are top-down stunts like demonetisation, and private-participation boondoggles like smart cities and bullet trains.
This cast of mind is perfectly natural, given whom his party represents – the better-off are more likely to gravitate to BJP. It is still a dense bloc of class and caste privilege, despite its 2014 inroads into non-traditional groups. One in four poor people voted BJP but between one in two and one in three upper- and middle-class voters chose BJP, according to CSDS data.
75% of its top leadership is upper-caste, much higher than any other party. It is clearly on good terms with wealth, and outspends every other party in elections. The super-rich have expanded their wealth much faster under this government, as the recent Credit Suisse report shows.
BJP’s instinct is to announce a lofty goal it believes in, and care little if it hurts the most vulnerable in the process. Think of panchayat election eligibility requirements that BJP state governments have enacted – effectively punishing large numbers of the rural poor, especially women and Dalits, who did not get a chance at full formal education, or who may be in debt or lack a loo – but should still have a right to represent themselves. Even the PM’s casual remarks about “beggars using swipe machines” reveal an empty fetishisation of technology combined with a refusal to think of those who remain under-served. Demonetisation is remarkably heedless about the pain caused to the worst-off and the unbanked.
So Modi’s Robin Hood moves are not about bringing lasting gains for the poor. So far, nothing in his administrative record or his sources of support incline him in that direction either. Like all populist leaders, he just uses words to create a fog.