Bare right field
As a believer in the promise of democracy first and above all, I long
for the checks and balances of competing ideologies. Yet for too long
in this country, we heard only, or largely, the voice of the left, and
the right that did emerge eventually was itself flawed, writes
22 June 2007
- Yesterday marked 30 years of continuous rule by the left in West
Bengal. Two images in my mind tell me all I need to know about the
benefits or otherwise of that long uninterrupted spell of governance or
One is Nandigram.
The questioning of what passes for 'development', the violence and
killing that came as answer ... what else is there to say? Justice and
development, courtesy West Bengal's left front government: for better
or worse, embodied forever in my mind by the thought of a government
turning on its own people. A government that claims to stand for the
people, turning on its people.
The second is from a deserted crossroad in
Purulia district, eight years ago. A friend was taking me from one
village to another on his motorbike, and we stopped at this dusty
intersection for a cup of chai. Also sitting there, incongruously, was
a dapper little man, spiffily dressed and thirty-something, reading a
newspaper and drinking chai as well.
My friend greeted him. He mumbled something and
nodded, then went back to his paper. Afterwards, I asked my friend
about him. "Oh," said my friend, "he's a teacher in the government
school." (Which, I later learned, is about 10 km away.)
Hmm. So at mid-morning on a weekday in the
middle of March, why was this teacher lounging here, drinking chai,
instead of teaching students at his school? "Oh," said my friend,
chuckling at the city-bred innocence of my questions, "he never goes to
the school! Well, except once a month, when he reports there to collect
Education, courtesy West Bengal's left front
government: for better or worse, embodied forever in my mind by the
memory of that chai-sipping 'schoolteacher'.
So why has such a regime lasted 30 years?
Many reasons I can think of, but here's the one
that probably disturbs me most: the failure of the right to offer a
credible alternative to the voter who goes to the polls. Not just in
West Bengal, but all over this country.
As a believer in the promise of democracy first and above all, I long
for the checks and balances of competing ideologies. Even if I disagree
with some of them. For democracy means just this much - that all voices
are heard and considered. Not necessarily that all ideas are followed,
but that they are heard. That's the vision, after all, of the great
marketplace of ideas, all competing for public attention.
Yet for too long in this country, we heard
only, or largely, the voice of the left. That's why the 'socialism'
that we enshrined in our Constitution. That's why the peculiar tyranny
that political parties in this country must swear by socialism if they
want to be recognised. That much sworn, of course parties interpret
that word as they wish. But where does that leave a rightist party that
repudiates socialism, that even finds it repugnant, and wants to be
true to itself - as we would want any party to be? What is such a party
The remnants of Minoo Masani's old Swatantra
Party, guided by the excellent S V Raju, is actually trying to
challenge this. They want to register a political party that rejects
socialism. But as Raju wrote to Mint
recently, "under current law, no party that refuses to accept socialism
can get registered as a political party." Why should they be
ideologically hamstrung by swearing allegiance to an idea they reject?
Raju has gone to court to challenge this. But how absurd that it takes
a fight in court to simply hold true to your convictions! I wish
courage and stamina to these men in what will be a long battle: they filed their petition in 1996!
But with that said, there's a flip side to the
failure. The right parties that have found prominence in this country -
that even managed to form a coalition at the Centre for five years -
are unable to escape the seductive charm of the appeal along religious
lines. No, it's worse. It's not that they are unable to escape it, it's
that they crave it. That they know no other way to be. They give us
nationalism equated to religion, and dress that up as rightist
You'd think a mere glance across our western
border would be enough to understand the great danger of, the utter
hoax of, religious nationalism. But clearly it isn't. We have those in
our country who aspire only to mirror the sickness in Pakistan. And
there lies a great irony of modern India.
Years of Congress rule, or misrule, left
Indians like me weary, despondent and longing for a change. Poverty,
corruption, inefficiency, unaccountability, injustice, the despotism of
the Emergency - these were the things that came to define India under
the Congress. So Indians like me welcomed the rise of the BJP: for the
first time, here was a national alternative to the Congress. Here was
hope of deliverance from the many ills of the Congress brand of
socialism. Here was hope for true democracy, in the sense of a strong
and vibrant right.
Yet in power, the BJP proved itself no less
than a Congress clone, and in many ways even worse. If you can believe
that. This party was just as indifferent to corruption and poverty and
unaccountability, just as unwilling to tackle injustice, but just as
willing to perpetrate it. Indeed: if the Congress plumbed new depths of
Indian evil with the Delhi massacres of 1984, the BJP plumbed the same
depths in Gujarat in 2002. And their own special icing on top was the
way they rode to power on religious appeals, subtle and not-so-subtle.
The way they hold fast to those appeals.
The irony, the tragedy, is that this has left
us with no alternative, no hope. The Congress failed us so we turned
'right', to the BJP. The BJP failed us, so where do we turn? Where is
the party that will shun both socialism and religion and give us a
credible Indian right? Fighting for its ideology in the High Court,
That being so, I remain confident of seeing at
least one sight when I next travel past that junction in Purulia. That
same dapper schoolteacher, or perhaps his successor, will be there
sipping chai instead of teaching Indian kids. Instead of doing the
Indian job he collects wages to do. ⊕
22 Jun 2007
Dilip D'Souza writes
regularly on the living conditions of India's downtrodden people. He is
the author of two books Branded by Law: Looking at India's Denotified
Tribes [Penguin 2001], and more recently, The Narmada Dammed: An
Inquiry into the Politics of Development. He was a Scholar of Peace
Fellow with WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace)
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Dilip, this is a very strange piece I must say. Since when the
"left" in India become the sole preserve of the CPM in Bengal? The
Congress was never a "left" party - much as it tried to co-opt various
We have no shortage of fascist parties and business parties, what we
need is not more right-wing parties or more parties in general, but a
truly politicised and empowered populace.
But where is the role of "PEOPLE" in the whole scenario of
democratic India? Its only political parties, all of whom are only FOR
POWER, for which they can willingly shun their long cherished
I believe that the scope of people's role inside and outside the
political parties and government must go up, to bring a better polity
and governance. The political parties can kick start this process by
adopting various methods e.g. the enactment of RTI that provided the
scope for the role of people in governance. The political parties
should also undertake some internal reforms like regular elections at
every levels, 33% reservation for women and even a few percentage of
handicap people within their cadres and in the number of candidates
they file in elections at different levels. That will make the parties
people's parties not individual centric. Admittedly, due to the feudal
mindset the people at large do accept the unchallengeable authority of
a few individuals at the help of the political parties dictating the
terms, but this has also to do with the parties' prevaing structure and
lod, I would like to see a "truly politicised and empowered populace
too" -- and I believe one way to get there is for responsible, credible
political parties to emerge. On the right as on the left. That's the
meaning of democracy.
Agree with most everything, except for the cursory dismissal of the BJP as a credible right-wing alternative.
Much of the successful American right-wing rode on their Christian
credentials. That didn't make them wrong or inconsequential, it
actually was a positive force that strengthened them. To equate, or
even compare, the BJP to violence-worshipping mullahs, the Taliban, or
military dictatorships is simply literary sensationalism.
Look how peacefully the BJP respected the wishes of the electorate at the last election. Give them some credit.
Thanks for the response, Dilip. I guess I'll respond on two fronts:
a) I really don't think we've a shortage of right-wing parties in
India. Even fascist parties have considerable support, so they're
credible in that regard - that credibility maybe troubling, but it
b) I guess we'd have to respectfully agree to disagree on the
'meaning of democracy'. Real democracy to me has to go much beyond
electoral politics. Parties want to restrict the realm of the body
politic to party politics and electoral politics. This has generally in
history led to party interests being prioritised over people's
Party politics is very seductive, as it dangles this carrot of 'let's
just take over the government and right all the wrongs'. Ultimately
though, I think those of us that would like to see progressive change
would be better served building movements outside of party politics. It
is the harder, rockier road, but the road I think we must take.
All this said, I certainly agree with you that forcing parties to swear by socialism is silly.
I think that a great disservice to both the left and the right is
being done by calling any political party in India as being one of
either. There are no political parties in India that can clearly fit
into one or the other category. The whole lot are simply opportunistic.
The leftists have been barnacles whose sole purpose in life, being a
nuisance, has been achieved and now they are in the process of
calcification. They are as opportunistic as the rest.
The so called Right, which is I suppose the BJP, has no ideology
whatsoever, other than to be contrary to everything that the Congress
wants to do.
The so called center, The Congress, if it has an ideology at all, none in that party can articulate it.
To incorporate "Socialist" as part of your parties aims etc, is the
proof of all that I have said here. We are a nation that thrives on
semantics. We are great at fooling ourselves with righteous indignation
just as the writer is doing here.
The writer and the commentators here, including yours truly, are not
part of the democratic process. We are simply the source for funds to
keep the government, the politicians and the oligarchies functional. If
we go to vote, it is because we think that it is our duty. It really
does not matter. The number of legislators coming out of the urban set
up, does not matter either in the center or in the states.
You can dream till the cows come home. That teacher will still be there exactly where you found him, when you go there next.
I somewhat agree with the author. We don't have a credible national
Conservative or right-wing party in India. As a Christian, I could
never support the BJP (although I like some of their positions very
much) because of connections to RSS and Hindutva, if an alternative
cross-religious, culturally conservative party were to emerge I would
vote for them. I don't care if Sonia Gandhi is a Catholic, the Congress
are too liberal and their values are far too distant from mine.
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