How Left and Right ideologies make and unmake India
They are both capable of profound self-deception.
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Although we seek unity in science and authenticity in personal experience, we are aware of a split within. At the most fundamental level, we know we are the body, but also the spirit.
Social processes viewed through the lenses of the body and the spirit lead to two opposing camps. On the one side are those who are primarily concerned about the body; this is the camp of the Left, and it includes feminists, socialists, communists, and others who want a bureaucracy to regulate society. On the other side is the Right, which believes that spirit should be given central role in society and it includes traditionalists - the representatives of tradition, religion, and established social structures. If the Left speaks of progress, the Right speaks of human spirit and personal responsibility. The Left wishes man to go back to his natural state and supports sexual freedom because that is what one sees in the animal kingdom, although some animals mate for life. The Right believes that one’s personal drives should be balanced with the demands of family and society.
We find ourselves choosing one camp or the other based on the culture we grew up in, the values of the family, and the education we had received in school and college. The votaries of both camps have powerful myths and stories to spread their message. Since teachers have great influence over their impressionable wards, schools and colleges are where new recruitment to one camp or the other is made. And then there is the media that influences peoples’ views.
Evolution of polarities
Ever since revolutionary Paris of the 1790s, the Left has sought to tear down social institutions and moral codes associated with tradition. Revolutionary France wished to destroy not only the monarchy and the nobility, but also organised religion and the family - institutions in which moral values of traditional society were preserved.
The Left has adapted to historical conditions. With the rise of the Soviet Union, its main objective became socialist control. After the Second World War, even the West experimented with increased taxation and bureaucratic control. The prestige of socialism came down with the success of capitalism during the 1960s and the '70s, but socialist ideas continued to remain attractive as a means of income redistribution.
As socialist economies of Russia and China collapsed, the Left turned its focus on gender and ethnic issues. The adoption of sexual revolution as one of its goals by modern feminism is one of the hallmarks of the post-socialist Left. This was in opposition to the attitudes of most educated women until the 1960s. Until that period, magazines and books took men to be the initiators and beneficiaries of sexual liberation, women as intolerant of promiscuity and victims of predatory men.
The introduction of the contraceptive pill around 1960 brought fundamental change. Fears of overpopulation legitimated a contraceptive ethic throughout the middle class society in the West and these ideas were quickly adopted by China, India and other countries as well. The pill gave women a feeling of control over their sexual activity and eroded the social and psychological resistance to premarital sex. No-fault divorce, first adopted by the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution of 1917, was eventually embraced by the West. This began to undermine the idea of marriage as a binding mutual contract oriented towards procreation and nurture of children. It also led to the unanticipated increase in unwed pregnancies.
Early versions of feminism tended to embrace children and elevate motherhood, but the more recent adversarial feminism preaches that children and childbearing are at the heart of the subjugation of women. According to this radical feminism, women can achieve dignity and self-fulfilment in modern society by distancing themselves from a kind of marriage in which a mother's temptation to be with and enjoy several children becomes a synonym for holding women back and cheating them out of professional success.
The political alliance of the Left is based on group identity and encouraging feelings of victimhood and grievance. The alliance on the Right is based on an orderly adaptation to the imperative of changing economic conditions. The leaders of the Left speak of technical competence to manage the complexity of society whereas the Right speaks of the collective wisdom emerging from the personal decisions of the many individuals.
The Left wants socialised medicine, housing and jobs in various professions to be proportional to the population of various ethnic groups; in India, it also wants admission in schools and colleges as well as the hiring of faculty according to ethnic quotas. The Left critiques the hegemony of the entrenched groups in the status quo.
The Left recruits people to its cause through narratives on past gender and class inequalities; the Right speaks of the folly of the yearning for utopia.
In many countries, the views of the Left and the Right are the basis of the ideology of competing political parties. The push and pull between these two polarities make it possible to arrive at broadly supported middle positions.
In India, the control of the media and educational materials for over half-a-century by the proponents of the Left have led to such a broad acceptance of these ideas that in most spheres both the ruling party and the opposition support Leftist ideas. The libertarian view that puts its stock in the ingenuity of individuals is not even considered. Given any grievance, real or imagined, both parties invoke easy solutions involving quotas or set-asides for one group or another.
Both the Left and the Right are capable of profound self-deception. While examples for the Left include genocide of political opponents in communist countries, suppression of free speech, widespread poverty, or control of science as in the Lysenko affair, the instances for the Right are subsidies to farmers and armament manufacturers, astronomical incomes of people on Wall Street and of athletes and actors, and the more recently, bailout of the financial system.
The idea that life can only be seen through material prosperity is the unstated axiom of many groups. But even imperfection is of transcendent value to humanity. Patients of Down’s Syndrome are known to claim that the joy they bring to their life from the very nature of their innocence is invaluable. But for the Left, this is anathema and radical feminists were furious that Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice presidentship of the US in 2008, should have knowingly allowed the pregnancy of her Down’s Syndrome child to proceed. In India, where the Left controls ideas across the entire political spectrum, there is no opposition to abortion, except where gender is an issue.
The Right in India is confused about its role and mission. It is reactive and its politics driven by tactics necessary to win political power. Once in power, there is little that differentiates it from the Congress or other political parties.
It does have an emotional attachment to Hinduism but that is not enough since “Hinduism” means so many different things to different people. In practice, this translates to some sops given to leaders of Hindu organisations.
In recent years, the Right has begun to use the term “Hindutva” as equivalent to “Hindu nationalism” to be its ideology. But this is an empty term since both “Hindu” and “nationalism” may be defined in diverse ways depending on one’s perspective. Hindutva, as an ideology, can only mean emotionalism that would be unable to stand up to powerful ideologies inimical to Hinduism.
The fundamental question that the Right needs to consider in India is what public policy will strengthen human spirit and bring material prosperity. It needs a vision that defines India of, say, 2050, so that it becomes clear what initiatives now would facilitate that future. It also needs to have a narrative that is universal and not tied in an emotional sense to ideas that have come out of the Indian subcontinent alone.