Five Types of Right-Wing Commentary in Contemporary India

Published: September 26, 2015 19:21 IST
One of the features of the present political moment is the richness of right-wing opinion that animates the columns of our newspapers and websites. After decades of subfusc existence conservative pundits are out in the open in the altogether, tanning themselves in the glow of Narendra Modi's sun lamp. The light has an orange tint, the air smells a little of sulphur, bleating liberals gasp for oxygen, but the big beasts of the right are in good voice.

The Lifers, the older ones who cheered L.K. Advani on in his pink chariot, who watched in awed delight as the Babri Masjid fell, who discerned a silver lining in the killings that followed, an early Hindu dawn, now bask in the warmth of vindication. What was once prejudice is now prescience; Lifers might even get written into history books as heralds of the 'Hindu' turn. There's a new virility to their writing; freed of the euphemisms that cripple politically correct conversation, they can now name the blights that beleaguer Bharat: treachery, sodomy, self-hatred.

The Laterals moved sideways to the right. Roughly the same age as the Lifers, they made the shift later in life so their narratives are necessarily different. Looking left as they crabwalk in the opposite direction, their special talent is the existential voice-over in which they detail the reasons for their conversion. These are various: dynasty and democracy, the regressiveness of caste politics, the menace of Maoists, the insidiousness of Islamists, the need for change, but rhetorically the most powerful justification is Modi's potential to transform the Indian economy. Of all the slides that bear people from the centre to the right in India, the economy supplies the smoothest ride.

It lets the Lateral feel like a doctor in the emergency room, doing triage. What should he save, secularism or the economy? The economy, naturally. The well-being of the poor hinges on it; ergo, people who obsess over secularism are elitists. This is a sophisticated, post-ironical move: the middle-aged economists, CEOs, touts and make-over artists that crowd Lutyens' Dehi have found in the economy a secular reason for rallying round Modi.

The Latelies are a sub-set of the Laterals. They are younger, itinerant and always online. They are thirty-ish Anglophones -- journalists, academics, think-tank seminarists -- who lead (or have led) non-resident lives. They are ambitious professionals who self-identified as conservatives but were hesitant to come out in support of Modi because of the Gujarat pogrom. Embedded in North American institutions, they were constrained by politically correct pieties till a few months before the 2014 elections when they drowned their inhibitions in the building tide of support for Modi. Their timelines bear witness to this pivot; from echoing standard liberal concerns about Modi's connection with the 2002 pogrom in 2013 to cheer-leading his ascension in 2014 is not a shift that is easily explained away.

The Latelies are unfairly accused of opportunism when their motives are more mixed. They support Modi both out of conviction and as a career move. Had Modi lost they would have remained closet majoritarians; now that he's won they can give their inner Hindu an airing. They are rhetorically interesting because their experience of being part of a non-white minority in America has taught them the tropes of victimhood. It allows them, for instance, to virtuously identify with the RSS when that organisation fulminates against Christian missionaries in India; instead of feeling like bullies picking on a tiny Indian minority, they feel like Lilliputians standing up to a global evangelical behemoth.

The Latelies use two ramps to the right. First, the pressing need for business-friendly economic reforms which they share with the Laterals and second, the need for a potent foreign policy which is an issue that's quite their own. The first is an alibi for moving right; the second is the sublimation of the urge to be a muscular Hindu into the diplomacy needed to build a virile state.

This leaves us with two categories, Liberals and Lumpen. It is rare but not unheard of for liberals to make common cause with majoritarians. After the Allahabad High Court judgment on the dispute over the site of the razed Babri Masjid, several liberal voices came out in support of a verdict that rewarded the Hindu parties to the suit with two-thirds of the disputed land. These Liberals offered reasons both nuanced and crude for their endorsement; this not the place to rehearse them. Suffice it to say that this endorsement defined them as irrevocably as the endorsement of the Iraq War defined American liberals seduced by Bush. Through the tenure of a Narendra Modi government the Babri Masjid issue will inevitably be agitated and it will be interesting to see if these Liberals resile from their positions or hold fast to them and make common cause with this regime.

While discussing right-wing commentary in India, the Lumpen need no introduction. Lumpen offerings in the online world are a form of ambient noise rather than argument, but they serve an important rhetorical function. On Twitter, for example, Lumpen constitute the force-multiplying audience that amplifies right-wing arguments offered by Lifers, Laterals, Latelies and, sometimes, Liberals. More importantly, the rage, profanity and bigotry of these trolls is a reminder that stripped of rhetorical flourish, right-wing politics in India amounts to little more than a majoritarian loathing of Muslims and Others.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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