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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 50, November 30, 2013

Is there a Hindu Left?

Sunday 1 December 2013, by S G Vombatkere

Left and Right

The contemporary meaning of the political Left and Right originates from the French Revolution (1789-1799). Those who sat on the left opposed monarchy and supported the revolution, including creation of the republic. Those who sat on the right supported the traditional institutions of the erstwhile monarchic regime. In modern times, the Left approach “describes an outlook or specific position that accepts or supports social equality, often in opposition to social hieracrchy and social inequality. It typically involves a concern for those in society who are perceived as disadvantaged relative to others and an assumption that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished.” [<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-w...> ]

In the British context, “Left-wing beliefs are usually progressive in nature, they look to the future, aim to support those who cannot support themselves, are idealist and believe in equality. People who are left wing believe in taxation to redistribute opportunity and wealth—things like a national health service, and job seeker’s allowance are fundamentally Left-wing ideas. They believe in equality over the freedom to fail.” In this view, “Right-wing beliefs value tradition, they are about equity, survival of the fittest, and they believe in economic freedom. They typically believe that business shouldn’t be regulated, and that we should all look after ourselves. Right wing people tend to believe they shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s education or health service. They believe in freedom to succeed over equality.”[<http://idontgetpolitics.co.uk/right...> ]

Though this explanation of Left- and Right-wing beliefs is in the British context, it applies in large measure to the Left and Right in India.

The Indian Scene

In the Indian context, Left has come to mean the socialist and communist political parties and organisations which adopt their ideologies according to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, etc. These Left-wing political entities generally “... aim to support those who cannot support themselves, are idealist and believe in equality ... [and] believe in taxation to redistribute opportunity and wealth”. From whichever religious community they come, ideologically motivated members of these groups are atheists, and have little patience with those who may believe in the philosophy of any religion. They agitate, demonstrate and militate vocally, non-violently or violently for the rights of the downtrodden, the unempowered and the disempowered poor. Likewise, “Right” has come to mean the groups that support the status quo of a ruling class combination of money-power and socio-economic upper class interests. They enforce a top-down-planning, trickle-down-development, market-based-economy model. They create institutional structures (think-tanks, academic chairs, foundations, trusts, etc.) that, on the one hand, neglect or suppress dissent and objections, and, on the other, provide funds and services to promote their development models and philosophy.

Including the niche interests of castes or religious communities, politics in India is a dynamic of the political interactions between the Left and Right. In this dynamic, both the major parties, namely, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are Right, both promoting industrialisation-based growth, both with a stake in the status quo with corporate influence (even infiltration) into the political processes.

The past two decades of coalition politics has shown vicious political competition between the INC, the dominant member in the UPA coalition, and the BJP, the dominant member in the NDA coalition, irrespective of whether they occupy the Treasury or Opposition benches in State or Central legislatures. This political competition is focussed on exposing each other’s political failures and corruption scams. The INC accuses the BJP of communalism and being under the ideological influence of the RSS, while the BJP accuses the INC of being pseudo-secular and pandering to the minorities for political gain. Both accusations include substantive truths. The INC blames the BJP for the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the BJP retaliates with accusations of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs under INC rule, and neither solves any of the problems. The BJP claims to represent all Hindus, while the INC takes Hindus for granted in its cynical electoral calculus based on capturing minority support.

The BJP is under the ideological (Hindutva) thrall and political control of the RSS which heads the Sangh Parivar [Ref. 1], while the INC appears to be drifting in a rudderless and leaky political boat commanded and guided by neo-liberal economists who are increasingly distant from the realities of Bharat, and authoritarian to boot. And both parties are sleeping partners with big money, often the same corporate, which keeps top party functionaries of both parties happy, so that whichever wins the elections, the corporate comes out on top. Of course, this also happens with other political parties.

The BJP, basically an “upper-caste” party, secure in its belief that it represents all Hindus, is trying to induct Muslims into its fold by many means, including inducing them to attend BJP rallies wearing “Muslim clothes”. And the INC, with its worn-out politics of pseudo-secularism and Muslim appeasement, neglects Hindus. By playing the corporate-dictated game, both the BJP and INC, with their near-identical economic policies, place the vast masses (70 per cent of our 1.3 billion existing on under Rs 20 per day) under increasing economic stress, unmindful of the fact that they are mostly Hindus. The political importance of around 900 million Hindus appears to be lost on both the leading political parties.

Hindus

Hindus are of very many kinds, but for the limited purpose of the present discussion, one can group them broadly into four categories. One kind visits temples, performs pooja, homa, believes in vaastu and astrology,etc., and observes religious festivals according to the customs of their caste or denomination. This kind of Hindu is mostly found among the socio-economic lower middle classes. Even while observing traditional Hindu practices and rituals, many such Hindus are liberal in outlook and tolerant towards other religions in the understanding that “God is One, though different people call Him by different names”. But when such a Hindu is intolerant of non-Hindus, he/she is a sympathiser, votary, supporter or a member of a Right-wing Hindu political party such as the BJP or Shiv Sena, or Hindutva organisations like the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Manch, etc., collectively known as the “Sangh Parivar”. The Sangh Parivar can therefore only claim to represent a fraction of the first kind of Hindu.

There is another kind of Hindu, a huge majority, found among the economically poorer sections. He/she is often ritual-bound and devout, subject to the evils of the brahminical Hindu caste system which he/she cannot oppose or even question, and is more concerned with caste-based politics than religion-based politics. These Hindus mostly live hand-to-mouth and seek social and economic security. Their dream is for social justice, economic equity and fair opportunity. However, easily misled, they may readily speak or act against persons who belong to castes different from themselves, or against other religious communities, if they feel that their economic interests are threatened. Here again, the Sangh Parivar cannot claim to represent more than a small fraction of this category; that is, a large fraction is not part of the Hindu Right-wing.

A third kind of Hindu observes and celebrates Hindu calendar events in his/her cultural rather than religious contexts, and usually comes from the middle-to-upper-middle classes. This is the category called “The Great Indian Middle Class”. [Ref. 2] Many of them are academically highly qualified. They may have pooja performed to observe weddings or deaths, and participate not so much as an expression of faith as to not draw adverse comments from relatives and friends. They may even attend religious functions, but participate only as a matter of form. Without denying their Hindu background or origins, many of this category are at ease with members of other religious communities, and readily dine with and even inter-marry with Muslims, Christians or Sikhs, and foreigners. But interestingly, most of these “progressive” Hindus secretly nurse a sense of caste “superiority” over any so-called “lower” castes and especially the Dalits, and may baulk at marrying a Dalit. Nevertheless, he/she is “proud of being a Hindu” while remaining politically distant from the Sangh Parivar, having imbibed some (generally vague) secular values. This class-conscious Hindu is economically upwardly mobile, is strongly in favour of industrialisation, admires wealth and power, aspires to travel abroad and takes pride in his/her progeny studying or working abroad (mostly in the English-speaking USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada), and is all for capitalistic GDP growth.

A fourth category, necessarily minuscule, would be the genuinely secular Hindu who attaches no value to his/her own caste or religion, or to that of another person, and does not observe festivals, but at the same time does not criticise other Hindus’ religious practices. He/she is Hindu because of having been born into a Hindu family, and recognises that people are Muslim, Christian, Sikh, etc. because of the accident of birth.

The Hindu community is both vast and variegated, and its accurate categorisation, if at all possible, would take volumes. So it is necessary to emphasise that the above cursory categorisation is made only for the purpose of discussing the political proclivities of the different categories.

From the foregoing, it may be seen that the Sangh Parivar cannot claim to represent more than a small fraction of the Hindu masses. However, it cannot be concluded that those whom the Sangh Parivar does not represent would automatically be sympathisers, votaries or supporters of the Left. Those who are not represented politically by the Sangh Parivar, obviously do not deny or relinquish their Hindu background. A small fraction of the first category, a fraction of the very large second category, a very small fraction of the third category and a substantial portion of the fourth category, may be open to progressive Left thinking that does not rubbish religious beliefs and practices. It is significant that a large number of Left-leaning Hindu intellectuals come from the third category, even though they do not necessarily deny their Hindu background or profess atheism as the Marxists may do.

Gandhiji, with his deeply religious nature, could be described as the archetypal Left-wing Hindu. [Ref. 3] His assassination by Nathuram Godse of the fundamentalist Hindu Right sent the Hindu Left into a deep coma from which it is yet to emerge.

Possible Consolidation

Hinduism admits worship and social practices in many forms, and that is both a strength and a weakness. Left politics that maximises the strengths of Hindu beliefs and social practices, and minimises their weaknesses, may be in a position to construct a “Hindu Left”, by focussing on the delivery of “social, economic and political justice”, encouraging “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”, and providing “equality of status and opportunity” , according to the constitutional Preamble.

This of course calls for Left politicians to understand that the huge numbers of the second category are simply waiting for a Left-leaning leadership that will enable them to haul themselves up by the bootstraps to get out of the present abyss of poverty, illiteracy, ill-health, male domination and caste violence. This will give them confidence to develop self-esteem and demand freedom from bonds that are as much social as they are economic.

Insistence on denial of religion, according to the Marxist dogma, as a precondition to assistance from Left politicians will only alienate this segment. Thus, recognition of religious practice as a felt inner need of vast numbers of people, and not attempting to pull the “Hindu rug” from under their feet, would be a step in the right direction. Naturally, this also applies to people of other faiths.

If it is any consolation, “throughout the history of mankind the Left has generally been disunited, while the Right has generally been united, benefiting from the disunity of the Left”. [Ref. 4] It is this fractured segment upon which Left politicians need to focus to bring them together. The two major Left parties in india, which accept the parlia-mentary democratic process and adheres to the Constitution of India are the CPI-M and its progenitor, the CPI. They have lost contact with the poor, which constitute the astronomical Hindu numbers in the second category, and further, “are yet to come out of the Stalinist mode of thinking and organisational practice”. [Ref. 5]

The violence by the CPI-M party cadres in Nandigram and elsewhere displayed its effective “divorce” from the poor people. Therefore their intimate political contact with large masses of people is long overdue. Further, as one of the exponents of the New Left in South America, Marta Harnecker, says, “... [the Left] must overcome the organic forms of the past, which were the result of an acritical copying of the Bolshevik model of the party”, if they are to regain political relevance in the current maelstrom of unprincipled, corruption-ridden Indian politics, with which all people are thoroughly disgusted.

While it may not be possible to create a viable Hindu Left before the upcoming 2014 general elections, the Left parties’ work in that direction could be to motivate voters to press the NOTA button on the EVM, rather than drift into voting for the BJP or INC, or for any ragtag coalition of regional, casteist parties that cannot possibly have a national perspective and relevance. 

References

1. Shamsul Islam, “RSS and Politics: Conspiracy is the Mantra”, Mainstream, Vol. LI, No. 44, October 19, 2013, pp. 29-30.

2. Pavan K. Varma; The Great Indian Middle Class, Penguin Books, 1998.

3. “Narendra Modi and the mystery of the Hindu Left”, Live Mint, <http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/jyz...> , September 12, 2013.

4. Vijay Padaki, “The Fractured Left, United Right”, in personal communication, May 14, 2011.

5. “N.C.’s Abiding Relevance”, Political Notebook; Mainstream, Vol. LI, No. 46, November 2, 2013, pp. 3-5.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG’s Branch. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, in international studies. With over 370 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his current area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.

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