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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 Dilip D'Souza.

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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 otherwise.

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 his pay!"

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.

Why should any party be ideologically hamstrung by swearing allegiance to an idea it rejects?

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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 to do?

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 thinking.

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's where.

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.

Dilip D'Souza
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) in 2004-05.

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Comments (7)

  • Posted by lod,

    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 revolutionary movements..

    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.

  • Posted by Pradeep Baisakh,

    Excellent piece.

    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 ideologies.

    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 process.

  • Posted by Dilip D'Souza,

    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.

  • Posted by Traveler,

    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.

  • Posted by lod,

    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 exists.

    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 interests.
    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.

  • Posted by Ramana Rajgopaul,

    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.

  • Posted by Varughese,

    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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