Sunday, July 10, 2005

Project For A Secular-Right India

Amit is concerned that -- given BJP's structural inability to shed the bigotry at its core -- the future for secular-right politics in India may be less than rosy.

Not surprisingly, this is a topic we've given much thought to. We'd like to make three points.

1. Amit's implied assumption, that secular-right politics can emerge only from the right and not from among the secular, is questionable. We are personally aware of senior Congressmen who are sufficiently secular-right even by our uncompromising standards. The main issue with such leaders is their untested political savvy to influence their party rightwards. Nevertheless, they should not be written off.

2. Lenin wrote about a small vanguard elite that leads ideological revolutions. In America, we have the recent example of a handful of friends -- of diverse political and professional affiliation -- coming together to lead the neo-conservative revolution. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) has up-ended decades of stilted foreign policy thought in the U.S. We only need to ask Mr. Saddam Hussain how this has played out! If this can happen in America, there is no reason to believe it cannot in India.

We need clarity of objectives. If our objective is to re-orient India in a secular-right way, that is undoubtedly achievable without the burden of running political parties. If our objective is to capture power through the electoral process, then we should immediately abandon ideology and sign-up at the cult of whatever's-working-now. These are entirely different games.

Political parties should be viewed only as highly effective machines to raise and deploy campaign funds for elections. They are not designed to be the petridish where political ideas are innovated. To the extent they talk of ideas, it's only for the purpose of raising campaign funds. These are commercial juggernauts that are in the business of leasing their formidable & essential electoral capability to power-seeking individuals -- the price of the lease is, frequently, the dilution of ideology. This is a business dynamic where scale -- built-up over decades -- matters. Clearly, there are huge barriers to entry, overcoming which from scratch for reasons of ideology is surely a futile endeavor.

In contrast, ideological campaigns (like PNAC) operate across parties and social affiliations; they end up creating unexpectedly refreshing alliances. They are led by a small group of people devoted to their ideas, not to claiming power. As it turns out, if they succeed in converting millions to their way of thinking, they become powerful by proxy. This is a far quicker and less expensive route than the traditional political party approach. The contrast to political parties is stark: this is like comparing swift, flexible, and stealthy special forces to the slow-moving, rigid, and gigantic armies. Each is a different approach for a different objective.

3. Given this, the real tactical question before secular-right Indians is whether we can identify and network a 100 or so like-minded -- and relatively young (mid 30s, early 40s) -- people who are also independently influential in their lives and professions. These people can then leverage their personal and professional credibility -- and intellectual strength -- to make passionate and convincing political arguments that few in the party system dare make. This is likely the way to a secular-right Indian revolution, not the empty promise of a secular-right political party magically showing up one day.

Let's prepare the ground first; we'll worry about what germinates there later.


amit varma said...

Good post, PR, and I agree with all of what you say. Just a clarification: it isn't my assumption, even if it seems to be implied, that secular-right politics can emerge only from the right and not from the secular. In fact, I'm more inclined to believe that it can emerge simultaneously from both sides, as TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan had predicted here.

It'll take a while, though, for either secular-right or libertarian politics to become feasable in India, where identity politics still determines who gets to power.

Kumar said...


An interesting post, but I think you underestimate the resources necessary to effect a 'top-down' change in the Indian political landscape. Your analogy to the neo-con influence in American politics overlooks the nexus of conservation foundations (read financial support), and grassroots activists(read a motley group of Christian theo-cons, libertarians, suburbanite Republicans, businessmen) which undergirded the successful intellectual labors of the neo-cons.

In other words, retail politics is unavoidable in a democracy and that means one must build grassroots networks as well engaging in argument and counter-argument. After all, a primary reason for the BJP's refusal to cut its ties to the RSS, etc. is the latter's organization on the ground. Building an alternative will involve a great deal of work and money. I don't think networking among the 'good and the great' will be enough.

Further, I think a secular-right politics--if it's to be successful in the long run--must emerge from/engage with the right. The supporters of, say, the VHP must be persuaded that the interest of Hindus (and Hinduism(s)) do not lie with the sort of rabble-rousing peddled by the VHP. And that means traditionalist Hindus (among whom I count myself) have to commit 'theology' in the public square, no doubt to the horror of some, perhaps even Mr. Varma ;)

Btw, Mr. Varma, I hope you don't take offense. I read your blog regularly, but given that you're the very model of a modern atheist (read Western as opposed to a traditionalist Purva Mimamsaka atheist) I doubt you'll ever be caught commmiting 'theology' anywhere, public or private. ;)


Ashish Hanwadikar said...

Great idea! In addition, we can try getting good libertarian people elected/appointed in high constitutional places! Success of T. N. Seshan should give a great hope for such a project!

Eswaran B said...

Primary Red,

This is an excellent post!


The neo-cons did not strive to build a grassroots movement in the US as you contend. They merely co-opted the pre-existing ideological groups. If a lot of people in the US had cared about something else, say environment,instead of religion, I'd wager that the neo-cons would have
mobilised support among those groups.

I'd also take issue with Amit and say that identity politics doesn't preclude such a secular-right project. If I am not mistaken, Primary Red intends such a project to swing political opinion to the right in all the political parties.

It remains true in India, as in the US, that public opinion can be made - irrespective of the ethics of it - and the only thing that matters is shaping the opinion of those who matter.

Kumar said...


I did not contend that the neo-cons built the nexus of foundations and grassroots groups, merely that this nexus "...undergirded.." the neo-cons' success. To reiterate, success in politics--in the long-term--will not come from the opining of the good and the great.

I'm afraid your giddy suggestion that public sentiment is easily manipulable betrays a deep contempt for the 'common folk', and one which I emphatically don't share. Far worse, you cite no empirical evidence to back up your claim.


amit varma said...

Kumar, I agree with you about the impracticality of "top-down" politics. I'm intrigued by your phrase, "commit theology in the public square". I don't quite understand what you mean, and I would like to. Can you elaborate, on your blog if you have one, please?

Eswaran, what I meant was not that identity politics precludes a shift towards the secular right, but that elections in India are not fought today on the basis of issues, but on the basis of identity equations. That won't change for a while. So even if a party moves towards that space, it cannot win elections on the basis of those ideas.

Eswaran B said...


I did not cite evidence for my case simply because I found it obvious. Whole industries - advertising, PR - are devoted to manipulating public opinion. If you are looking for examples in politics, Nazis swung public opinion in their favour, BJP mobilised people based on Ayodhya issue, the media generated the recent consensus about the need for Indo-Pak peace.. and I can go on. In the US, after the Bush victory, the university of maryland conducted a survey and found that 71% of republicans believed that Saddam had a role in 9/11. If this is not manipulation, what is?

I agree broadly that long-term success of an idea will come only with public acceptance of it. But these ideas need to be sold to the people first, before we can seek their acceptance. (Even this need not be done directly is what PR is saying.)

I do not know how you equated my opinion with 'contempt for the commonfolk'. All of us are prone to persuasion in one aspect or other. It's admirable that you believe people cannot be persuaded in forming an opinion - that's just not reality.

Yogustus said...

Very interesting post. Let me know when you decide to sign up these 100 people...

sanjay said...

Amit Varma writes:

"It'll take a while, though, for either secular-right or libertarian politics to become feasable in India, where identity politics still determines who gets to power."

I'm not clear how identity politics prevents libertarianism in India. I would have thought that allowing each Indian his/ her own distinct identity, and to vote accordingly, actually increases their degree of freedom. Therefore, identity politics (if done voluntarily) appears quite commensurate with, indeed a requirement for, libertarian politics.

One could even make a strong argument that since identity-less-ness can ever be achieved in real life (except in moksha), it is a natural human condition, just that it will be manifested in different systems.

In the US, for example, there is a huge lobbying industry which has all the unmistakable earmarks of identity politics.


Primary Red said...

Thanks for the great discussion. Will post a detailed response as soon as am able.

Best regards all.

Kumar said...

Eswaran B.: I’m afraid your lexicon is radically different from mine: You equate “…manipulation...” with “…persuasion…,” words with different (if overlapping) meanings in my lexicon. I take manipulation to be a non-admirable species of persuasion. And, yes, I am afraid this mindset does betray a contempt for the rationality of the ‘common folk’ (i.e., you, me and every other Indian). How else do you propose I interpret your equation of manipulation and persuasion?

My argument does not rest on the belief that people are only infrequently or never manipulated. I simply do not think such manipulation is likely to sustain a long-term politics of any sort, let alone a secular-right one.

In any case, all of the instances you cite in favor of your thesis amount to ‘manipulation’ of pre-existing biases/tendencies. By contrast, an Indian secular-right party will have to be built almost from ‘scratch’, from the ‘ground-up’. Which is another way of saying that the public (or substantial portions of the public) will have to be educated about the issues and thus develop the tendencies which advertising can later leverage.

Amit Varma: Well, partly, the phrase is a jibe at those who shudder at the very idea of using Hindu ‘idiom’ in public policy discussions. More substantively, however, the phrase encapsulates my hope to deploy ‘traditionalist’ Hindu arguments in the service of a genuinely secular polity.

No doubt you are wondering what that really means. Well, I think traditionalist Hindu argument and counter-argument, the traditional devotion to rational disputation, must be re-engaged as a counter to the violent theater enacted by the likes of the VHP *. Btw, this devotion to rational disputation is widely shared among all Indic traditions.

A more concrete example is the philosopher Purushottama Bilimoria’s re-examination of the utility of the Purva Mimamsaka notion of ‘adhikarana’, as a basis of universal human rights. While his conclusion is negative, Bilimoria’s analysis shows—to me, at any rate—that there is a great deal of life left in these traditional notions. I hope traditionalist Hindus increasingly turn to such re-examination—after all, such ‘svadhyaya’ is a duty for us.

While this ‘svadhyaya’ (as well as any advocacy in the public square based on it) is the responsibility of traditionalist Hindus alone, I think the GOI can also help by encouraging the study of all Indic traditions**, in the original languages. That is, the GOI ought to encourage a closer acquaintance with the long tradition of rational debate. Perhaps a na├»ve hope, but I think it will help to subvert the VHP-types. In any case, it can only help and not hurt.

*By ‘theater’, I do not mean to lessen the gravity of their actions, merely to underline that such actions are carried out with the Hindu ‘audience’ in mind.

**I have not defined ‘Indic traditions’. Instead, I’ll simply list a few: Nyaya, Caravaka, Navya-Nyaya, Vyakarana, Madhyamaka, Purva Mimamsa , etc. Btw, I don’t think the GOI should arrange a syllabus around religious themes.


doubtinggaurav said...

Very engaging discussion indeed.
But I am sceptical about Secular - Right emerging from Congress (thats what people mean by secular usually).
In india all the arguements and counter arguements for any issue are validated not by their merits, but by the brute power of electoral majority.
That is the reason that our politicial discussion still revolve around some form of "Socialism" (even the BJP, officially proclaims "Gandhian Socialism" as their ideology)
In the end, the idea of "A few good man coming to the aid of country" is too naive.
Personally I think secularism is over rated.

Yogustus said...

I agree with Primary Red. A few strong-willed individuals, with a united common goal, is primarily what we need to swing public perception. That's what's happening in the States right now. Problem with "identity" politics is that it segregates...and weakens. Weakness cannot change minds. Strength arising out of an organization of a few strong-willed powerful individuals can bring about subtle differences in public thought without much hoop-hulla and avoid hurdles that outright political parties have to suffer.

Laks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
amit varma said...

Sanjay, the identity politics I speak of is the caste politics that dominates most of India, especially crucial states like UP and Bihar. Politicians depend on the votebanks they build on the basis of this identity politics to win elections. Such identity politics is eroded by prosperity, so it is in the interest of politicians to keep these votebanks poor and uneducated, and to keep them feeling deprived so that they vote for someone who claims to represent them and will fight for them. Lalu in Bihar is classic example of this. Thus, while a politician may actually hold libertarian or pro-free-market views, it doesn't help him in elections, and may actually harm the Lalus and Mulayams in the long run. It is a nuanced subject I won't go into in detail here.

Kumar, thanks for your explanation. Have you read Amartya Sen's "The Argumentative Indian"? I'm certain you'd enjoy it. And do you have a blog?

phucker said...

When you sign up those 100 people, let me know too! While have very little influence, I'd love to do what I can to bring about this particular revolution...

(doubting)gaurav, I think you are mistaking the "secular" to be the curse word it is today in the Indian context. If I may be so bold as to speak for PR, I think in this case, secular means "not-religious", not "appeasement-of-minorities-and-vote-bank-politics".

Basically, try if you can, to envision a BJP without the Hindutva/RSS/VHP I mean to say is imagine a political party which doesn't prevent women from wearing miniskirts, doesn't conduct pogroms against minorities, doesn't distribute trishuls (or saris) during elections, is all for small government, privatisation, and an inclusive view of a strong and rich India.... well that's my view of it, at any rate...

doubtinggaurav said...


I agree "secular" means "not religious". My objection is to its being used as a replacement for "tolerance", "compassion" or any such generally accepted social virtue.

Historically, concept of secularism arose due to struggle of power between emerging nation states and vatican church in Europe.
However, in India Religious and Political Power were always distinct (that was before advent of Islam), while kings did patronize particular faiths, religious authority did not interfere with political authority.

In india when "secularism" was originally invoked it was to promote atheism. While I have no problems with atheism, I object to State promoting atheism.

Regarding your reference to BJP
while I would venture to say that BJP is perfect, I prefer, or used to prefer, before it relinqueshed its role of a responsible opposition.
Minority Pogrom is mostly a fiction, for reference you can read any of the Arun Shourie's detailed analysis.
Problems between Hindus and Muslims are not due to BJP or its sister organisation, these go long back, unfortunately instead of resolving them, either these are swept under carpet ("lets concentrate on economy blah blah")
or perversely,all blame put on Hindus or Muslims (depending on which side of discussion you are)

Laks said...

I seriously doubt the secular credentials of the American neo-cons. Irving Kristol has derided liberals for belittling religion in public space. Plus, they have actively courted the religious Right to be politically active (circa Regan era). While, they themselves may not be religious, they certainly have used religion as a political tool to gain access to power and go about their agenda.

Kumar said...

Amit Varma:

I've not read 'The Argumentative Indian' by Mr. Sen, although I have read a number of the essays he's collected in that book. Though Mr. Sen is hardly a traditionalist Hindu, I share his concern about the lack of attention to the rationalist tradition in Indian thought.

Mr. Sen is correct that even if rationalism had been entirely absent from Indian traditions, the merits of rationalism would be reason enough for Indians to adopt it. I part company, slightly, with Mr. Sen since I think the long Indian history of rationalism makes the adoption and flowering of rationalism in contemporary India far more likely.

Btw, I don't have a blog--my studies simply don't leave me time to do that.


Gaurav said...

Kumar, you express a view I heartily endorse. I hate this Abrahamicisation of "Hinduism" being carried out by the VHP, BD, et al. Other Indic traditions are just being ignored and crushed, because they do not offer scope for mindless rabble-rousing.

Apollo said...

Excellent article!! but pray why are u fixated on signing up 100 people. there is already a large secular right constituency in india it only needs a formal needs a presence in the real world not in the virtual world only then can it draw real people into its fold.there will be no shortage of voters or sympathisers for this entity but it will be judged on performance. it has to deliver the goods like good roads, effective governance, clean drinking water, health care etc.. most probably this entity will gain power at a local level in the beginning like a odd member being elected to the assembly or parliament. this is the chance that the organisation should use to build a good name at the ground level and progress its cause.


Blog Archive