Right-wing politics is on the rise world over. This is evident from the emergence of leaders such as Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK and Narendra Modi in India. Right-wing politics is hardly a new phenomenon, but its recent success at gaining mass support in many parts of the world has surprised many.
How far is the decline of progressive politics responsible for it? Has right-wing politics become popular only because there is a shortfall of progressive leaders with mass appeal today? Or are there other factors at play? Let us explore.
At least in the case of India, what preceded the rise of the right-wing in 2014 elections, can hardly be called progressive politics. To be fair, the UPA government did bring many progressive legislations such as the Right to Information Act 2005, the Right to Education Act 2009, etc. But these were motivated more by electoral calculations than any genuine dedication to the cause of progress.
The two terms of UPA were marred with a series of corruption scandals such as the coal scam, the 2G scam, etc. Further, Congress itself has been accused of practicing ‘mild Hindutva‘ on many occasion to further its electoral prospects. Opportunistic politics, not progressive politics, preceded the rise of right-wing politics in India.
Perhaps the emergence of the right-wing can better be understood by looking at contemporary economics rather than contemporary politics. Thomas Piketty, in his book ‘Capital in the 21st century’ has shown how the liberal economic order led to rise in income and wealth inequality across the world. Perhaps, people have turned to the conservatives because liberals have failed to deliver on their promise of growth and progress for all.
This seems to be the case in developed western economies like the US. Globalisation has led to manufacturing firms shifting their bases from developed to developing countries like China, Vietnam etc., leaving behind a disenchanted working class.
However, economic factors also do not fully explain the rise of BJP in India. After all, both BJP and the Congress differ little in their economic programme. Implementation of GST, which the ruling party has been touting as a major achievement, was originally proposed by the Congress!
To understand the rise of right-wing politics in India, we have to look further than contemporary politics and economy. We have to look at India’s history.
Hindu Mahasabha, the first organisation in India professing majority communalism was founded in 1915, more than a hundred years ago. The RSS was founded in 1925. There was a communal presence in the leadership of the INC as well. Lala Lajpat Rai talked of protecting ‘hindu interests’. On the other hand, there was Muslim League. Dominated by the conservative aristocratic class, Muslim League demanded special favours from the British to protect Muslims from dominance by the majority. The British, in their part, were more than happy to provide such a protection, in order to fragment the nationalist movement.
Thus, we see that communal right-wing politics has been present in India ever since the time when Indian nationalism began to take concrete shape. And this kind of politics found support among a section of Indian people too.
Then in 1947, came partition, perhaps the most calamitous event in whole of Indian history which took lives of more than 20 lakh people. Bifurcation of the country on religious lines created a huge rift between Hindus and Muslims. Bridging this rift was always going to be a great challenge for successive governments and leaders.
The young Indian state did make efforts on this front. Literature, cinema, nationalist symbols, all were employed to instil a feeling of tolerance and harmony among people. Children were taught about ‘unity in diversity’ and about historic leaders such as Ashoka and Akbar, who treated all communities the same.
But these efforts proved to be woefully inadequate. Political leaders of successive decades spent their energies in outmaneuvering their opponents and coming up with devious plans to acquire power. The herculean task of repairing the national psyche was left unattended. The wound of partition continued to fester.
Fast forward to today, the extent to which the Indian people have been communalised is clearly visible. BJP has come to power with an even bigger mandate. To lament now that the BJP is communal or the RSS is communal is meaningless. They have always been communal. The fact that the majority of Indian people today are communal, is a much bigger problem.
Therefore, to conclude, the of right-wing politics in India has more to do with its history rather than contemporary politics or economy. This is illustrated by the Home Minister’s recent statement in the parliament in response to criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Bill by the opposition, that “if the Congress had not divided the country on the basis of religion when India got freedom, there was no need to bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill.” The ghost of partition haunts the ruling party, as well as their millions of supporters. We cannot move forward until we lay this ghost to rest.