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Cuckoo over the cuckoo’s nest

By Ashis Nandy

Ashis Nandy
Social Scientist
The Right does flirt with the extreme fringe; the best way to deal with that is to give it space in democracy
I think a democracy needs to represent as large a cross section of the population in a society as possible. So, if there are capitalists in the society, Parliament should have some capitalists. If there are some fascists, and surely there might even be some fascists — this is an old debate in political science whether fascists should be given democratic rights because they would like to subvert democracy — I believe that today the consensus is that even the fascists should be given democratic rights because that allows you to handle them better. Democracy can handle them better.

So it goes without saying, and my belief is this, that if there are fundamentalists or Rightists in Indian politics in a sizeable number, the Indian Parliament and State legislatures should include them, because that’s the best way of coping with them and managing them.

Many people do not understand this. For instance, I think if there is no organised, core leadership among the Rightists and if they are all scattered, it becomes extremely difficult to understand what they want, how to handle them, how to cope with their presence in the polity.

To that extent, however you define the Indian Right, they have done their duty towards the Indian democratic system. They have given the nation not only access to the more intractable sectors of Indian politics, they have allowed us to negotiate with them. And establish a quid pro quo with them. And once that happens, half the battle is won. In any case, if we can negotiate with groups which have been soft on terrorism in Assam or Kashmir or Nagaland, when we think that we can manage or co-opt or converse with militants of all groups — from the Maoists to the Islamists — I do not see any reason why we cannot negotiate with the Rightists.

So What If Adolf Hitler Was Not A Swayamsevak? the top leadership of the BJP at its National Council Meeting in Delhi, January 2006
Photo K. Satheesh
I believe that the consensus today in
contemporary India is that even the fascists should be given basic democratic rights because that allows you to handle them better
At one time we had the Swatantra Party in India, which was transparently soft towards the Rightists. Unfortunately, it was established and led by people who were before their time and therefore they did not survive. But they did try to give a face, yes, give a face, to the Rightists, and made us aware that it is possible to negotiate with them politically. Today, certain kinds of conservatism in Indian politics deserve to have a face so that they can be handled in the manner the Republican Party is handled by American democracy, the Tory party by British democracy and the Christian Democrats by German democracy.

You don’t have to be a Rightist yourself to see the logic of this essential argument. The only problem is that the Rightists in India have not learnt to handle their extremist fringes, and in the process they have made them a part of their mainstream political current, unlike in the manner in which the Christian Democrats, the Republicans and the Tories have done in Germany, the US and Britain. There is no doubt that the Republican Party, traditionally, have mostly mollycoddled the Christian Right, but it is much too apparent that after it comes to power, it does not given them cabinet seats in the government. Besides, it does not make them candidates for governors in the states.

Advani was cornered because this battle was not waged earlier. Advani did not join the battle before. He didn’t have the courage to say that Modi should be kicked out. In fact, he strongly supported Modi
Similarly, many ultra-right formations are perhaps available to the Christian Democrats in Germany to play footsie with, but they don’t put them in positions of power. In contrast, in India, our Right has been less discriminating; they have stupidly allowed all kinds of fanatics and extremist fringes to be at the centre of things. Now they are trying to contain them, for instance, vis-à-vis the controversy revolving around former BJP president LK Advani. But Advani was cornered because this battle was not waged earlier; Advani did not join the battle before. He did not even have the courage to say that Narendra Modi should be kicked out. In fact, he was one of the few persons who strongly supported Modi.

That is why, in some sense, we are worse off in India. This is because our Right doesn’t know how to handle its extremist fringes. And this is a tragedy, indeed, not a tragedy — this is a minor tragedy — because this means that the Right will never acquire the kind of legitimacy which it hopes to acquire in the Indian polity. It will only have value as a negative formation, that it stands against the Congress, that it stands against corruption, so on and so forth. Surely, people will not look at it as a positive force in our society.

Ultra-right formations are available to the Christian Democrats in Germany to play footsie with, but they don’t put them in power. Our Right has been less discriminating; they have been utterly stupid
In any case, you are always a little bit handicapped as a Rightist force, as someone belonging to the Right; that is, there are so many poor people in India who have a natural attraction for political formations which claim to speak for the poor and the oppressed. In these circumstances, not having a vision, and not even having a sense of survival, makes the Right an extremely flimsy and fragile political entity. This is because they just don’t know how to broaden their base and how to turn their self-identity into an important and decisive political force — which is not only seen as an antipode of the Congress party or the Left but is also seen as a party standing for the old style moral values cutting across caste, religion, language and region.

The truth is, the Right in India, unfortunately, is seen as primarily a xenophobic and racist formation. This significantly delegitimises them as a political entity, while they are not seen largely as a non-violent or natural contestant for power.

As for the question on Adolf Hitler and how his Nazi formation captured political power, most people have only one example to give. They say, why shouldn’t democratic rights be denied to the anti-democrats in a democracy? They talk of the Nazis. But as opposed to that experience, there are literally hundreds of experiences of political groups which basically look anti-democratic to start with, but once they are closer to power, they choose to redefine themselves. They become more democratic and open. And that is a lesson which we just can’t choose to forget when we speak about the Right in India.

Feb 11 , 2006

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