Left- hearted, right-minded

The recent Indian election saw popular discourse that none of the other 15 preceding Lok Sabha elections had seen. While all elections had been fought tooth and nail, the contemporariness of this one was evident with the sophisticated use of social media, which played a big part in the election lead-up; so much so that the nomenclature of India’s first ‘Twitter election’ was nonchalantly used. This coupled with the increasingly raucous mainstream news channels that synchronised well with the chatter on social media outlets. Amongst all the noise, the only sound that was audible and that set the stage for the election, was lucidly put, which side of the ‘Modi aisle’ you were on?

The impassioned discussions transformed into screaming matches, initially set up through a ruse of ‘constructive’ panel debates on news channels. Social media, with its younger demographic, was agog with election news and comments, which would have been strange to the political cognoscenti, who have seen their younger counterparts previously displaying a visible level of apathy towards politics. And lest we forget, western media outlets too were endorsing candidates or in the case of The Economist, they were ‘unendorsing’.

While debates broadly varied from economic reforms to India’s secular ethos, one particular aspect of these debates stood out. The Modi detractors were showered with sobriquets such as ‘liberal elite’ or ‘leftist loons’ and the ones who were more optimistic of an impending Narendra Modi-led government were gifted euphemisms and insinuating terms close to the ‘Far Right’.

Furthermore, David B Cohen, an avowed American conservative who previously served in the George W Bush administration, penned an article in a leading English-language Indian daily, drawing comparison between Narendra Modi and Ronald Reagan, the late 40th president of the United States. The comparisons no doubt were based on solid grounds. Ronald Reagan, considered an icon of the Republican Party, displayed openness and alacrity to free market reforms, similar to what Prime Minister Modi espoused during his three-term tenure at the helm in Gujarat. Cohen goes on to draw similarities in their humble beginnings and what he described as being rebuked by, in his words, a ‘left-leaning’ mainstream media. Pertinent as some of these points maybe, the bigger anomaly in these assessments of drawing a comparison with the American right, is the fallacy of equating the concept of a universal Right and universal Left across the board. While Cohen’s article could still be seen as a fair comparison, post the election results, American newschannel CNN posted an online article stating what the GOP (Republican party) could learn from Modi’s election. Major flaws in that post were: one, this direct comparison of equating the Indian right with the American right, and two, the Indian left with the American left.

The other egregious oversight is viewing individuals through this prism of ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ simply by their voting preference in this election campaign. This is not to say that the political left or political right have ceased to exist, it is just that we can’t equate it using a facile reductionist theory as implied previously. Let’s dissect these issues a little more closely, beginning with the comparisons of the American left and right with the current Indian political spectrum. I feel strongly against equating a direct comparison between the Indian right (BJP) and the American right (Republican Party aka GOP) or the other Indian mainstream left-of-centre party (Indian National Congress) with the American left (Democrats).

Firstly, it is rather puerile and incorrect to simply make such a categorisation. In each individual case, a party’s existence and policies have been shaped through different political landscapes, a different economic climate, varied cultural leanings and on the principle of realpolitik, which entails understanding a country’s present scenario. This thought process was stimulated when an interlocutor inquired of his companion of how, despite his preference for the Democrat party in the United States (which was influenced as a result of his disdain for the Republican Party), was he optimistic on the prospects of a Modi-led BJP government at the helm? This of course, using the flippant notion of left wing equals left wing and all right wing parties, are homogenous across the globe. A simple examination of mainstream American politics will reveal that the GOP on social issues has been stuck in a time warp. The Republican Party has gone so far to the right, that their star President in Ronald Reagan, wouldn’t get elected today if he contested in the GOP primaries, given he was rather moderate on social issues.

Furthermore, the Republicans have proved to be an anachronism on progressive social issues. Most Republican senators, congressmen and governors have taken public anti-abortion stands. They vehemently oppose same sex marriage; they publicly demur against environmental concerns and pass off global warming as a myth. And, of course, a personal favourite, which even the contemporary readers in India would be familiar with, is the archaic second amendment constitutional right which allows an individual in the US, the right to own and possess a firearm.

The mass school shootings, of course, have stirred up the controversy surrounding the gun law, but the right to bear arms, is something Republicans view as sacrosanct and any discussion against this is considered an infringement of their constitutional liberties. So, looking at the macro perspective, the real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans lie on social issues such as the ones mentioned above. Given that the United States epitomises a capitalist economy, one could argue that you would need to nitpick to find differences in economic policies between the two.

Yes, of course, there are debates between the size of governments (Republicans are patrons of smaller governments) and federal spending, cutting the deficit, balancing the budget and of course of the taxes, a favourite Republican battleground. Republicans preach slashing the tax rate at every opportunity while Democrats retort, it would be beneficial only to those belonging to the affluent few regarded as America’s wealthy or the top 1 per cent.

The Cold War, and animosity towards the Soviet Union, ensured there weren’t too many on the other side of the Atlantic that were sympathetic towards a Marxist-socialist philosophy (perhaps McCarthyism wrongly made sure of it). But in India, the traditional ‘left’ is very much ubiquitous at a national and state level, so much so that states have been governed by communist parties and many individuals and scholars who publicly align themselves with the ‘hammer and sickle’. One could also argue that the Congress’ economic policy has gone so far to the left, epitomised in terms of a welfare state and in the form of doles handed out, that they can’t see the balanced centre anymore. The BJP on the other hand, draws their distinction in this manner from a more market based economic philosophy.

Coming to the second point, I think it is asinine to adorn nomenclatures of ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’ based on the voting preference in this election. This election was unprecedented for several reasons, some political pundits noted that this was one of the first elections which was fought on 21st century issues of jobs, economy, and infrastructure as opposed to draconian 16th century grudges of caste-based politics. After all, it is said in India, one doesn’t cast their vote but one votes their caste.

The electorate delivered a resounding mandate and one could infer that Indian voter was vying for an administration trying to restart a moribund economy, revitalizing growth and bringing about reforms that would create an attractive investment climate while eschewing and denouncing kleptocratic socialism of the past. What is important to note is that pigeonholing voters as left wing or right wing is churlish and shows a lack of perspicacity. Realpolitik is an important concept: understanding a country’s current scenario. While the US, like many of its other global peers steadily regains economic momentum and crawls out from the holes of the financial crisis of 2008, has already set the bar so high in terms of an efficient, innovative and crème de la crème private sector. Hence, the more pertinent issues are things such as universal healthcare, which dominate political discourse across mainstream media and on Capitol Hill.

Universal healthcare itself is a fractious affair and is still seen as a privilege rather than a necessity. The right leaning conservatives vehemently oppose government-mandated healthcare aka ‘Obamacare’, so much so that a standoff in the United States Congress, lead to a 16 day government shutdown last year. This highlights how a lot of the debates, be it healthcare or gun laws in the United States, is aligned more on social issues, albeit with fiscal implications.

Given the morass that the Indian economy currently finds itself in, an economic recovery is of utmost importance. This isn’t to say that the government can afford to neglect healthcare (among other issues which form core responsibilities of state and central governments) but reinvigorating the current economic environment was a foremost concern of the incoming government. Hence the election results showed a distinct tilt and went in the direction of a more centre-right economic philosophy.

Based on this it is important to note that individuals can’t be viewed in this Manichean duopoly of Left or Right Wing. In today’s complex social, economic and political framework one needs to adopt the best of principles from both schools of political thought. They say the more erudite American is socially liberal but fiscally conservative. In the sense one leans with ‘left’ on more social issues but with the ‘right’ on economic issues. The Achilles heel of the general ‘right’ wing has been more on indoctrinated influences stemming out of certain theological beliefs (some not suited for a contemporary era) that have affected a necessary liberal outlook on progressive social issues. Similarly in a 21st hyper-competitive country, state or city, can’t afford to adopt a closed, anti-market, excessive government controlled, anti-business environment which would stifle innovation, creativity, growth and weaken the private sector and as a result drain the coffers of the public sector.

It is only rational to espouse the best of both philosophies. Empathise and espouse the left for its social issues but marry the ‘right’ for its pragmatic fiscal issues. As they say in the United States, socially Democratic but fiscally Conservative or as David B Cohen book title reads, a ‘left-hearted, right-minded’ approach could be it.



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Akshobh Giridharadas

Akshobh Giridharadas

A journalist by profession. He writes about business & finance, geopolitics, sports & tech news. He is a TEDx & Toastmasters speaker. Follow him @Akshobh