What is the intellectual case for the political Right in India? This is a question that has been posed by many commentators who, discomfited by the rise of the BJP, have been inclined to dismiss the latter’s intellectual sympathisers as anti-poor, anti-democratic, religious chauvinists. I try to define what the centre-Right — the New Right — would stand for.
An important anchor for the New Right is a strong belief that market-based economics is the most effective means for delivering economic growth commensurate with the expectations of our citizens. The New Right would, however, concede that market-based systems tend to accentuate disparities in income and wealth. They recognise that in a democracy such as ours — where we received universal suffrage at much lower levels of economic development than any other democracy in the world, and where the vast majority of voters live in poverty — it is especially difficult to make a politically compelling case for economic policies that favour growth over equality.
Demonstrating that market-based systems can be fair — that they can be compatible with the democratic quest for social justice — is therefore of vital importance. The ability to properly regulate markets and redistribute income effectively is essential, and forms the basis for the New Right’s views on the role of the state.
The New Right are not advocates for a minimalist state. Markets cannot substitute for the state. The state must enable entrepreneurship and private enterprise such that these become the primary engines of job creation. It cannot become the default provider of jobs for all that are disadvantaged; nor can it be allowed to become the fiefdom of a few cronies. The state must have robust regulatory capacity to keep markets competitive. It must be able to intervene for the public good where and when markets fail. It must have an administrative machinery capable of ensuring effective delivery of essential public goods to all citizens. And it must provide an adequate safety net, transparently, and efficiently, to those that fall behind. While subsidies and transfers should remain important instruments for redistribution, the state must surely pursue every opportunity to improve their design — such as by moving to a system of direct cash benefit transfers linked to Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts — in order that they target the deserving, while eliminating waste and corruption.
It takes a strong, well-functioning state to deliver fairness. A weak state is vulnerable to capture and profligacy. Without confidence in the state’s ability to address the excesses and limitations of markets, it would be very hard to mobilise mass support for liberal economic reforms. It follows that strengthening of state capacity is of utmost importance to the New Right.
Our institutions of democratic governance have been weakening. Strong institutions can survive weak leadership, but weak institutions will need strong leaders to fix them. To build our bench strength of high-calibre leadership, political reform is essential. The New Right would advocate that all parties focus on nurturing intra-party democracy to allow the next generation of leaders to emerge on merit, rather than on favour or dynastic succession. Greater transparency and limits on political contributions should, over time, cleanse party machines and attract the right kind of talent to politics. The functioning of our federation needs improving, with greater autonomy for states and a greater voice in national affairs for sub-national leaders.
Development needs to become a multi-dimensional national movement: One that offers not only the prospect of an improvement in economic well-being, but also the assurance of an improvement in social status. Building momentum behind such a movement in a country as diverse and socially stratified as ours is not a trivial challenge. It will entail not just economic and political reform, but also social reform, which in turn will require navigating the emotive issues of culture and identity.
The time has come for us to move beyond the tired narratives of syncretism and mandalism. The former has proved to be a hollow intellectual construct, not a lived social reality. And the latter, has become slave to political expediency in ways that have accentuated the cleavages that divide us rather than serve as a constructive force for social change. It is the New Right’s belief that as Indians we are defined by an Indic culture that predates Islam and Judeo-Christianity; and the origins of which are rooted in Hindu mythology and historiography. Like any culture, ours too has its flaws.
However, two important features set it apart. One is its elasticity, its ability to adapt to, and absorb, an incredible range of diversity — racial, ethnic and linguistic — which makes it inherently compatible with our secular Constitution. A second feature, is a history of reform movements and the development of offshoots that have allowed our culture to extend its range and make it open to the possibility of periodic renewal.
Building on these features, a fresh narrative for Indian society would start with the recognition that all Indians, whether Hindu or non-Hindu, share what is essentially an Indic-Hindu civilisational heritage. Consensus around the notion that our national identity derives from a shared heritage that makes us all culturally “Hindic”, and as such, naturally committed to the secular values of our Constitution, could become the rallying cry behind a nation-wide movement for social renewal.
Adapting ideas from Vivekananda, Gandhi, Ambedkar, as well as from Buddhist and Sikh traditions, the New Right’s agenda for this movement would include two measures. One, the adoption of a Uniform Civil Code intended to enhance the status of women across all communities. Second, a commitment to a programme of affirmative action and reservations based on economic status, not on caste, ethnic or religious identity.