Image Credit: Adam Jones/Flickr; Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

Written by Ajay Gudavarthy

The question of the progressive-Left learning anything from the Right is nothing short of blasphemous in the current Indian context. In politics, though, we need to understand how the social location in which we negotiate the conflicts and contradictions threatening to take up a hegemonic position can itself put into question some of the realities of our ‘human condition’. Our ideological proclivities can sometimes make us myopic about the reality we perceive. It is important to be aware of those aspects of human behaviour that are deployed through ideological frames seeking to utilise this human dimension for political articulation.

What I refer to as the human aspect or ‘human condition’ is to do with the way history has made certain aspects of social existence appear natural or ‘given’. It is the way history has structured the relationship between different activities, spheres and moral values in relation to the social condition. The social condition is not beyond change, but any change has to tune in to the sensibilities of the social condition; it has to be ‘organic’.

Right-wing ideology is undoubtedly regressive, hierarchical and divisive, but the ‘truths’ it builds on to gain popular acceptance are more universal

Being organic is not merely about belonging to a particular social location; it also means being able to articulate ideas and politics in a way that resonates with the fossilised or institutionalised aspects of human activity. This pre-existing social or human condition – which is relatively independent of intellectual articulation – explains how everyday activities, thought and meaning-making are constructed by the majority of people in a society at any given point in time. The social or human condition is dormant but omnipresent.

From this perspective it is possible to identify and grasp the practices, ideas and strategies of the Right so that we can re-signify them away from the regressive interpretation they are given within the limits of right-wing ideology. Right-wing ideology is undoubtedly regressive, hierarchical and divisive, but the ‘truths’ it builds on to gain popular acceptance are more universal. Therefore it is important not only to separate the ideology from the ideas, but also not to read them the same way as the Right does. One reason for the relative success of the Right – or any ideology, for that matter – is the ability to make it seem that specific human aspects ‘naturally’ belong to certain ideological articulations.

This is why the progressive-Left can learn something from the Right. Ignoring the anxiety of co-option, it is what dialectics teaches us to do, purely and simply. Even though the Right is the antithesis of the progressive-Left, a new synthesis would require encroachment, reoccupation and resignification of the underlying human aspects, at a particular point in the history of social transformation.

Here I attempt to point to just a few of those dimensions that have aided the Right in India to gain the ascendance in a way that is both ominous and detrimental to the essence of these very human aspects.

To begin with, the Right makes a clear distinction between the political and the social or cultural aspects of the human condition. While the political is about power and conflict, the social and cultural elements are about collective living, communication, memory and belonging. While it is true, as progressive-Left thinking would have it, that the social and cultural  aspects also contain elements of power, a different set of mobilising strategies are needed for their articulation. They cannot belong in a proper sense to the political, and this needs to be acknowledged.

In India, the right-wing Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisation represents this sensibility precisely in claiming to be a cultural organisation that has very little to do with politics. While the claim can be contested, the separation it projects remains important. In claiming an exclusive cultural status, the RSS is laying claim to a certain kind of memory and belonging that is more universal and faith-based and which represents an emotional belonging.

We need to draw on these feelings, emotions and instincts in a new way, beyond the way they have been articulated. They might appear to carry regressive aspects, as indeed they do, but there is more to them than such prejudices and institutionalised modes of discrimination. Caste, for instance, is integral to the memory of belonging, which is what the Right wishes to reinforce in the name of history, civilisation and the ‘natural’ conditions that have always existed. The question is, can we turn this sense of belonging, memory and civilisation against the discrimination that the caste system inherently justifies?

Further, even though the political Right is essentially divisive, violent and corrosive, it lays claim to universal moral values through its emphasis on humanitarian work. The RSS carries out arduous work whenever there are natural disasters or medical emergencies. It does voluntary service and organises blood donation camps, among other such activities. Again, while one can point to the instrumental use that the RSS might make of this work or to the fact that it is very selective in the service it renders, the universality of humanitarian aid nonetheless remains morally authentic.

No doubt it is this kind of understanding that leads the RSS to stir up issues around doctors and health care in Bengal, notwithstanding the Right’s own neglect of the same in Uttar Pradesh and other states of the North. All the same, to carry out humanitarian aid work without any instrumental use or expectation from it remains a powerful human value. Across all ideological persuasions, then, organisations should engage with the idea of providing service, care and compassion irrespective of any political valuation.

The political Right does not make a strong distinction between the private and public spheres in regard to mobilisation. In fact, the entry point it seeks is through family, education and religion. Shakhas (Hindu theological schools) that are run by the RSS deal with everyday ethics more than politics. Issues such as personal cleanliness or keeping the surroundings clean fall into this domain. The teaching then connects the universality of the everyday problems – mundane and routine issues – to more overtly political conflicts.

Again, these sites of interaction are not bereft of power, but they are different from the explicit political mode of approach due to their banality and everydayness. Although there is a political economy dimension that might be deliberately ignored in the Right’s articulation, this does not subsume the attraction of the mundane, which is projected as something common and unconnected to conflicts of power. Campaigns such as Swatch Bharat (Clean India) are designed to appeal precisely to this sensibility.

Culture, humanitarian work and the private or personal sphere are distinguished from the dynamics of acquiring power and seen as legitimate sites of human activity in themselves. Can the progressive-Left, even as it highlights and contests power within these sites, preserve and appeal to the sites’ more universal moral value, or does this approach necessarily have to be understood as being apolitical and regressive?

Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.


  1. The title is pre-loaded with the Left’s usual bias: The Left is ‘progressive’, the Right cannot be, by definition.
    The post-independence Left-contaminated political classes have for long used that definitional ploy to impose a pre-certified/ordained normative ideology of ‘secularism’ that has European/Judeo-Christian antecedents, not known or understood by most Indians who just-about tolerate the replacement British that we, who publish-and reply here, are. What the New Thinkers –unlikely to read this article, or my reply, because they are in English — are engaged in, is the construction of a ‘Theory-of-India’ that fits the facts of Indian civilisation — as all valid theories must do. This activity is likely to stretch over several post-independence generations, because the fit needs to be robust enough to outlast the post-colonial Westphalian state that is present-day geographical India. We should expect a second Indian Republic, with a new Constitution, by mid-Century.

  2. Is all this verbiage actually supposed to mean something? If yes, then why don’t you use plain English and write things in intelligible prose instead of using Marxist code words? You guys are so busy impressing each other with words that you’ve lost track of the meaning. You call this gibberish writing?

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