India's Right Wing Takes a Big Hit - OZY | A Modern Media Company

India's Right Wing Takes a Big Hit

India's Right Wing Takes a Big Hit

By Siddharthya Roy


Because there’s a Cruz vs. Trump in another part of the world too.

By Siddharthya Roy

In May 2014, India’s national politics took a sharp turn right — and toward Hindu populism — when the country elected Narendra Modi as prime minister. It was a new era for Indian conservatives, one marked by nationalistic promises to flex India’s muscle, an obsession with redefining the identity of the postcolonial country, reviving the glories of premodern Vedic India and cashing in, at last, on India’s economic potential.

Today, midway through his five-year term, Modi and his party are facing opposition not only from the left but also the right, the sharpest of which comes from Modi’s former allies. Challenges are appearing in the impoverished state of Bihar, where the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the chief ministership to Modi’s former ally Nitish Kumar; Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu cities and Modi’s own parliament seat, turned its back on the BJP during local elections this year. In Modi’s own state of Gujarat, 23-year-old Hardik Patel, christened the “New Modi” by some, has split Modi’s voters and led agitations so violent, the army had to be called in.

Another such fratricidal war is brewing in India’s richest state, Maharashtra, between the BJP and its oldest ally, the staunchly right-wing Shiv Sena, which has stood hand in hand with the BJP for a quarter of a century. The split is occurring thanks to surprisingly liberal critiques: Opponents object to Modi’s treatment of lower classes and castes.

Nitin Bhujbal, the Pune city president of Yuva Sena, the Sena’s youth wing, laments the fall Modi has taken in his party’s eyes. “Even I looked up to Modi. His Hindutva and his promise of development was brilliant,” Bhujbal says, referring to the philosophy of Hindu pride and nationalism often associated with the BJP. “But what development do you see happening? Working-class areas are reeling under severe water shortage. The BJP government hasn’t released the money for the metro rail project.” Bhujbal points to a major Modi initiative, the “Smart City” challenge, which has taken off in Pune. But, Bhujbal inveighs, “which areas did he choose? The most posh ones! Why? Why not bring the development to the slums?” 

The divisions within the Indian right today parallel the evolution of conservatism around the world.

Bhujbal’s criticism points to the essential dividing line between Modi’s version of conservative politics and many of the regional right-wing parties’ concerns: While other right-wingers agree with Modi on his cultural and social platforms — which include initiatives to ban beef on the grounds of its offensiveness to Hindus — they’re not seeing economic prowess trickle down.

Radical Dalit poet and retired Bombay Municipal Corp. employee Subhash Thorat points out that the Sainiks were born out of strong trade unions in Mumbai, with considerable support among the urban poor. The BJP, on the other hand, has long been the party of business owners and diamond traders. And don’t forget linguistic identities and caste. Suhas Palshikar, a senior political scientist and expert on Marathi politics and former head of the department of political science at Pune University, agrees with these cultural assessments: The BJP ranks are filled with members of the Hindu nationalist organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, historically dominated by upper-caste Brahmans. The Shiv Sena, though open to Hindu nationalism, is more a party about Marathi pride — defending its state against Gujarati and northern carpetbaggers, in a manner not dissimilar to the American South’s pride. Where the BJP might cite vegetarianism as a key value in their party, Sainiks are often fishermen.

The divisions within the Indian right today parallel the evolution of conservatism around the world, and demonstrate the twin pillars of right-wing politics: culture and class. America has seen the evangelical wing of the Republican Party take a backseat to the populism of Donald Trump this election cycle; we saw it in the U.K., when a similar disenfranchisement of local populations caused the island nation to flee from the European Union, very possibly against its economic self-interest. Which makes us wonder: Three years down the line, could the Indian right begin to be pulled toward addressing similar issues of wealth and caste inequality? Could the alliances between right-wing parties, forged in part by way of consensus over India’s own culture wars and Hindu versus Muslim tensions, split the right into two distinct movements? 

The BJP, for its part, dismisses the kerfuffle as mere jealousy. “The Sena is unable to digest taking a second position to the BJP. It’s as simple as that,” says Madhav Bhandari, Maharashtra spokesman. Speaking to Saamna, the official mouthpiece of the Sena, on his 56th birthday, Shiv Sena supremo (actual job title) Uddhav Thackeray laid bare his disappointment, saying, “Twenty-five years of our history have been wasted.” But Bhujbal is optimistic about 2019. He points to Thackeray’s son, Aditya, who is “modernizing and reinvigorating the party by reaching out to the youth.”  

How so? In part by abandoning its cultural crusades in favor of economic uplift. Bhujbal refers to a infamous series of incidents on the part of the Sainiks: harassing lovebirds in the streets for their immodesty. “We don’t beat up couples on Valentine’s Day anymore,” he says, cheerily.

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