The right/left divide, just like the terms right and left, have not always existed. In fact, they are recent terminologies developed during the French Revolution, where those in favour of changing the system of government sat on the left, and those who favoured order and keeping things the same, sat on the right of the monarch. Since then, both terms have been used widely to describe anyone who might hold a view that fits roughly with either side of that original divide, regardless of their more ingrained and personalised views.

As a phenomenon that started in the Western World, it makes sense that with the advent of colonialism, these two terms were introduced into the lands colonised by European powers. In many countries, the terms have largely been adapted and accepted as fact.

However in India, the world’s second most populous country and its largest democracy, the scale of the country calls into question the appropriateness of the traditional left/right divide. Those seeking to apply the labels tend to dub the “socialist” Congress party as left and the “nationalist” Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP) as hailing from the right. However, further investigation reveals that, in Indian politics, things are not as clear cut as one might hope.

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Sir Edwin Aloysius Perera Wijeyeratne, a Sri Lankan politician and diplomat, meets Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Congress and Nehru’s socialist legacy

Following India’s independence in 1947, amongst many of the new elite there was a common consensus to follow the method of governance championed by Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as India’s first Prime Minister from 1947-1964. He advocated a heavy role for the state; favoured rapid industrialisation and wished for all sides to work together. The Nehruvian model, as it came to be known, was heavily influenced by Fabian socialism and prioritised heavy industry. It achieved cross party consensus, with many politicians seeing it as a good thing.

However, toward the end of Nehru’s life, the model which he had so passionately championed had begun to stagnate. India became heavily reliant on foreign aid, and for a country which had so recently found independence from foreign powers, this chafed. This was the first time that divisions along traditional right and left lines began to emerge. Nehru and his supporters wished to remain true to his model whilst others, such as noted Indian economist B.R. Shenoy, argued that either India must open its markets to foreign investment, or invest in other sectors to diversify its economy. Nehru died in 1964, and his successors largely pursued the same policies as him until the 1980s, when his grandson Rajiv Gandhi began to open the Indian economy to foreign investment and business. This move has seen India become one of the fastest growing economies in the world – the fourth largest in 2017.

As well as liberalising the Indian economy, Gandhi’s Congress Party sought to bolster its vote share by bringing in as many voters from minority backgrounds as possible, especially from the Muslim population. Consequently, there have been times when Congress has sought to put in place policies that would benefit these groups, such as promoting LGBT rights and permitting the Triple Talaq – a way for Muslim men to divorce their wives by saying the phrase “Talaq” (meaning divorce) three times. These policies have been unpopular with other members of the Indian nation, and have seen more conservative elements turn to more radical fringe groups.

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Members of the BJP meet industry experts in an ‘Ideas Exchange’ event. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Are the BJP truly right-wing?

For many outside observers, with its Hindu Nationalist outlook the BJP is the very definition of right-wing. It is made up of a combination of economic liberals who wish for minimal government interference in the free market, and radical Hindu nationalists who fear the growing Muslim presence within India and the apparent erosion of Hindu culture that accompanies it.

Indeed, the current leader of the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat when vicious riots erupted there in 2002. They saw thousands killed, most of them Muslims. His lack of a response to the riots led many to accuse him of Islamophobia and advocating for the murders that occurred. For many people, this has put him firmly on the side of the radical fringes of the BJP‘s parent organisation, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (or RSS).

More complex than meets the eye? 

The dividing lines seem obvious and appear to fit the right/left schism that has characterised Western politics. However, there are some elements of the RSS that one might call “progressive”. For example, they are also one of the few groups within Indian society to espouse a clear willingness to abolish the caste system. India’s 3000-year-old system of social stratification ranks Hindus into very rigid, hierarchical groups, which severely limits social mobility.

The RSS have worked to remove much of the stigma from groups such as the Dalit (or “Untouchables”) and the Naxals, both of whom are groups one would expect to be championed by the the more ‘left wing’ Congress. The election of a man from the Dalit caste, Ram Nath Kovind, as president under the nationalist government of Narendra Modi would suggest that the BJP are actually more forward-thinking than Congress, who never considered such a man during all their years in power.

Furthermore, Congress, which has traditionally been the socialist party of five-year plans, contains many who favour more free market operations than their forbearers would have contemplated. Conversely, the many members of the pro-market BJP are wary of the unrestrained hand of the market, and note just how damaging such a hand was to India under Congress.

A tentative divide

Superficially, it would appear that the right/left divide in India does exist, in that there are clear dividing lines over things such as LGBT rights and other social issues; but that in other matters there seems to be some overlap and contradiction. Such indistinct ideologies are perhaps to be expected due to the size of India, and the broad voting base that is available for either of the two large parties in Congress and the BJP to tap into. Consequently, there will always be and element of push and pull and switching between the two parties, as well as adopting politically beneficial policies. As is often the case, the right/left paradigm in India only stretches as far as is convenient.

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