Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Afterword on Quigley's Comparative Analysis: The Indian Political Spectrum

A tangential thought inspired by Quigley’s comparative analysis of national (and hence political) cultures in East and West, is that given their markedly different paths of development, there is no grounds for the universal application of political terminology.

In talking of Western political philosophies, the terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” are fundamental. Given the picture Quigley paints, of Western national culture evolving through a series of transformative revolutions, this dichotomy is only natural. New technologies resulted in new technics, changing society in unprecedented ways, creating environments conducive to the emergence of new ideas, engendering new types of demands that still newer technologies were birthed to satisfy, only to influence society in their turn.

The accelerated pace of social change became pronounced as never before in the early twentieth century… finally, a time had arrived when a person might see the world around him, and society itself, unrecognizably altered within his own lifespan.

A “Conservative”, then, was one who favoured traditional ideas and values, and resisted the acceleration of new and unfamiliar trends: technological, social or intellectual. He believed that rushing headlong into the future, propelled by an engine of change that had taken on a vitality of its own, was a perilous path of development that risked eliminating many useful and desirable elements of the status quo.

By contrast, a “Liberal” was one who was welcoming of new ideas, and championed the freedom to incorporate them into existing modes of social, political and economic thought. An openness to economic ideas, particularly laissez-faire capitalism and the power of the market, were the traditional hallmark of the Liberal viewpoint when the label first came into wide usage.

Today things have changed slightly, at least in America where the Conservative favors an unbridled free-market and the Liberal would prefer a degree of government regulation. That’s because these definitions are necessarily dynamic… following Quigley’s model, transformative change is essential to the progress of Western society. The Conservative and Liberal differ only in their adherence to conventional ideas vs. their openness to new ideas… what those ideas may actually be, is entirely a matter of temporal context.

Given the complete dissimilarity of the developmental path followed by Asiatic national cultures, these terms become nonsense when applied in the Asian context.
What is a “Conservative” in the context of independent India, for example, where conventional political thinking is very often at odds with traditional Indic values or conventional notions of social order?

In my view, the term makes sense only when applied to those who would want the nature of the Indian Republic to stay true to the political philosophy enshrined in the 1950 constitution.

By that definition, Jawahar Lal Nehru is a “Conservative”, and so is anyone who describes himself as holding “Nehruvian” views. From a Western point of view, of course, Nehru is almost indistinguishable from the English Liberal… enamoured with Fabian Socialism, an opponent of imperialism, a product of the colonial era who resisted colonialism. However, he is no “Liberal” when seen in the Indian context. Far from being open to new ideas, particularly the relevance of native social norms to governing a newly independent nation, he rejected them in favor of Western ideas that he had been trained to accept as superior.

Sherwani-clad Western “Liberalism”, with all its prejudices, is the conventional philosophy that independent India started off with at square one. Hence, its proponents in the Indian context are the only ones who can properly be called political “Conservatives”. The Indian National Congress is India’s most politically “Conservative” party. Its adherents, who vote generation after generation of Nehru descendants to power out of a faith in its stature as India’s first and only natural party of governance, are India’s most fervent Conservatives.

This of course makes nonsense of the conception, much bandied-about among our Westernized elite, that Hindutvavadi parties are somehow “Conservative” while the Congress is “Liberal”. Those appelations are absurd in the Indian context. Hindutva is a recent phenomenon in independent India, and as a philosophy, it is anathema to the Congress loyalist who swears by conventional Nehruvian secularism. Who then is “Conservative”, and who “Liberal”?

On an internet forum I used to frequent, the term “Hindu Fake Liberal” is being used to refer to a nominal Hindu who denounces his co-religionists’ emerging claim to a political identity. However, such a person believes that in order to maintain his commitment to secular pluralism, he is required to condemn the Hindutvavadi. That belief is about as conventional, and conservative an attitude as one is likely to encounter in Indian politics. The epithet “Liberal” is entirely unsuitable.

Rather than the Conservative-Liberal dichotomy of the West, with its attendant connotative pitfalls and its tendency to render a discourse vulnerable to hijack by motivated Western interests… I propose a different nomenclature for the spectrum of political opinion represented in modern Indic society.
Essentially, there is one group which would like to deal with change in such a way as to preserve the Nehruvian ethos as closely as possible, and two others which would prefer to effect a change in the Indian political order, to one extent or another.

The first group, which is in effect conservative, is perhaps best described as “Accommodationist”. They may acknowledge their personal identity as Hindus, and even claim part of that heritage proudly for themselves, their families and their communities. However, they believe that the public face of a political identity based on Hinduism is worth suppressing, and indeed must be suppressed, in order to preserve the nation’s secular ethos. They are content to keep their Hinduism at home, and insist that other Hindus must also do the same, while giving minority religious groups free rein to leverage their political identity.
The Accommodationists may subscribe to a wide variety of opinions on the economy, foreign policy and so on. However, the social equilibrium they seek to preserve is, by and large, very similar to the equilibrium that Nehru envisioned.

Opposed to this conservative group and to each other, are two others which may be termed the “Revivalists” and the “Externalists”. Both these groups want fundamental changes in the political character of the Indian Union.

The Revivalists believe that they should have a right to a political identity as inheritors of an Indic civilizational legacy; and that such an identity, far from being suppressed, ought to be recognized as an essential aspect of Indian nationhood . The change they would like to effect is reflective of those beliefs. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, it involves across-the-board infusion of the Indian government and constitution with a profoundly Indic character. At the most moderate end, it favours a reversal of what are widely seen as double-standards in Accommodationist policy, so that the government is equally indifferent to the religious backgrounds of all its citizens when it comes to administering the rule of law, and equally sensitive to majority and minority religious sentiment when it comes to the formulation of policy.

Of course, as with all political nomenclature, the boundaries of these categories are ill-defined. It’s probably safe to say that the ideological perspectives of most Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains fall somewhere between the Moderate Revivalist and the Accommodationist viewpoints. Such nebulousness and flexibility are, in fact, probably more innately representative of traditional Indic society than any tendency towards rigid orthodoxy.

The third group, the Externalists, also seek to effect changes in the political character of the Indian Union. However, the basis for the types of change they desire, has nothing to do with an identity based on their traditional Indic heritage. In fact, their defining characteristic is an active repudiation of any sort of Hindu identity, in favour of a driving philosophy entirely alien to Indic civilization. Most typically this philosophy is some form of Marxism, or one of its derivatives. However, adherents of pro-Western internationalism and free-market capitalism whose loyalties extend to compromising the Indian national interest, a behaviour observed in certain titans of industry during Operation Parakram, would equally qualify as Externalists. So would the deracinated elite who consider themselves too enlightened to subscribe to something as basely revanchist as a Hindu political identity.

How many Externalists are there? It is hard to tell, but very likely they have acquired a public profile out of all proportion to their numbers. Much of today’s Indian media is Externalist, or under the influence of Externalists in the service of one or another alien political philosophy. Also, many Externalists have access to resources provided by the outside principals whose agendas they serve.

The enthusiastic Revivalist will all too often perceive the rest of Hindu society which does not openly share his perspective as being arraigned against him in a monolithic bloc. It is important that he learn to identify and distinguish between the motivated Externalists and the sincere, if committed Accommodationists… instead of exerting himself on fighting against Accommodationists and even moderate Revivalists.

For their part, the Externalists have certainly perfected the art of exploiting differences between the Hindu Revivalists and the Accommodationists to gain leverage for their own agendas. Today, a potentially dangerous situation is developing whereby India’s ruling party, the Congress, has come under the influence of those who appear to have Externalist rather than Accommodationist motives. Combined with the cynical machinations of that party’s vote-bank manipulators, the effect is one which is broadly perceived by Revivalists as an existential assault on the Indian national interest… on a spectrum of issues ranging from Missionary activity in Orissa to the India-US nuclear deal. Consequently, Hindu society threatens to become increasingly and perhaps irreconcilably polarized between the Revivalist and the Accommodationist points of view.

The vast bulk of the population, of course, does not vote or act in accordance with any of the above political philosophies. Their priorities are good governance, access to civic and rural amenities, an honest and effective judicial system, and economic security if not prosperity. They are more interested in improving their quality of life, and securing a better quality of life for their children, than in waging ideological battles. Sometimes, however events such as economic crisis or chronic terrorist threats to personal security will force popular opinion to a threshold--opening up a context in which the competition between these ideologies becomes, at least temporarily, a matter of great consequence to the polity at large. It is at these watershed periods that the political destinies of most nations are decided, and India is no exception.

Finally, a word about India’s Muslims. The above categories, of course, do not apply to a community whose engagement in the politics of religious identity has not been suppressed, but rather, traditionally encouraged and exploited. To some extent, the Indian Muslim political spectrum is a mirror image of the Hindu spectrum.
The most moderate are Muslim Accommodationists like Asghar Ali Engineer, Saeed Naqvi and Shabana Azmi. They seek to uphold Muslim responsibilities under the social contract that the original Hindu Accommodationists, under Nehru, offered Indian Muslims on behalf of all Hindus. The terms dictated to all Hindus by the Hindu Accommodationists… including the suppression of Hindu religious identity… are the only terms under which Muslim Accommodationists can see Indian Muslims being willing to claim a stake in the Indian national interest. Unsurprisingly, these Muslim Accommodationists are quick to blame Hindu Revivalists as the instigators of communal disharmony, and cite Hindu Revivalists as being the primary threat to the only kind of social contract that enables Muslims to live alongside Hindus as fellow citizens.
The most extreme are the Islamists, who might be described as Muslim Revivalists. Of course, from the Hindu point of view, Islam is not intrinsic to the Indic civilizational canon, and Islamists would therefore fall under the category of Externalists! Equally so the Missionaries who attempt to save “benighted” Hindu souls by converting them to Christianity.

In between the Muslim Accommodationist and Islamist poles is a fairly wide spectrum of Muslim political opinion.

Politicians like Syed Shahabuddin, Asaduddin Owaisi and Imam Bukhari campaign aggressively against any attempts to cull the special status accorded to Muslim law under the constitution, ascribing Hindu Revivalist motives to those who argue in favour of an uniform civil code. They exploit the politics of religious identity to the hilt, citing Muslim Solidarity as their ideological basis. However, they emphasize preserving the social contract offered to India's Muslims by the Nehruvian Accommodationists, rather than bringing about radical change in the constitutional structure. In that sense, they are conservative.

Further along the spectrum, groups like the Darul Uloom of Deoband are ideologically committed to Islamism, and would like to Islamize the entire Indian subcontinent; yet, they too have accepted the Nehruvian Accommodationists' social contract, if only because they saw it as a likelier path to achieving their goals than joining Pakistan would have been. This is in contrast to SIMI, who are Islamist Externalists all the way, and believe in destabilizing any social contract based on Accommodation. By and large, the Hanafis tend to be Accommodationist, while the Salafis are Externalist; the Kashmiri National Conference are Accommodationist while the Hurriyat are Externalist, and so on.

Of course, there are other dimensions to the ideological compulsions of Indian Muslim political entities-- regional priorities, sectarian rivalries, economic agendas and so on. Yet, from the Hindu point of view, it is the Muslim-Accommodationist/Islamist dimension that is most relevant. Most Indian Muslims adhere to a political philosophy situated somewhere along that ideological spectrum. It is only a few rare individuals, such as President Kalam and some distinguished classical musicians, who actually subscribe to a Revivalist ideology in the Indic (rather than Islamist) sense.

It is vital to note that the Hindu Revivalist has room in his worldview to accept the Indian Muslim or Christian as possessing as much right to claim an Indic heritage as he himself does. It is, in the view of the Revivalist, the intrinsically exclusivist nature of Islamic or Christian beliefs that prevent Indians of those religious minorities from laying claim to their civilizational legacy. In the present situation, their religious identities preclude their full acceptance and appreciation of that legacy, serving to separate rather than unite them from the rest of the population.

If only the Indian Muslim and Christian eschewed the exclusivism of their faiths, and fully reconciled their ownership of an Indic identity with the fact of their religious beliefs, these two facets of their identity would stand genuinely on par with each other. That, in the view of the Hindu Revivalist, would lay the foundation for a new and more viable kind of accommodation, a more durable and egalitarian social contract than the one Nehru imposed on us all.

The most likely point of consensus between these disparate perspectives, occupies a middle ground to which both the Hindu Revivalist, the Hindu Accommodationist and the Minority Accommodationist camps must all find their separate ways. Each group would have to make sacrifices of some sort, as concessions to the perspectives of the other two... but that is hardly an unrealistic proposition. Adjustment and flexibility have always been far more characteristic of the Indic ethos than doctrinaire rigidity.

Minority Accommodationists would also have to persuade the bulk of their community's citizens to a point of view which favoured making the necessary concessions, and thereby secure a mandate to negotiate on their community's behalf. To do so might prove a greater challenge than achieving reconciliation between Hindu Accommodationists and Hindu Revivalists; yet, if enough of a residual Indic ethos continues to pervade those religious minority groups as well, it should certainly be possible.

In a vibrant, prosperous India where all had a stake in reaching such a consensus, the matter might be smoothly settled in this fashion. The reason why that hasn't happened yet, and shows no sign of happening, is the motivated pursuit by the Externalists of their own various agendas... and their relentless exploitation of India's faultlines towards the advancement of those agendas.

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