The Pondy Lit Fest, whose second edition is being held in Puducherry, has already seen huge on-stage fights between several camps of India’s Right-wing. It has brought together a number of public figures of the Right like Swapan Dasgupta, Kanchan Gupta, Tavleen Singh, Anand Ranganathan, and Aarti Tikoo Singh. They discuss cow, Kashmir and the Right’s canon. But the one thing they can’t agree on is what constitutes the unique category called the Indian Right.
The panel discussion has revealed deep divisions among different categories – those who are socially progressive but economically Right, those who are social status quoists but economically Right, and those who are social status quoists but economically Left.
But the way narratives and ideologies get outlined in India, all of them end up being subsumed into a monolithic, unimaginative label called the “Right”.
The problem is that there seems to be no uniform definition within the Indian Right, or what it actually means. The only thing participants at the Pondy Lit Fest can agree on is that their self-description is based on what they are not. As such the Indian Right seems to be the living embodiment of Advaita Vedanta and its Neti Neti (not this, not that) process of self-discovery.
The labelling syndrome
The Pondy Lit Fest 2019 started off with a verbal spat on the centrality of the cow in the Hindutva narrative. Journalist Tavleen Singh asserted that V.D. Savarkar, the propounder of Hindutva, had said that India’s mascot should have been narasimha (one of the 10 avatars of Hindu god Vishnu in part lion form) and not the cow. But her nuanced point about a rural-agrarian issue of the economics of owning a cow and dairy farming tried to make the urban Hindutva cow debate look outdated, and didn’t go down well with some of the other panellists. She did clarify that there was a lot more about Hindutva than cows. But the damage had been done by then. Her “labelling” was deemed exclusionary and un-Hindu. Apparently, Hinduism doesn’t feel the need to label things, and everything is considered a part of a larger unit and only that which is to be excluded will be labelled.
Lost in this pushback was the immortal line from J.K. Rowling, uttered by her creation Harry Potter: “When you name it, you own it.” This explains why the Right is in a perpetual reactionary mode to the narratives set by the Left.
In many ways this is turning out to be the story of the intellectual Right in India: opposition to narratives and phraseology of the Left, the Right’s inability to counter it and come up with a counter-narrative, getting bogged down in tactics with no cohesive strategy – and all of this is compounded by the extraordinary diversity of views that is the Right in India.
Borrowed from the Left
The best illustration of this were the panellists on Kashmir.
Opinions ranged from the Kashmir issue being about a battle of civilisations, land, and culture to being fundamentally about a political struggle. Another opinion took the middle ground, describing the issue as a complex intersection of both these viewpoints. What was clear though is that across the board, the initial euphoria of the abrogation of Article 370 has faded. There are now serious doubts and fears that things in Kashmir will go back to how they were – same mistakes will be repeated, same old leaders will be recycled, and the same failed policies will be pursued. It could be mentioned, with some caution, that CRPF/Army recruitment camps drew bigger crowds than the PDP-NC-Hurriyat rallies. While this may be a superficial feel-good aspect to hold onto, it also points to the disturbing fact that Kashmir has devolved into a conflict economy now where everybody benefits from conflict.
In many ways, the problem was nailed by journalist Swapan Dasgupta, who restated the fact that the Right simply wasn’t grounded in theory, be it sociology or anthropology, simply because much of the critical literature has been written by the Left. This lack of a firm base – a canon – has ensured there are gaping holes in the logic and reasoning offered by the Right. Clearly, this was an advice that was always going to fall on deaf ears.
Despite not being able to agree on a definition of Hinduism or Hindutva, one of the speakers, Prafulla Ketkar, said that “calling ourselves Hindus is a trap, but accepting the Supreme Court’s judgement on Hinduism being a way of life is also a trap.”
Lit fest for the young
Senior journalist Kanchan Gupta, one of the fathers of the Indian Right, says this dilemma is by design. The Right first needs to understand what it is and sort out internal existential issues. He said, “The biggest positive of this (Pondy Lit Fest event) is that we found there is enormous goodwill, people drop what they’re doing and come when you call them. But funding is always a problem because the Right seldom puts its money where its mouth is.”
In spite of that, the festival’s organisation is impressive, with three sessions running simultaneously in the convention centre. Gupta also pointed out that the main obstacle to funding will be the fact that “we prefer young voices”. “This year 90 per cent of our speakers are young and we want it to stay that way.”
Another organiser who wished to remain unnamed said, “The problem is that funders prefer “known names” and the last thing we want is the same incestuous crowd that goes from one lit fest to another, pretending they are saying something new when they are flogging a dead horse. We will never go down that path.”
The panels, however, lacked a representative from the Left who could offer the counter-narrative. This was not for a lack of trying, though. The organisers showed me emails sent to several Left luminaries, many of whom first agreed but backed out at the last minute, citing “alternate commitments”. The organisers say they are under no illusion that the Left will allow the institutionalisation of a platform that it does not control.
The big question is where does the Pondy Lit Fest go from here. Compared to the last year’s inaugural edition, the cross has doubled, the events have become grander, and the conversations grown richer this year. The biggest challenge, however, will remain one of definition. After all, as political scientist Samuel P. Huntington described it, identity comprises substance (what binds us) and salience (what separates us from the other). The Right seems very clear on salience but not on substance. Until it finds that binding glue, the Indian Right will not be able to counter the narratives set by the Left.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.
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