The centre-Left in India is more concerned with dirty politics: Philosopher Aakash Rathore

Courtesy Aakash Singh Rathore
15 December, 2019

Aakash Singh Rathore is a philosopher whose work spans Indian political thought, the philosophy of jurisprudence, human rights and Dalit feminist theory, among others. He has taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Delhi, the University of Berlin, and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Rathore is currently a fellow at Ethos, a think tank affiliated to the Luiss University in Rome, Italy. He is the series editor of Rethinking India—a collection of 14 volumes that aims to bring together contributors from a wide range of backgrounds to clarify and consolidate the values of the progressive Left. The series will explore concepts and practices of caste, economics, gender, institutions, rights and minorities. The first volume, to be released soon, is titled, Vision for a Nation: Paths and Perspectives, and has been edited by Rathore in collaboration with Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist and social theorist.

In an interview with Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, Rathore spoke about the failure of the Left and how India is at the forefront of a global rightward turn. According to Rathore, articulation of the ideals of the Left, drawn from the Indian constitution, is needed to present a counter to the Right.

Tushar Dhara: Why gather 130 contributors across 14 volumes at this point? Is it a re-articulation of progressive ideals?
Aakash Singh Rathore: The contributors come from a range of backgrounds, from the Left to centrists to progressives. I, personally, am an Ambedkarite. But all the contributors are more or less people who subscribe to the values in the preamble of the Constitution, which really represents what India should be. We invite anyone to cooperate who realises that we have a problem today, in these majoritarian times. Right now, it’s one section of people who are bearing the brunt. Minorities, including those who have been historically disadvantaged—Dalit-Bahujan, Adivasis—or now religiously targeted, such as Muslims and Christians, or marginalised geographically and politically—the northeast—are bearing the brunt of majoritarian ideology today. But this ideology gets realised through violence, loss of rights, loss of life and livelihood, lynching and mob mentality. As these latter practices are unleashed and flourish, they come back upon the majority too. Suffocating minority liberties and rights means suffocating rights as such. No one will come out safer or stronger, all will suffer the consequences. This reality will hit us all, majorities included, hard in the medium term when all of our rights and security is at risk of capricious whim and cynical political calculation. If we continue at this pace, who is going to remain free?

TD: What issues do the volumes deal with?
ASR: We have begun with an “ideas” book. What do progressive people stand for, and why do we stand for it? What we are trying to say in the ideas book is that if we are to succeed as a nation, we have to stick to these ideas—justice, liberty, equality, fraternity—however difficult they are to communicate, and however badly we might lose elections for espousing them. The second volume is on minorities and the third is on reviving jobs. We have a huge jobs crisis in India. Even right-leaning think tanks suggest that we should be creating twenty million jobs every year. Instead, we are losing jobs. The fourth volume is on rights, and their centrality for growth and development. These are all ready to go, we publish one per month. There is one on institutions. People across party lines will agree that our institutions are failing and we need to figure out how to correct these institutions. Those that had power over the last fifty or sixty years need to say what they did wrong. Why were these institutions allowed to fail? So, there is a fair bit of introspection in the volumes. After those are books on gender, the Scheduled Castes, the Adivasis and the Other Backward Classes.

TD: What failures of the centre-Left have led us to this situation?
AR: For a decade or more, the centre-Left in India has been less concerned with articulating its progressive values and more concerned with dirty politics, which leads to ambiguous ideology. If I were to ask anyone, “What does the Congress stand for?” we would not get a simple answer, but if I were to ask, “What does the Bharatiya Janata Party stand for?” we would get a simple answer. Now, I do not like the answer, but there is a serious flaw if your average person on the street cannot say what you stand for. And the centre-Left parties have managed to produce this by their own waffling and wavering. One day, they are speaking about secularism, and the next day they are in a temple to get Hindu votes. One day, they are championing the rights of the Scheduled Castes, and the next day undermining the power of reservation. We are coming together to say that we have a set of values that are clear and valuable. We want to feed this back to the parties who are ambiguous: “Can I use the word secular, or is it a dirty word?” We want to offer them a statement saying this is what we stand for, this is what we stood for as a nation since the 1940s.

TD: You said India was leading in the global rightward drift. Can you elaborate with examples?
ASR: I did my LLM [masters of laws] in comparative constitutional law at the Central European University in Budapest [the capital of Hungary]. Hungary is another country with a very rightward populist government. I used to read the Hungarian, French, German and Italian newspapers. In each of them, when they start speaking of the rightward drift of nations, India always appears in the top three nations. If the journalist is talking about Italy or Hungary, which have seen rightward drifts, they will mention their own country, they will mention the United States—which is seen as an archetypical example with Donald Trump—and what is unexpected is that India and Modi are a constant refrain at number three. That is not how we identify as a state, which was always a beacon of hope.

TD: Why do you think that internationally Modi is referenced as one of the top right wing populist leaders?
ASR: The end of the previous century was supposed to be the time when Asia is rising. India did a number of things to enhance its soft power in terms of cultural reach and influence. For instance, Hindi songs playing on radios in Turkish taxis, or in New York, Canada or Hong Kong. People were referencing Bollywood films and Indian food. At the same time, its economic power was ballooning. When countries like India and China start rattling the global economic status-quo, people start paying attention. India cannot be ignored at the global level, and when there is a personality like Narendra Modi at the head of government, that is highlighted as well.

TD: So, when Modi boasts to his domestic audience that he has taken India to the top internationally, he is not entirely wrong, except that it’s not within the framework that the centre-Left usually operates in?
ASR: Yes, but it’s a double-edged sword. You will not find people in Europe anymore asking where Mumbai is; they all know. But they will also ask, “Do you have a mini-Hitler?”

TD: The question of minorities has assumed importance in the last five years. Is there a new way of conceptualising the problems faced by minorities?
ASR: The minorities question has become an important question in the twenty-first century, because minorities can be framed in different ways. All minorities across the board and around the world have suffered in their rights, their sense of equality and social equality, with one exception, which is LGBTQ. Somehow, in India they are the only minority that has managed—of course, that is now coming under fire—in the last five years, to make some progress in the universal recognition of their human rights. Every other minority has made drastic, precipitous drops backwards. And that is the essence of majoritarian populism. But we need to be clear that from the foundation of parliamentary democracy [comes] the process of judicial review. Minorities have a natural disadvantage through the electoral process. Judicial review has to prevent majority tyranny, because majority tyranny is what we are seeing when we push through Article 370, the National Register of Citizens and so on. The whole function of a constitution is to prevent the tyranny of a majority over a minority.

TD: Institutions have been considerably weakened over the course of the Narendra Modi regime. Can this be reversed?
ASR: Look at the United States, the institution of the presidency and its relationship with some of the sub-divisions of the executive branch, like the justice department. The law of the land is how some of these institutions were run. The current president Donald Trump has undermined all of these institutions. People keep screaming that it’s illegal, and yet, in each case it comes out that it’s not necessarily illegal, but contrary to standard practices. Institutions are not necessarily supported by the law; they are also supported by a culture of how they are supposed to operate. The crisis today is that everyone assumed that institutions were run by a set of legal norms. But it turns out that they run because of a set of social and cultural norms. In India, a lot of [the reason] why institutions have collapsed so quickly in the last five years is because the law is ambiguous about what steps can be taken to prevent their capture. Whereas, political parties, when they get a majority, are not ambiguous at all.

But I do not think it’s fair to talk about what has happened to institutions now, without talking about what happened when the Congress party was in power. Political parties have always wanted to sway institutions. But now the idea is that the function of the institution is not only to implement the policies of the ruling party, but also the morals of the ruling party.

This interview has been edited and condensed.