Ramachandra Guha Contemplates the Lack of Right-Wing Intellectuals in Three Key Disciplines

The shortage of intellectual support for the Indian right grows apparent when activists such as Dina Nath Batra gain influence. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP / Getty Images
07 March, 2015

In August last year, Y Sudershan Rao was appointed chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, and Dina Nath Batra's influence on school curricula became more and more prominent. Both men have had influence over public policy, not due to their scholarship but to their long-standing connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which in turn has close ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party. According to Ramachandra Guha in our March 2015 cover story, the current government could have patronised scholars with research papers or books to their name, but that alternative was not available, because while India is currently governed by a right-wing party, there are very few right-wing intellectuals. In this excerpt from that article, he takes account of intellectuals in the fields of history, political science and economics to find that all but one are on the left of the political spectrum.

There is a distinction to be drawn between intellectuals and ideologues, who are more interested in promoting their political or religious beliefs than in contributing to the growth of knowledge. The writings of ideologues are rarely based on serious or extended research. There is a tendency to selectively invoke or suppress facts to buttress conclusions decided upon in advance. Of course, intellectuals are citizens too, with their own views on what constitutes a prosperous and just society. Their scholarship and writing does—perceptibly or imperceptibly—reflect their political views. The distinction between an ideologue and an intellectual is not absolute, yet is worth emphasising. For, unlike intellectuals, ideologues care little about the reception of their work by scholars. They wish to influence not so much the course of knowledge as the course of social or political change.

There are plenty of right-wing ideologues in India, active in our newspapers, television channels, and on social media, but very few right-wing intellectuals. This paucity contrasts with the preponderance of credible intellectuals in the centre or on the left of the political spectrum. If I was to draw up a list of the most highly regarded Indian historians of my generation, the names of Seema Alavi, Shahid Amin, Nayanjot Lahiri, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Janaki Nair, Chetan Singh, Upinder Singh and AR Venkatachalapathy would certainly figure. Although these scholars do not advertise which party they vote for, their published work makes it clear that their intellectual orientation is far removed from that prescribed by the RSS or proposed by the BJP.

Turn next to the discipline of political science. Here, the most influential scholars working in India today include Rajeev Bhargava, Peter DeSouza, Zoya Hasan, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Gurpreet Mahajan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Suhas Palshikar and Valerian Rodrigues. All would describe themselves as liberals or socialists. Move to sociology, and much the same can be said of Amita Baviskar, Dipankar Gupta, Surinder Jodhka, Nandini Sundar, AR Vasavi and Susan Visvanathan, who are some of the more respected Indian scholars now active in this field.

At first sight, the discipline of economics—the most active of the social sciences in shaping public policy—might seem an exception. If we define the “left-wing” position here as preferring a greater role in the economy for the state and the “right-wing” one as favouring the market, there has undoubtedly been a shift towards the latter tendency in recent years. Back in 1954, when an early draft of the Second Five Year Plan was shown to 24 Indian economists, as many as 23 approved of its proposal to make the state occupy the “commanding heights” of the economy. If a similar document was to make the rounds now, perhaps three in four Indian economists would argue that the market and individual entrepreneurs, rather than the state and its bureaucrats,f should play the leading role in generating economic growth and ending poverty.

Economics is the most technical of the social sciences, relying heavily on quantitative methods of analysis. The political or philosophical orientations of economists are, therefore, much more understated than those of sociologists or historians. That said, it seems to me that India’s most admired free-market economists are, almost without exception, socially liberal. Consider the doyen in the field, Jagdish Bhagwati, who lives and works in the United States but has a substantial influence on Indian intellectual life. Bhagwati’s disenchantment with the welfare-first, subsidy-oriented economic policies of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime, and of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council in particular, led him to support Narendra Modi and the BJP, whom he saw as more sympathetic to entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. However, despite his long-standing and consistent orientation towards market liberalisation, Bhagwati remains a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, whose commitment to religious and social pluralism he shares. On his most recent visit to India, the economist spoke out against the RSS and its affiliates, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad, in several speeches and interviews. Bhagwati also warned the prime minister, Modi, of the peril to his economic agenda if he did not come out strongly against the religious extremists in his party and the extended family of Hindutva organisations, known as the Sangh Parivar.

In this respect Bhagwati is representative. Virtually all important free-market economists in India refuse to discriminate among citizens by religion, are committed to the rights of gays and lesbians, and so on. While they may support or vote for the BJP in the belief that it is comparatively market-friendly, they do not in any way endorse the party’s suspicion of religious and sexual minorities. Ashok Desai, a former chief economic adviser to the government, has recently and emphatically written, “No respectable economist has Hindu nationalist inclinations: the ideology is mistaken according to economics.”

To be sure, there are influential columnists in the Indian media who would be happy to own the labels “conservative” and “right-wing.” Yet their output is restricted to thousand-word columns and fleeting sound bites on television, neither of which is congenial to subtle or substantial arguments about history, politics and society

There are also influential right-wing voices on social media. One of them is Subramanian Swamy, who has more than a million followers on Twitter. Swamy once taught economics at Harvard, but it is 40 years since he has been active in research. Now he is better known for floating conspiracy theories about politicians he dislikes, for demonising minorities—in 2011, he argued that Muslims should not be part of the general electorate—and for demanding that books by left-wing scholars be burnt. Once an intellectual, he is now—at best—a provocateur.

Perhaps the only serious intellectual in India who is also socially conservative is Arun Shourie. Unlike Sudershan Rao or Dina Nath Batra, or indeed the right-wing columnists referred to above, Shourie has published a number of books based on original research. These expand on distinctively conservative themes, such as the importance of national unity and solidarity, the dangers of excessive cultural heterogeneity, and the threat to India from external enemies—namely China and Pakistan. Shourie has been a BJP member of parliament, and a minister in a BJP-controlled government. Originally trained as an economist, unlike India’s other free-market thinkers he wears his conservative political and social orientation on his sleeve.

Ramachandra Guha books include India After Gandhi and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays. He lives in Bengaluru.