Who is a Leftist and Who is a Rightist in India

Mantasha Ansari

Recently, I wrote an article for the Frontier weekly, examining how migrant labourers were neglected by the state during the lockdown. I did not mention religion or caste. I felt that the state neglected the migrant labourers because it was difficult to identify them with religion or caste. In India, religion and caste are much more important than human lives. These identities arouse politicians and the government to act. Without caste or religion, citizens do not exist. Their interests are not protected. Even the political parties have wings and morchas (fronts) for minorities, scheduled castes and tribes, women or other backward classes.

One of my friends who read the article labelled me as a leftist. She was also shocked that I did not mention "government" anywhere in the article. Perhaps she wanted every citizen to be either against or for the government, which currently means the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Without such a reasoning, it's impossible to divide citizens. However, the question that lingered on my mind is: who is a leftist in India and therefore who is a rightist.

In political science, we read that leftists advocate greater government control on all sectors of life. In India, federal and state governments run buses, trains and planes, or supply water, ration, electricity and petrol. So, I thought: Is the government in India leftist too? In this article, I will discuss as to who is a leftist and who is a rightist in the Indian context. In doing so, I am using the term "leftist" loosely to mean leftists and liberals, and the term "rightist" to denote conservatives and sectarians, or communals.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations, the root sense of "left" means "the hand that is normally the weaker of the two" and involves "egalitarianism, support for nationalization of industry, hostility to marks of hierarchy [such as caste and class], opposition to nationalistic foreign or defence policy." This means a leftist is someone who supports equality and weaker classes while favouring the state takeover of private companies. Contrarily, "right" is defined "in opposition to socialism" and contains the elements of conservatism, Christian democracy, liberalism, libertarianism, nationalism, racism and fascism, explains the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations.

Ten Characteristics of Leftists and Rightists
Broadly speaking, we notice some key characteristics of the left and the right in India.

One, the leftists are pro-equality and pro-constitution. They support constitutional values and demand the enforcement of the rule of law. The leftists oppose arbitrary use of power. The rule of law means: "the government as well as private actors are accountable under the law" – as per the World Justice Project. The rightists also advocate equality but their idea of equality is for the majority community only. They see the constitution of India as an obstacle to their goals and want to alter the constitution. They support the government but do not support the rule of law.

Two, the leftists are seen as agents of change. They favour continuous social change and see things in their dynamic nature. For them, society must improve for better with time. But the rightists fight for the past and their lost glory. They relish a state of complacency. They don't want to change the status quo. The rightists favour a political party that stands for preserving the past. We can say that the leftists are focused on the future and how the future should be shaped, while the rightists are focused on the past and how the past should be recovered.

Three, the leftists in India believe in free speech, while the rightists believe in hate speech against marginalised communities. The leftists question their leaders and the government. They criticise the government when it engages in wrongdoing. For them, every citizen is equal, every colour is the same, every religion matters, free speech matters even if it is pornography. Whereas the rightists ban pornographic websites, do not believe in free speech and do not question their leader or their party's government. They use free speech to foster hate speech.

Four, the leftists support the institutions of the state but not authoritarian leaders. They believe that authoritarianism causes fear in the minds of citizens. The rightists praise their leaders and they display fascistic tendencies. They adore their leaders unconditionally. When their leaders become authoritarian, they mostly ignore the marginalised communities and support the majority community. That is why the majority community follows the rightwing ideology, while the marginalised groups are generally on the side of the leftists.

Five, the leftists are patriots and love their country without hating any other country and without loving their government or the ruler. They strongly believe that all countries and their peoples should be respected. The leftists have a globalist worldview, while the rightists are narrow-minded. The rightists call themselves nationalists, but their nationalism survives on the hatred of another country. They think loving their nation means loving their government, their political party and their leaders. For them, the more divisive a leader is, the better he or she is. This leads to authoritarianism in the short run and fascism in the long run.

Six, the leftists focus on people, not on government, not on nation. They stand for the public interest and believe in the idea of a welfare state to care for all citizens. As per the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the welfare state is one in which "the state or a well-established network of social institutions plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of citizens" and takes "responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life." Whereas the rightists focus on their party's government, not on public interest. For them, public interest means the interests of the majority, not of all citizens.

Seven, the leftists believe that people will own everything but by people they mean the state. For them, the state is the parent who must take care of all needs. The rightists believe that people should own everything and the government should be out of business. The rightists promote the private sector and expect it to create wealth to benefit all, while the leftists promote the state sector to create jobs for all and to ensure the well-being of everyone, especially the downtrodden.

Eight, the leftists believe in positive discrimination. For example, they support reservation in jobs and educational institutions for members of the weaker sections. They recognise the existence of marginalised communities like Dalits, tribals, Muslims, LGBTQ, women and others. Positive discrimination is mandated by the constitution of India. The rightists divide citizens along religious lines to advance their sectarian agenda. In other words, they believe in negative discrimination against some communities. This leads to fanaticism and racism.

Nine, the leftists are seen as tolerant, while the rights are perceived as intolerant. This is especially relevant in current times among the new generations of Indian youths. However, writing in the December 2014 issue of Political Psychology, Jarret T. Crawford and Jane M. Pilanski concluded: "While some argue that political intolerance is more endemic to the political right than the left, others have noted how those on both the political right and left can be intolerant of those with whom they disagree."

Ten, the leftists tend to unite citizens, while the rightists are engaged in dividing people between "Us versus Them." In the western countries like the U.S. and UK, the rightwing politicians foster public hatred, as an example, for Latinos and Indian immigrants. In India, the rightwing uses similar agenda in an attempt to render a community of Indians stateless, or without citizenship. Such division of people is crude and is done on the lines of religion and caste in India. While the leftists talk of citizens, the rightists talk of religious communities.

The above discussion of who is a leftist and who is a rightist is not valid in India for the following reasons. First, it is not right to classify people along religious or ideological lines. By engaging in this binary classification, we are basically dividing people. This must be stopped. Second, many times a rightist might support a totally liberal-leftist agenda. For example, on the issue of the unilateral instant triple talaq by Muslim husbands in India, it was the rightists who took a liberal stand, while the leftists were clueless despite their love of women's rights.

Three, on the issue of caste, the rightists ideologically and inherently support the Brahaminical agenda, even though they speak against caste. The Hindutva agenda is typically supported by those who are upper castes. But even the leftists have allowed some form of Brahmanism to run through communist parties which have prevented Dalits from rising in their ranks. Four, humans can take a rightist stand at a certain age, but switch over to a completely leftist position at a later stage in life – and vice versa. People should be welcomed to leave their past if they do so to improve themselves and their social surroundings. It's to be a liberal-leftist if a Brahmin girl marries a Dalit or a Hindu marries a Muslim girl without seeking to convert any party.

Five, the state in India has control over many sectors, but the private sector too exists. India is a mixed economy. While the strict leftists will always support total state takeover of all private industry, the rightists in India realise the need for the state to take care of the economically weaker sections. For example, Narendra Modi once ridiculed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) brought by the Congress government to guarantee jobs to the rural poor, but has gone on to increase the funding for the programme. 

In short, our minds must be alerted as soon as someone mentions "they" versus "us." Sensible writers, playwrights, activists and thinkers must overcome any bid to divide people along caste, religion or ideological lines. Politicians and partisan activists will always make an attempt to divide humans to promote their sectarian political gains. The bigger responsibility is to override such differences and empower the young generations to think about all citizens irrespective of their religious, caste or ideological affiliation  –  and to make no attempt to identify and ridicule Indians by their food habits, colour of skin or clothes they wear. 

Mantasha Ansari is a writer based at the University of Lucknow. She can be reached via email:

Jul 8, 2020

 Mantasha Ansari

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