Perversity of Indian intellectual


If you are not a communist before 30, they say, you have no heart, and if you are a communist after 30 you have no head. In the West, there is an army of intellectuals who can boast of both the heart and the head. Not so in India.

Many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders were astounded that a former communist, Sudheendra Kulkarni, could be as much close to party president L.K. Advani as he was once to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The reason is that in our country there are very few Leftists who see the light of reason and commonsense and, therefore, turn Rightwards; the few conversions that take place are primarily because of political and pecuniary factors rather than ideological considerations; and, in any case, the conversions fail to impress the public discourse, which continues to be carried out in an essentially Leftist idiom. The result is that the neo-Rightist in India is not fired by the zeal of the new convert; rather he suffers from the guilt of a turncoat.

It’s different in the West. In the West, communist-turned-conservatives not only abound, they are also important participants in the public discourse. They played a key role in heralding the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the 1980s; the conservative revolution continues under US President George Bush. Arguably, the most prominent among them is Irving Kristol, the first neo-conservative whose ideological—and biological—progeny set the agenda for Washington. A former Trotskyite, he is a profound thinker and a prolific writer. His views would be considered reactionary in India. For instance, he recently wrote that “a secular state cannot prosper—indeed, cannot survive—in an entirely secular society. Families and churches are the two institutions that make for inter-generational stability.”

Another conservative icon is Paul Johnson, a Briton. One of the most important living historians, he was once a Leftist. Later, he became one of the staunchest critics of communism. His book, Modern Times, a history of the twentieth century, begins with a description of and an attack on moral relativism. He hailed the Reagan-Thatcher era as one in which the “recovery of freedom” was made possible.

The story of Whitaker Chambers is even more dramatic. A former Communist Party member and Time magazine senior editor, he became famous (or infamous, from the liberal point of view) because of his testimony in the 1950 Alger Hiss trial, which heralded the age of McCarthyism. Chambers became an aggressive anti-communist.

David Horowitz’s journey from the Left to the Right has been equally dramatic. Hailed as “one of the great thinkers on the American scene today,” his new book Left Illusions delineates his defection to conservatism. Reflecting on his adolescent days, he told an interviewer that he thought that he had the wisdom to instruction President Harry Truman. According to Horowitz, “I was just ten years old, but I thought of myself as someone who could lecture the president of the United States on the difference between right and wrong, and thus change the course of history. I was just starting out in life, yet was already suspended so high above everyone else.”

A variety of factors—rigidity and dogmatism of communism, the continuous reports of killings in communist countries (80 to 100 million dead), the failure of command economy all over the world and unprecedented prosperity created by capitalism—brought Leftists and many liberals in touch with the real world. Kristol famously said that a neo-conservative is the liberal who got “mugged by reality”; the same was true for the Leftist.

In India, however, the liberal and the Leftist have fortified themselves in the ivory towers of political correctness and socialist rhetoric. An excursion, even a forced one, in the real world is frowned upon. Those who have to accept the inexorable logic of capitalism—which is the only humane system mankind has ever witnessed—do so diffidently and apologetically. An illustration: a leading liberalizer, who has held almost every office an economist can dream of holding, justified economic reforms in his book (in 1996) by saying that such reforms are “consistent with our socialist ideals”!

Even the few who turn Rightwards find it prudent to follow the Leftist-liberal consensus, rather than challenge it. If the reports about Kulkarni’s influence over Advani have even an iota of credibility, his effort was to make the BJP leader consistent with the consensus. While in the West the ideological defector challenges the liberal consensus, his Indian counterpart is happy following the canons of conventional wisdom. This keeps the Indian intellectual shielded from the assaults of reality.