Can There Be ‘Love And Compassion’ In Politics?


(Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy for the provocative discussions in the class which led to writing this paper.)

(Abstract: Emotions in politics are always being neglected and side-lined. Liberal democracies broad understanding of public sphere which is based on ‘reason’ and ‘individual freedom’ is backfiring.It is in this background this paper tries to shed some light on the way we associate with politics and its various outcome. Along with this, it also tries to analyse the upsurge of right-wing forces throughout the world which has unleashed sentiments of hatred. Can this upsurge be understood through increasing role of perverted emotion in contemporary politics (public sphere)? Can ‘left principles and politics’ be the option in these unique circumstances which has pitched human being against human being, would be the further scope of discussion?  )

All societies are full of emotions, liberal democracies are no exceptions. When we look at the theatre of politics around us today, it is difficult not to give in to a sense of cynicism. More than any other theme in contemporary politics, it is the prevalence of hatred and prejudice that characterise the current society in any political system. Most of the time these sentiments are directed against an individual, political and societal system which manifest itself into larger levels in various forms.

Human beings are host of many types of emotion – anger, fear, envy, disgust, sympathy, guilt, grief, love, happiness, hope etc. How these emotions plays out in both private and public sphere depends on the institutional structures to which we interact in our daily lives. In a liberal democratic, representative form of government it is the institutions which mediate our demands which results in varied public reactions through acceptance or rejection of any policy or ideology. Also the role of institutions acquires tremendous importance in liberal democracy due to its twin promise of justice and secularism. So my concernhere would be to highlight the interplay of public emotions in liberal democracy.

There is a deep enmeshment between liberalism and capitalism in their influence to democracy. It is a common feature that wherever democracy entered in any country it is predominantly with the help of discourse of liberty, equality and justice. In the long run what happens is political democracy (one man one vote) triumph over social and economic form of it. This principle of one man one vote and other civil rights are based on the idea of individual self which is rational and autonomous and who can carry out functions of their lives in their own way by using their reason.On the other hand for the actualisation of social democracy we need to develop collective sentiments in our society based on the idea of obligation toward others, treating other human being with respect and dignity. While the former is the matter of right, latter is an area of duty.

Moreover the post globalisation era had witnessed  tremendous growth in individual freedom and the institutions of liberal democracy has always exacerbated this process of individuation, which has made any kind of collective endeavour very difficult to pursue in its most urgent period (i.e. now). This collapse of collective which Hannah Arendt argued people’s capacity to acting in a concert has taken a new low due to the mismatch between promises of liberal institutions and its original way of functioning. It is in this gap, created by the mismatch of promises where the people aspirations dwells waiting in limbo to get some direction.The ideal role of politics situates itself exactly in this sphere where it could push people’s aspiration in the direction of harmony and compassion. So the question that arises here is Does the onslaught of right wing politics throughout the world have the potential to give peoples aspiration and hope – definite direction? Why we are witnessing events which are so inhumane that forces us to conclude that basic human tendencies are on retreat? Can there be a politics which is based on most cherished emotion of human being i.e. love?

What explains the rise of right wing populism?

Populism is not a new phenomenon which we are witnessing with the rise of right wingers at the helm of political affairs all over the world. It has gathered momentum in history in various parts of the world and had associated with both the spectrum of right and left. In short, populist philosophy is a loose set of ideas that mainly contains three features: anti-establishment, authoritarianism, and nativism. To simplify it further it is understood as a philosophy that emphasises faith in the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people (the silent majority) over the current establishment. It reflects deep cynicism and resentment against existing authorities like big banks, big business, media pundits, elected politicians, government officials, intellectual elites.

Right wing populism in India has to be looked against the backdrop of the failure of liberal political institutions and its failure to recognise the passion of millions of Indians. Also some other factors like dynastic rule, strong civil society movements against corruption during congress regime and most importantly failure of the left who are the main ideological rivals of the right wingers to build a large societal alliance with the left out sections must be delve upon for further theorisation.

As I mentioned earlier that liberalism and capitalism are entangled in such a way that the institutions of one affect the other. Liberal institutions failure to recognise various emotions in a democracy is precisely its enmeshment with capitalism as an economic system which brought with it lot of promises and hope. It is the dream of free, rational, secular market which people thought would provide them a good life which is slowly showing its backlashes. As the dream gets shattered it creates a vacuum in the mind of citizens. It is in this vacuum where the right wing leaders like Narendra Modi or Donald Trump through their eloquent oratory skills and their ability to act whimsically captures public imagination.

Secondly, there is an underlying philosophical problem in the way liberal state operates its institutions. Guided by the deep philosophical arguments of John Locke, JS Mill, John Rawls liberal state hesitate to enter into the private domain of an individual and hence doesn’t touch the moral , religious , cultural aspects of people.Obviously it would contradict its own philosophy if it enters in private life of an individual. For sure state should not enter into the private life of an individual directly. I think there would be no problem or havoc if it politicises issues which are hitherto relegated to private sphere. By politicising issues like caste , religion(like uniform civil code , triple tale, immigration policy which many times target people belonging to particular religion), race, sexuality liberal state would reinforce its own principle of believing in human reason. Now each and every questions which manufacture human emotion would be in public forum and the citizens of liberal democracy would have the scope of deliberating these issues and educate themselves through proper reasoning. Rise of right wing strong men in the world is also pertaining to the hesitation and reluctance of liberal state institutions to politicise these issues with an apprehension that debate related to these issues would disturb public decorum. When state doesn’t  politicise these issues , persons like Narendra modi and Donald trump takes every advantage by indulging themselves in making rhetoric related to these issues in public space and are successful in manipulating people’s frustration.

Apart from politicising issues, simultaneously liberal state should cultivate emotions (love, hope, sense of concern toward others, etc.) through its institutions. This line of argument was made by Martha c Nussbaum in her work ‘political emotion’ where she further argues that our emotion does contain ‘evaluative contents’ , if it does so then we can always decide, which is good or bad emotion ? Hence state should not hesitate to direct emotion which are of benign form among its citizens by using its institutions. Public institutions , mainlyPublicschools, universities are appropriate placeswhere she believes liberal state could cultivate emotion like love, hope, friendship and other form of good emotion.  Here itcould try to build a prototype of inclusive society. Liberal state  failure to invest sufficient resources in public institutionslike  educational sector (especially in developing country like India)  and caught up in the race of economic modernization programmes by following the laws of market  is the main reason which disable its citizen to conduct their emotions along cosmopolitan lines. Developing and third world countries need the presence of state in order to make its citizens capable and giving them an opportunity to make their life better. Withdrawal of states from important sectors like health and education leads to shrinkage of space where collective endeavour could be developed. This retreat of state eventually synchronise well with the prejudiced rhetoric of right wing demagogues who are on implicit rampage throughout the world.

The above cited problem becomes more palpable and it appears demotivating when a liberal or left regime itself fail to do so.Within the times span of 60 years of congress regime which claims itself to be liberal or having some orientation of socialism , it could not able to create an education system mainly at the primary level  which  would have moulded individual consciousness  along universal moral laws of justice , equality, self-respect. This would have restricted the onslaught of this present regime which had its foundation on perverted form of human emotion like hatred, disgust, prejudice.‘Devesh kapur’ in a recent interview to ‘The Hindu’ argued our public institutions in India have genuinely failed in fostering a spirit of enquiry, curiosity, tolerance and excellence among its citizens. In a country like India where a large section of the people are still languishing in poverty and basic services are not available to them , it cannot be the free , competitive and greedy market but state along with its institutional reach which could undo the injustice meted to the deprived citizens. Act like right to education has become our fundamental right but the dilapidated condition of public schools throughout the country is well known. Political will to invest more in public departments is missing and this accusation can be levelled at any political party belonging to any spectrum. Nevertheless the recent work of Delhi government in education and health is worth to mention and it deserve attention from us.

Can there be left populism?

This question doesn’t mean that left populism has never appeared in any liberal democracy. The challenge is how it should counter the upsurge of right wing populism which is based on exclusion and superficial narrative of ‘sabkasathsabkavikas’.  If populism in general operates using emotions against establishment, nativism, authoritarianism, left populism can create narrative against the populism of right by accounting these factors in its narrative but by using emotions which are of different types. Emotions which is based on love, hope, compassion, sense of belongingness, mutual respect toward others.

Firstly, ‘the notion of love’ is very important in politics especially in liberal democracy which works well with  a heterogeneous society,  as it gives platform to different sections of a society to articulate their social and political views. There is a good deal of difference between ‘right’ and ‘left’ in their way of expressing ‘love’ toward fellow beings. Former uses the notion of love in mutually exclusive manner (majoritarian or hindu nationalism, conservative in their approach toward some prominent social questions related to gender, dalits, LGBTQ community) while the later does contain in its discourse – components on which a just and equal society (casteless- classless society, dignity of human labour) can be build based on universal love and sense of concern toward others. It is the emotion of fear, anger, hatred that Donald trump fanned during his campaign of USA presidential election by repeatedly using humiliating remarks against physically handicapped, women, African –American, Muslims. The prevalent notion was America needs to be make great again by drawing a clear line between who are Americans and who are not? The great America should consist of people who are its original inhabitants and not outsiders and those who cannot contribute American society. Similarly, in recent U P election in India, BJP (a right faction of the Indian political system) projected PM Narendra Modi as the face of party who carried out his overall development narrative while on the other hand the parent organisation of BJP, RSS tried their best and even succeeded in giving majoritarian colour to the electoral campaign which is based on politics of exclusion. So any form of left populism to develop it must sync well with the heterogeneous aspirations of people and should not try to work out its politics on divisive and reactionary terms.

Second problems confronting the left is the fragmentation in its mode of accomplishing a socialist or just society. This problem persist at two levels – ‘within’ left and ‘across parties which does contains similar orientation of left parties’.  It is indeed an irony that ‘Communist Manifesto’ (1848) gives a clarion call to the workers of the world to unite but the vanguards of the world or let’s say in a political community keeps on coming up with new  factions to achieve their desire goal. This multiplication of left parties in their liberal and progressive orientation is somehow suffering the cause of coherent left populism to develop. So primarily there should be forging of alliance between all the left parties to counter the right based populism (first level).

At another level, for a coherent left populism to develop there need to be a formation of broad societal alliance which could actually counter right’s power base. Such a coalition of different interests will give formidable challenge to the politics of exclusion and eventually the force of capital. Left along with its principled anti capital rhetoric must recognise the questions of identity to push politics of hatred outside the margin. This politics of exclusion is gaining momentum throughout   due to steep rise in inequality of income resulting in various forms of anxiety and anguish that I mentioned in the above section. It is this politics of exclusion that left and its alliance needs to tap and challenge this with politics of inclusion or love to gain ground. ‘Salvoj Zizek’ (2016) argues that the rise of leaders like Trump and Modi and the kind of politics of hatred they are doing will eventually shake up the entire system and the citizens will be in their edge in anxiousness about their future when they will realise that the right winger’s policies are as hollow as their rhetoric. The kind of policies these leaders are framing related to immigration in USA or demonetisation in India are merely an attempt which manufactures feeling that these are the only way through which grievances could be addressed but in the long run peoples hope will be shattered when these policies will lead to further cacophony . It is during this shaking up the system left should come up with an alternative which should be  based on genuine concerns of people and most importantly  this alternative should take into account those unrecognised passions on which populism of right wing politics is based.

In India no broader societal alliance can be formed without engaging with the questions of nationalism,Religion, culture. Hence it is imperative that left should begin to engage themselves in the discourse of nationalism which is generally considered as a sphere of right. Not only engagement but also takes initiative of defining nationalism and what a citizen of a nation really wants to know about it. Also left should mark its presence through a proper deliberative process in all the issues which right is throwing up in public to show that they are the only option people should embrace if they want immediate redressal of their grievances .  But the version of nationalism, religion, culture  of left must be of cosmopolitan kind based on equality and justice( nationalism should mean Indian nationalism, religion should derive its force from spiritual component which I believe is attainable to us on being belonging to a same human race). Hence it is here left should be strategically and tactically efficient in constructing the notion of ‘the people’ by keeping their telos to those universal values without negating the particularities of the public.

It is indeed an irony that Indian left has not yet able to build a narrative of inequality and discrimination against the status quo on behalf of the left out sections of society. There is absolutely no narrative in mainstream politics related to privatisation of education sector, increasingly corporatisation of health, insurance sector and other important issues. The question that is needed to be asked why in India during elections or afterwards we don’t debate about equal opportunity in education , health and other vital areas which are important for any individual to actualise his/her potential. Without making these questions India’s national interest, left populism would not be able to do justice with its epistemology.

Is it possible?

The perpetuation of unjust political, economic, social system has something to do with the crisis of capital (which has naturally provides a breeding ground for the ‘politics of hate’) and the reluctance of the state to undo these injustices by distributing the so called large share of cake equally among its inhabitants then I see a very optimistic period ahead. Promises made by BJP government in India is gradually becoming blunt. In every front government pre-election rhetoric is not able to match with concrete policy results. Hue and cry related to demonetisation has resulted in the slumping of GDP growth rate. Young students who were trapped in the whimsical rhetoric of our Prime Minister, their education fees are being hiked, scholarships are being cut, charged with draconian laws like sedition and harassed in many other ways when they voiced their popular demand through extra parliamentary means.

Social unrests in our country is on rise after BJP government took over by creating a chimera of ‘ache din’. Atrocities against dalits, minorities and by dictating young women students – how their lives should be guided by strict code of conduct to preserve our sacrosanct Hindureligion. If congress appeased Muslim sections in some cases, BJP is trying to score their point by appeasing Hindu sections by exacerbating communalism of low intensity and by carrying out private soldiers in the form of Romeo squads and campaign likeghar-wapsi, love jihad. In this way the entire debate in this country is getting wrapped up with a conclusion that if the previous regime did this particular wrong, there is no wrong for ruling government to commit the same with eloquence.

If we observe the unfolding of events around us, populism of right is slowly digging its own graves. The utmost need of the hour within opposition is a firm leadership who through his/ her oratory skills would be able to connect and communicate all the social and economic tension that the ruling dispensation is unleashing for their exclusive addenda. Left populism in India should take a cue from the way Bernie Sanders in U.S.A, Jeremy Corbin in U.K was able to attract the unheard and dispossessed people under their universal pre-election rhetoric which was for the many not the few. Both of them could not able to hold public office but the emphatically shows us the way through which left populism can be galvanised.

 Shiveshwar Kundu is pursuing M.A from centre for political studies, JNU


Nussbaum, Martha C (2013), Political Emotions: why love matters for justice, Harvard University Press: Massachusetts.

Nussbaum, Martha C (1996), For Love of Country? Edited by Joshua Cohen, Beacon Press Boston: Massachusetts.

Zabala, Santiago (2017), ‘Difference between right and left wing populism’ in www. Aljazeera .com

Banerjee, Sumanta (2013), ‘why is the left more divided than the right’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol no 38, Pg 14-16.

Sarukkai, Sundar (2016), “the age of post truth politics”. The Hindu, 22 November

Bardhan, Pranab (2017), “The illusion, the reality check”. The Indian Express, 5 August.


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