The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.

~ Plato

Since the advent of the modern democratic politics, asenshrined in the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the phrase left-wing and right-wing have been ubiquitous.

We hear and read these phrases on prime-time news debates, politicians’ speeches, Twitter handles and on some occasions, angry arguments on road-side bettle shops! However, the left-right binary is not how our governments, political parties and policies are categorised.The classification is more complex involving a quadrant rather than two ends of a line.

The History of Left and Right Wings

The concept of ‘left’ and ‘right’ were first coined during the French Revolution in late 18thCentury, where those who sat on the left of the chair of parliamentary president opposed the monarchy and supported the revolution while those who sat on the right were supportive of the institutions of the monarchy.So, it is said that ‘the Left’ were progressives while ‘the Right’ were conservatives.

In the present 21st Century, there are only a handful monarchies. Most of the countries have adopted some form of democracy. So, what do the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ represent in such modern democracies?

Modern Makeover of Left-Right Dichotomy

Majority believe the simple economic definition whereinthe left-wing representspro-poor and welfare-based (demand government subsidies) politics whereas the right-wing symbolizes pro-business (free-market/ limited government) politics.

Juxtaposing the modern economic definition to the historical French parliament definition would make one assume that all pro-poor want revolution and all pro-business support monarchy, which we all know is far from reality.

For better understanding, let’s imagine the political classification in 4 quadrants as shown in the figure:

The simple economic definition of left (pro-poor) and right (pro-business)lies on the X-axis. The Y-axis adds the political (or social/ cultural) aspects of the politics. In +ve Y-axis, the Authority represents Authoritarian Governments/ Political Parties who put restrictionson freedoms (curbing freedom of speech, book ban, restrictions on citizens’ choice of food and clothing). In contrast, the Liberty stands for entities who maximises political freedom and reduces Government intervention in citizens’ personal life (LGBTrights, freedom of inter-caste/ inter-religion marriages).

Application of 4 Quadrant in Real-Life Scenarios

If we apply this framework in understanding real-world political views, the CPI in Kerala with economic left and political liberal policies can be termed a “Democratic Socialist” government. 1960s Mao’s China, on the other hand, will fall under “communism”— economically left but politically authoritative.

Nazi Germany was a Fascist state — authoritative and pro-business. The examples of present day fascist states are Middle East countries, e.g. Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Oman, etc. Whereas most of the modern developed countries in the West would fall under Free-Market Liberalism (economic right and politically liberal).

Back to India, where do BJP and INC belong? Nehru’s INC was definitely a left-liberal party — so, democratic socialism. Modi’s BJP is different from Vajpayee’s BJP. The latter was tilting towards Free-Market liberalism while the former (with support to beef ban and promoting Hindu mythology as history) is tilting towards neoconservatism. Yet, BJP has also championed for informal workers’ rights, farmers’ rights and also continued with the world’s largest unemployment benefits scheme (MGNREGA). So, the party does have a soft corner for the poor. Actually, in India no political party can claim to be anti-poor and win elections. India is too poor a country to allow anyone but pro-poor to govern.

As already hinted, the four-quadrant political spectrum applies not only to political parties and organisations, but also to individuals.

So, next time when somebody is labeled as a ‘leftist’, ask whether left-liberal (like Nehru) or left-authoritative (like Mao).

Similarly, ask a right-wing person whether he/she is right-authoritative (like Hitler) or right-liberal (like Vajpayee or Dr. JP).

Sidarth Barpanda

Sidarth is a part of the Government advisory team at Deloitte India. Master of Public Policy graudate having prior experience working in a Legislator's office and multiple think-tanks.

View all posts

Let’s Collaborate

The Public Policy India Network (PPIN) is looking for people who are passionate about writing, data visualization, photographers, and design to work with us.

Learn More