What Modi can learn from Gore Vidal versus William Buckley

Kishwar Desai
Kishwar DesaiNov 07, 2015 | 18:15

What Modi can learn from Gore Vidal versus William Buckley

Recently I managed to see an old documentary on the fiery TV debates between the American right-wing intellectual , William F Buckley and the author and "liberal" Gore Vidal. This was in the 60s before the Republican and Democrat conventions, when Richard Nixon was running for President.

It seems a very, very long time back, and America has come a long way. But if you were to listen to the debates, you could easily transplant them to 21st century India, where after decades of Congress socialism, you are seeing the inexorable rise of the right wing. But strangely enough the right wing in India is coming not from an elite base (as in other countries) from the industrialists and the capitalists, but from below, led by an erstwhile chai wallah.


This has sent tremors through the established autocracy, especially in Delhi, which is being squeezed between new challengers: the Left-wing revolutionaries, led by Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party and the Right wing, led by Narendra Modi and the BJP. This latter fresh assault on the traditional Delhi citadel cannot be compared to far less strident Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime which basically now resembles a slightly right of centre regime.

Looking at the Buckley-Vidal debate, one can see further striking similarities in the US political battle and the ongoing Indian one. This is evident in the language which was used between the two intellectuals, as they could not disguise their animosity and disgust with each other. Especially evident was the visceral dislike and suspicion on the part of Gore Vidal, who did not hesitate to call Buckley a "crypto Nazi" (Sounds familiar?).

Vidal had prepared well for the debate, showering abuse on Buckley, who was then forced to, on television, say that he would "smash" Vidal's face, as Buckley had actually fought against the Nazis in the war.

He regretted his anger later, and filed a legal suit against Vidal. They published articles against each other, and Vidal ( who was gay) even managed to insinuate that Buckley was homosexual. It was a nasty, no holds barred battle, which the TV audiences, and later the wider American audience, lapped up.


This was especially beneficial for ABC news network, which had seen falling ratings ( and even the fall of a studio ceiling whilst on air). Their ratings actually shot up and the outcome is interesting.

Nixon actually won the election, whilst Buckley became a TV star, and even began to host his own show. Much of the right wing narrative that he structured began to be used, very successfully, by the Republicans and the party was able to design for itself a far more contemporary image.

Vidal, on the other hand, despite his attack on Buckley's "intolerance" became a footnote in political history, though his literary contribution continues to tower.

Going back, however, if one sees the debate, and body language, I can see much of the same hatred and contempt on the faces of those who have occupied the liberal space in India for a long time. For them the right-wing represents nothing but Hindu fanaticism, and so it is essential for the new challengers to find a more inclusive, more contemporary narrative. They must look at international figures, who have argued this debate before. They should structure, despite all provocation, a more appealing, broad based international narrative, and actually move closer to Right wing parties abroad who have become acceptable to voters all over the world.


For a bi-partisan system to work, both sides must have equally strong intellectual fire power, as was clearly seen Buckley-Vidal face off.

Last updated: November 07, 2015 | 18:18
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