The enigma called Indian conservativism

Conservative movement in India is a big enigma. Accuse me a conservative when I state the obvious — India does not have a conservative movement as far as the commonly accepted meanings of that word in the modern sense is concerned. And yes, I actually mean no conservative political movement— nacht, nyet, naHi, illai. The only time the word conservatism can ever be used in its proper sense is in its past tense; to refer to Swatantra Party by C. R. Rajagopalachari.


C. Rajagopalachari

We do have a not so subtle potpourri of various groups like traditionalists, anti-liberals, hardcore religious fanatics and cultural nationalists with varying degrees of bigotry, mostly controlled by populists  the from the last group. No points for the guesses, as they are the current ruling party that commands a stable electoral majority in the parliament. They are considered to be the nearest to, or in some cases proclaims themselves to be the voice as in the case of their fellow traveler publication Swarajya, Indian conservatives. May be, it is the comparison with Republican party of United States in terms of composition, that makes people say this. In any case, this bunch makes an interesting subject for a study.

The rise of Modi to power did give some commentators the hope that this time the general course would change. After demonetization, higher indirect taxes, bringing in new red tapism in the form of making Aadhar mandatory for every inconsequential thing and new regulations on cattle markets (which is nothing but a devious way to restrict supply of beef — the ideological agenda), I believe that no intelligent observer will argue that we are in the direction of a small government.

The late Malayalam novelist O. V. Vijayan made a brilliant observation about the predecessor of today’s ruling party, the Jan Sangh. Let me quote him (translation mine).


O. V. Vijayan

I remember the conversation with O. Rajagopal (the veteran Jan Sangh/BJP leader and current MLA) many years ago while he was getting ready to leave after spending the night at my home as a guest. I asked:

Where will the divisive politics of Jan Sangh lead to? You do not have a contemporary economic vision. You do not have a democratic solution to the linguistic and geographic contradictions.”    

We will be accepted pan India“, he replied.


My friend expressed sympathy at my silliness with a kind smile. He said:

Any movement that is born from the (holy) Sindhu-Ganga basin should necessarily succeed.”

I was shocked at this half baked mysticism….. Sangh’s primary concern is not the failure of Indian democracy. It is not any of the contemporary issues. Their concern is mythology, the great war between Devas and Asuras!

 ~ O. V. Vijayan, from Haidavanum athiHaindavanum, 1987 (roughly translated as ‘The Hindu and the ultra Hindu’)

I believe Vijayan’s observation is right on the mark even about the new avatar of Sangh. Of course, the organization has expanded and become a little more diverse and inclusive. But one cannot miss the fact that apart from the cultural flank based on Hindu mythology, none of its successes are its own making as against its opponents’ failures. Even today, the only agenda it is able to set is the nationalism turf plays. It is still not confident enough to talk about the economics or a social vision. This is in sharp contrast with the conservative movements from Europe or North America which has confident spokespersons who can handle the economic doctrine or its ideas about society, and I’m not talking about the fringe Christian fundamentalists who might ally with them.  To that extend, ideologically Sangh is a more confused mirror image of Jamaat-e-Islami from the Muslim world. And that in itself will resist the core from taking any rational economic policy. Even if the government comes up with one in certain sectors, it has to balance that by spending a proportional amount as archana (paid prayer ritual in the Hindu context) for the arcane cultural (read ideological) causes.

So, why aren’t there many electorally popular or intellectually appealing Indian conservatives? The standard right wing answer to this will be the so-called hijack of the  academia by the left (after Indira Gandhi) and dominance of the Indian National Congress which championed the populist left ideals. I agree that there is some merit to these accusations. Still, it does not account for the full picture. In my opinion, the missing link is the high prevalence of muddled thinking among the people at large, from the centre to right  spectrum. Liberals are prone to muddled thinking when it comes to the questions of economics. But generally, they get many socio-cultural questions right. It is another matter that they often display double standards. Most self identified conservatives from India, except a few libertarians, carry an unnecessary burden of ‘cultural victimhood‘ (the wounded civilization rhetoric of V. S. Naipaul) which has no basis and they tend to blame the leftist discourse for their own incompetence. The prevalence of outdated to horribly bad cultural practices in third world countries is a fact. No amount of blaming colonialism, can hide this. On top of these, Indian conservatives have no equivalent for a Protestant work ethic to hang on.

I have observed that self confessed conservatives from India, often (unnecessarily) take up on themselves the duty to find justifications for elements in a far from admirable past. It is a common feature in most post colonial states that conservatism takes a strong anti-modern position. This puts a severe limit on the rationality of conservatives, furthering the nonsense of  ideas like our sciences vs western sciences.  This becomes a hurdle in pursuing rational economic policy and their substitute becomes no better than status quo or in worst cases akin to Marxian dogma. On top of this,  except for a handful of people, the self identified conservatives are least knowledgeable when it comes to the native systems. I have always been baffled by this contradiction that people from the left-liberal camp (myself included then) had a better grasp over the broad picture and finer details of India’s history. And that is not because of some conspiracy by leftist historians, for conservatives are generally unaware of even traditional sources. How do we reconcile with the contradiction that these people are the default nationalists but without any fundamental idea about the idea or history of the nation they were defending, except as fragmented myths and emotional euphemisms!

I am not a conservative (or a leftist). But I would like to see more intelligent modern conservatives without the bigotry against non (upper caste) Hindu cultures and traditions, speaking their minds about politics, economics and society, and engaging rationally . We need a social debate on ideas and not the cacophony in the offering today. Can Indian conservatives for once prove to be an exception to the inward looking third world traditionalism?

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