Every so many years, usually around election time, there is another wave of short-lived enthusiasm for some version of Indian Conservatism. The wizened figure of C. Rajagopalachari and his ‘Swatantra Party’ from the 1960s are brought to fore. There soon follows some talk about missed opportunities, of what-ifs and so on. His opposition to Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi led planned economy is then cited.
Beyond this respectful genuflection, the ground realities of Indian elections – populism, horse trading, loose monetary policy, electoral promises, opportunistic fiscal expansions – take over, and any notions about an Indian Conservatism take a back seat. The Left, the Congress and the BJP are all guilty of front-loading electoral promises on the back of the taxpayers. Even the brazenly charming rogue Rambir Shokeen who won as an independent in Delhi, on Sunday, campaigned promising to reduce prices of, well, soap of all things and free schooling.
Within the Rightist fold, social conservatives and Hindutva followers, despite their ostensible anti-Nehruvian positions have largely fought elections on similar promises of largesse and dole outs. Add to it the fact that the elections have been won on the basis of Hindutva-centric historic claims, anxieties and paranoias – the Right has had its ideological platforms cut out.
There is little time, intellectual space or need for an organized rethink of what an Indian Conservative movement could possibly mean in the rough and tumble of elections. What are its first principles? What does it really seek to ‘conserve’? Such questions find little resonance, since there has neither been a visible political movement that may seek such answers, nor has there been a critical mass of possible converts to a new kind of discourse. Lone figures like Rajaji or Minoo Masani become space-fillers who provide some respectability to fledgling conservative thought. Meanwhile, op ed columnists and TV personalities seek for simple correspondences from the American conservative movements to project their hopes. Predictably, figures like Rajaji are reshaped as icons who might be recognized and approved by the free marketeers of the Chicago School. In this effort to create analogies, what is forgotten is that thinkers like Rajaji emerge from our society, which is more impoverished, less doctrinaire, overwhelmingly ritualistic, deeply historical and ridden with social inequalities. While he may have lived in the 1950s and 1970s, his contemporaries who pieced together a conservative argument for society are from the era of Burke, Gibbons, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Our conservative thought cannot emerge as Indian versions of Milton Friedman or Barry Goldwater, but instead has to be a distinct school of thought that wrestles with India, its history and contexts. It cannot be obscurantist, willfully anti-science or anti-Muslim either.
The challenges to form a conservative school of thought is in many ways, the challenge to rediscover the idea of India. For now, what we see in the battlefield of ideas are caricatures. Of Rajaji, Nehru and Gandhi, who are pitted against each other, as if the differences between them were larger than the commonalities that brought them together. Of these three leaders, the last two have had many detailed studies, but Rajaji continues to be reduced, or rather traduced into a prophetic figure who once argued for the free market. Not only does this do injustice to his ideas – many are complex, some freethinking and yet some others are anathemas to our time – but this view of Rajaji as some Ayn Rand-like character also misinterprets his nuanced reading of the free markets themselves. Part of the reason for this misreading has been that conservative thought in India has never had much political traction, till recently; and no real reason to reinvest in this project arose.
In 2013, perhaps for the first time in modern Indian history, there is a groundswell of what could only be called a ‘conservative movement’. It is a view that privileges, however tenuously as of now, commerce, culture and competition over social programs, tactical secularism and weak governance. This comes about at a time of extraordinary social disquiet about the fate of India, its economic affairs and a larger sense of malaise.
In the United States, the conservative movement rose to fore in similar circumstances. Active manipulation of the economy led to the collapse of the Phillips Curve (a statistical correlation between unemployment and inflation) leading to a period of stagflation. Along side came an era of social unrest (the Civil Rights movement), a sense of social decline and collective purpose (the pill, the hippies, the feminism became easy targets), anger amongst the Southern Whites as segregation formally came to an end (crystallized in a racist campaign by Governor George Wallace) and by the end the great silent (white) majority of the US began its drift to the conservative side. All of this was politically spearheaded by successive generations of ideologues and pragmatists, from Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. This Reagan style conservatism – that brought together blue collar and white collar – replaced the patrician style conservatives of Prescott Bush in the 1940s and 50s, the genteel pre-segregation post World War 2 conservative efforts of Dwight Eisenhower, or the isolationist conservatism of Charles Linbergh.
The intellectual climate of the new American conservatism came about thanks to the intellectual arguments from Bohem-Bawerk, von Mises to Frederich Hayek, dramatically popularized by Ayn Rand, transformed into message that arrived at homes via William F. Buckley’s magazine The National Review, the columns of Irving Kristol, the powerful academic arguments by Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, James Buchanan et al.
The political hour in India in similarly marked by a ferment. Unease about the future, flagging economy, rising expectations, sense of cultural erosion, perceived and real threats from extraordinary scales of corruption, income inequality and from an Hindu perspective manifest examples of political appeasement of Muslims, Christians etc. To talk about all this, the Indian Right has begun to restate its philosophic orientation in a new language that sees beyond the old fashioned Hindutva rhetoric. Some might dismiss this as dressed up Hindu chauvinism, but to do so would be to acutely misread the moment.
Unlike, Western conservatism or Marxism, which has often emanated from theory into practice, the Indian conservative thought has to play catch-up to the developments proffered by Indian democracy. No where is this change seen more obviously than when the BJP talks about the economic condition of the country. After the electoral drubbing in Rajasthan of the Congress Party, despite many welfare programs (what could, uncharitably, be called: freebies in the time of inflation), the ‘free market’ inclined political leaders in the BJP and the Congress have an opportunity to rethink and reorient their respective parties. There is little possibility, however, that the Congress is likely to do so, given how extensively invested it is in an infrastructure of social programs.
New relations, hierarchies and power structures have come into play that consecrates the very many projects initiated under the UPA since 2003. Entrenched interest groups have come together around large scale government interventions. The handily defeated and outgoing Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, mumbled in disbelief that despite so many ‘yojanas‘ (social programs) the electorate somehow hadn’t seen it fit to reward him. The incoming Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje of the BJP said, she “will improve Rajasthan through growth, not dole.” This isn’t her political wisdom or experience speaking per se, but rather she reflects the fact that the Indian people have slowly re-calibrated their own expectations and demands.
Astute newspaper reporters on the ground pencilled in about this transformation early on. In The Telegraph, before the elections in late November, Radhika Ramaseshan wrote extensively about the declining popularity of freebies. It is still too early to say why have standard political assumptions about the electorate changed. Some have voiced anecdotal reasons. The editor of The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta says, people in Rajasthan wanted the freebies, but they also want English education and the ability to grow their business and control their lives more. Nobody, he seemed to suggest, likes to think of themselves as a dependent. The age of kowtowing to the maibaap may slowly coming to an end.
When the news reporter Barkha Dutt, an insider in the Delhi media-political circles, asked the leader of the newly successful AAP-party, Arvind Kejriwal, if he was happy about Rahul Gandhi’s acknowledgement about their efforts, the response was a perfect embodiment of new age India. He, without blinking an eyelid, responded: “humein Rahul Gandhi ki certificate thodi na leni hein”. The glories of the Congress’ ancien regime, its court manners are all, seemingly, irrelevant to the new emergent India. Irrespective of whether Shekhar Gupta’s claims survive closer scrutiny, what is clear is that there is an new set of ideas, a different kind of vocabulary and a mood – one about achievement rather than assistance – is in the air. It is not a “new” mood, but it is a “different” set of preconceptions about what life ought to be.
Part of this is due to demographic changes, ease of communication and the impatience of a generation and a half that came of age in the post 1990 environs. Ironically, the defeat of Indira Gandhi style populism of the present day Congress Party is thanks to the ‘animal spirits’ unleashed by the post 1991 liberalization from the more conservative wing of the Congress under Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao and the pre-2003 avatar of Dr. Manmohan Singh. The midnight’s grandchildren have begun to reject the grammar of governance their fathers and mothers had slowly built. The BJP seems to have picked up on this transformation, on this grass-root urge to break free of the State’s shackles, more than the Congress.
To this effect, unlike the 1990s version of BJP politics that was Hindutva based, overwhelming colored by a vocabulary of resentment, righting historical wrongs and revenge, the 2013 version of the BJP is markedly different in the kind of electoral vocabulary it deploys. This is not to suggest that wolf whistles to the Hindutva cause isn’t employed when needed. (See Modi’s recent speeches in Agra.) Neither is to say the Congress above sending out signals to appease the Muslim vote. (See Congress ministers sharing platforms with Islamists in Kerala) It isn’t one set of political opportunism against the other that is of interest.What is more interesting is the willingness of the BJP/Right to push its message to the center.
In Patna, the purported Hindu Hriday Samrat, Narendra Modi – despite his theatrical flourishes – reminded soberly to his listeners that there was only one message: Vikaas, Vikaas, Vikaas. Development, Development, Development. Like Raje, he insisted, not by handouts, but by growth. He offered Gujarat as the model. There and elsewhere, he has repeatedly celebrated the improvements in Gujarat on many fronts. But more astutely, he declared that Gujarat was not merely an economic example. It was an example of true Indian culture. The land of Gujarat, like India, he said is a repository of cultural and mythological memory. A memory, no doubt, that is decidedly Hindu. (In Bihar, with some respectful nod at LalooYadav and his OBC vote base, Modi spoke of Dwaraka: “Yadu-vansh ke saath hamara puraana rishtaa hein”). But lest he be reduced to an unimaginative Hindutva-vaadi, Modi’s speech ended, to the surprise of many watchers, by asking if there was a “hindu garibi” or a “muslim garibi”. He wondered aloud, if the Hindu and Muslim ought to fight “garibi” together, instead of each other. This was a Nixon-going-to-China moment. Only one with unimpeachable Hindutva credentials could speak in this vocabulary. The crowd cheered, somewhat unsure what to do with this turn of events. But, that line was not for Patna, but for rest of India who watched it on TV. You appear to moderate a position by not diluting your core message, but by convincing others to abandon their core issues. This was a move that seeks to capture the very Hindu center of India. It also puts into play an idea of Hinduism that is ostensibly about equal partnership with the Muslims.
With equal partnership, naturally comes, the reality of equal responsibility, equal civic behavior and governance – which leads one to the doorsteps of an argument for the Uniform Civil Code. What Modi’s pivoting has done is push the Congress back on its pet talking points – inclusiveness and secularism – and recast the debate in terms that are advantageous to the BJP: perceptions of high growth and good governance. Predictably, the cynic might say, these are merely reformulations of hard-Hindutva under the pressures of electoral politics. But such seemingly clever retorts are largely meaningless to understand the singular fact that, if the BJP does win and form a government in 2014, it will no longer be the party that A.B.Vajpayee and L.K.Advani built in 1980s, but rather the BJP will transform itself into the largest party of India with a follower base that is overwhelmingly young, who will grow onto have their own families. The BJP will become the establishment party. And much of the credit must go to Modi for tapping into this generational transformation.What the outcome of such a transformation will be is, naturally, contentiously argued: from apocalyptic visions of “middle class fascism” to more sanguine, technocratic visions of efficiency.
The only way to get to be the establishment party, however, is to expand the base to include young, middle class, urban populations who may have emotional connections with the Hindutva arguments, but clearly seek advantages from a global economy. It is this silent majority that controls popular opinions. It is they who force the media markets to cater what they demand. The rural and urban poor too watch the news and slowly adopt ideologies, instincts, practices and prejudices that further their social and economic chances. If the BJP is seen as the party of governance and growth, there is little reason to think the urban poor and rural populations won’t reassess their options. They may not join the BJP, but they’ll drift away from the Congress into the arms of regional and local parties, who have the freedom to align with the BJP if need be. Changing political preferences is natural outcome of the Sanksritization process. Moreover, when Modi or Raje begin to put the Hindutva message of particular RSS/VHP kind of social conservatism on the back-burner, and arrive at a different kind of conservative argument, even if in purely rhetorical terms, they are articulating a political discourse that seeks to see past the concerns of history that had been important to the growth of the BJP.
The BJP 2.0 in 2014 is, thus, in many ways a radical conservative movement in making. It has little use for Ram Janmabhoomi except as litmus test among the party faithful. The BJP under Modi seeks to conquer, consolidate and co-opt the Indian psyche into its way of thinking. It is useful to remember that the RSS is the oldest surviving and powerful political institution in India today. (The present day Congress was born in 1969.) We are, thus in many ways, in uncharted territories. So, when intellectuals in India dismiss the Right as full of empty posturing, what they fail to see is that the Right itself has begun to change its outward manifestations. Its principal concerns have changed for this electoral cycle and most likely for the coming generation and a half.
To dismiss the Indian Right as merely some version of Hindutva and thus merely as regurgitators of historical concerns is to miss the larger transformation in play. When Hassan Suroor writes in a Times Of India op-ed page that “India is unique among the world’s major democracies where the Right is so intellectually feeble, bereft of a coherent theory that would define its purpose”, he seems to be under the impression that the prerequisite of a conservative movement is theory. Perhaps the Leftists do need theory justify its existence; the Right has historical angst, pride and resentment to propel it into the future. To wit, particularly after the election results on Sunday, Suroor’s clever but facile academic observation reminds one of that quip by the purported French Ambassador to the UN: “it works in practice, but will it work in theory?”
None of this is to suggest, there isn’t work to be done among those who think of reshaping India from its Nehruvian past. There are intellectual challenges to surmount and an Indian conservative thought, like an elephant, after long gestation, is about to be born. What kind of beast will it be? Who does it speak for? What are its philosophic underpinnings? How does it reconcile with dissent? What does it mean by ‘culture’? What is its relationship with violence? Is it merely a handmaiden of the rich, or is there a greater pan-Indian vision possible? In 2014, as the BJP begins to articulate a vision of self-help, swabhiman, commerce and entrepreneurial can-do attitude – what Modi previously called Gujarati asmita– it is also tempting to think of modern Indian conservatism in merely economic terms. But surely, a human being is more than mercantile interests. The BJP may have been (and no longer is) a ‘baniya party’, but Indian conservative thought has greater challenges. One that transcends even party lines. One could very well be in the Congress and be a conservative. This is where a thinker like Rajaji comes to our aid. Not as a replacement for the heavy lifting and rethink we have to do, but for thinking anew our historical roles and presence. Indian conservative thought will have to shed light on deeper questions of origins and linkages – investigate the nature of Being, history and the social contract.
In all of this, Rajaji comes our aid. Somewhat. A closer reading of Rajaji’s writings reveals that, to him, the source of his conservatism was not market economics, but a deeper and more nuanced reading of human beings itself. He was guided by a deep faith in the power of ‘culture’ as a ‘joyous self-restraint’. A Rajaji style conservative seeks to conserve India’s ‘culture’ not merely for sake of the past, but because of its very necessary roles in the here and now. His emphasis on culture, family and certain aspects of caste transcends economic systems at work. It may come as a surprise to some that, to him, planned economy, in of itself, wasn’t a terrible idea; but that a planned economy without a psychological prod within the individual to do the righteous thing would only “culminate(s) in fraud and corruption”. Rajaji makes his point here:
“properly designed and placed on a spiritual basis, a regulated economy need not be inconsistent with individual satisfaction and individual zeal. The restraints and habits of mind that are required to be developed for altruistic action must flow from faith and inner conviction.”
This idea of restraint, of calibrating one’s actions to the need of the hour, within a contextual frame, contingent on one’s role in life, which maximizes public welfare is what has historically been called ‘dharma’. In a way, his idea of conservatism emerges from asking an individual to be both: responsible to himself and to the society she finds herself in. Given how easily Rajaji is reduced to some sort of Ayn Rand caricature to counter yet another caricature of Nehru (who as the historian Ramachandra Guha writes is paying for the sins and mediocrity of his descendants), the converse is often left unstated by the modern free market advocate. It is this: can a laissez faire economic system create welfare without a similar framework and understanding of ‘dharma’, without individuals practicing restraint? Without a ‘culture’ that values individual responsibility and restraint, wouldn’t a capitalist system only “culminate” in excesses, inequalities and an oligarchic elite.
In cases of both systems, then – planned economies and laissez faire – Rajaji’s conservatism argues that without the idea of ‘dharma’, the economic systems are prone to deformations. This is a formulation that echoes Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking about individual need to restrain his behavior – be it in terms of greed, in sexual pleasures, in the pursuit of power and instant gratifications. This fundamental idea of Rajaji may seem quaint and surely flies in the face of modern economic theory, where constrained maximization under uncertainty is the de jure and de facto rule of the land.
Rajaji seems to be saying that maximization as end in itself, is not just undesirable, but the source of much social ill. Ironically, the free market advocates of Rajaji might be less fond of his demands for restraint, for self-discipline and self-control, if they were to read him more carefully. It is useful to remember that the legacy of Rajaji is more complex and holds us – as individuals and society – to a standard that most of us (Nehruvians and free marketers) are likely to find uncomfortable. Not very surprising for a man who was known as “Gandhi’s conscience”. That said, to me, it is clear that a modern set of ideas about Indian conservatism will have ‘restraint’ at its heart. That would be Rajaji’s true legacy in the days ahead when the Indian conservative thought begins to advocate and theorize more effectively. The Mahabharata says that ‘Dharma is subtle’. So, it seems, are the ideas of Rajaji, whose writings taught generations lessons from the great epic. Reading him more carefully would be a good start if one wants to think about Indian conservatism.
(An unedited version of this essay was originally published here )
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