The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought

A look into conservative thought in India which has existed long before any such discourse in the West.

The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought

At the outset of the book, the author notes, “Indian conservatism is nothing but a Siamese twin attached to what is externally described as Hindu nationalism” (p.02). This is how the Indian conservative thought is caricatured in Indian politics, academia and public discourse. This fabulous book by Jaithirth Rao intends to address this distortion surrounding India’s conservative thinking. By writing in a dialogic fashion to stimulate discussion, Rao attempts to provide a history of right-wing thought, which in India like other parts of the world remain an unpopular philosophy in mainstream intellectual discourse.

Rao began by establishing the foundation of what and who is conservative? He draws upon the remarkable tradition of conservatives in the Anglo-Saxon sphere, marked by the writings of Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Roger Scruton, among others stalwarts of conservative thought. Rao believes that instead of viewing conservatism through “rigid contours or definitions,” one should try to identify it through certain attributes, such as their proclivity to preserve the best traditions and practices of the past and their willingness to let go the parts of past that no longer hold value (p.03). Their pursuance to change laws, institutions, culture and traditions that necessitates a change in a gradual and accommodative manner rather than through radical and revolutionary methods. The emphasis on “gradualism” remains at the core of conservative thought. Rao expounds on the feeling of ‘band of brothers’ that binds individuals together in solidarity based on “horizontal social cohesion within limited geographies such as villages, towns or countries,” an idea he takes from Roger Scruton (p.06). This sequestering of individuals in a group is distinctive from the group identities espoused by leftists, neo-Marxists and post-modernists. He argues that conservatives believe in individualism and the value of human effort, while at the same time, conservatives remain mindful of “inherited wisdom of communities” (p.16). This balancing, as Rao calls it, helps in ensuring a check against the Universalist ideology that underpins numerous pathologies such as collective victimhood and promotion of incompetent hierarchies, which are common in post-structural discourse. This distinction is important given the blurring of lines in liberal thoughts, which has rapidly chosen to abandon their emphasis on the individual for group identities.

Rao makes a case for Indian conservative thinking, which he believes had existed long before the conservative tradition sprouted in the West during the 18th and 19th century. Rao disavows the argument that conservatism in India is somehow “imported” (p.07). By digging into the ancient Indian texts, particularly the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata and the Tirukkural of Tiruvalluvar, he demonstrates the “enduring basis of Indian conservatism” had been existent, centuries before the Edmund Burke or Roger Scruton articulated what conservatism means (p.07).

Rao has neatly divided the book into five chapters, which corresponds to distinctive aspects of thinking viz. economic, political, cultural, social and aesthetics in order to dawn upon the presence of conservatism in context of India. He relied mostly on history to suggest that Indians for the most part in the pre-Independence and post-independence era had conservative thinkers, who were perceptibly outnumbered in shaping the political, economic, social and academic discourse in India. He points out several proponents of conservative thinking, including Rammohun Roy, Bankim Chandra, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, C Rajagopalachari, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, among others. In the economic sphere, he mentions individuals such as Dadabhai Naroji, R.C. Dutt, and B.R. Shenoy, who supported conservative stand on the economy, which espouses market-based solutions rather than a planned economy – a practice borrowed from the Soviet Union.  In addition, he draws attention to the failure of the conservative caucus within Congress to influence economic policies after the independence, which invariably resulted in a socialist economy that collapsed in the last decade of 20th century.

Discussing the political aspect of conservatism, he insists, “Hindu nationalism is either a valid and legitimate subset of Indian conservatism or a movement which has significant overlaps with Indian conservatism” (p.20). He draws attention to the evolution of Hindu nationalism in British Raj and afterwards, which did not occur as a radical movement like the French Revolution but in a gradual manner and in accordance with the requirements of the time. The thinkers at the time feared that in the absence of a unified identity would render India weak and again susceptible to foreign domination. He cites the example of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which picked a gradualist approach of building an identity, based on the notion of ‘Charitra Nirman’ (character building). However, he cautions that Hindu nationalist thinking is not a monolith and there are divergences in thought.

Conservatism has stayed contentious in political and economic spheres, but it is the aspect of social life where it has been demonized. One of the biggest criticism that comes from critics of conservatism is its closeness with religion. Rao acknowledges the conservatives’ soft spot for religion, which, according to him, is not without certain merits. He also points out, “there are conservatives who are simultaneously atheists” (p.35), emphasizing that conservatism may not necessarily be borne out of religious traditions, even though it has significant religious proclivity. A case can be made that there are less ‘religious liberals’ than there are ‘atheist conservatives’.

Unfortunately, Rao provides little discussion on the absence of conservatives in Indian academia, a point he briefly touches. Given the minority of genuine right-wing thinkers and scholars, a separate chapter addressing this aspect would have helped to better articulate conservatism in Indian academia. As the conservative thought becomes more discernible in Indian intellectual discourse, this book would be a good starting point in solidifying the conservative thought in India. Throughout the book, Rao poses more questions than he answers. However, given the fact that literature on conservative thinking is limited in India, the book retains an incredible value. It provides unparalleled insights into Indian right-wing thinking and stimulates the reader to know more on the subject.

About Author: Prabhat Jawla

Prabhat is keenly interested in politics, economics and philosophy. He has a Masters in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi. His area of research is the Middle East with a particular focus on Iran and Saudi Arabia. Apart from that, he likes to engage with themes related to political correctness and critiques of postmodernism and neo-marxism.

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