As Rajaji argued, a true Indian conservative movement cannot be born if it does not foster a culture based on individual responsibility and restraint

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 the fore. There soon follows some talk about missed opportunities, what-ifs and so on. His opposition to the Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi-led planned economy is then cited. Beyond this respectful genuflection, however, 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. 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 this the fact that the elections have been won on the basis of Hindutva-centric historic claims, anxieties and paranoias—and the Right has had its ideological platforms cut out.

There was 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 simple correspondences from the American conservative movements to project their hopes. Predictably, figures like Rajaji are reshaped into icons who might be recognised 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, Rajaji’s real contemporaries who pieced together a conservative argument for society are from the era of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Free market economics wasn’t the lodestar of their conservatism—what guided them was something more nuanced: a disposition towards life rather than merely doctrinaire faith in the superiority of markets. After 60-odd years of Nehruvian dirigiste, what we as Indians can’t afford to do is replace one form of imported utopian thinking from the halls of Kremlin for another set of imported philosophies from the perfumed boardrooms of Chicago.

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, wilfully 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 and save that elegant phrase from the mothballed, shop-worn cliché it has now become.

For now, what we see in the battlefield of ideas are caricatures. Of Rajaji, Nehru and Gandhi 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 2014, we stand at the cusp of what could only be called a “conservative movement”. It is a view that privileges, however tenuously as of now, commerce over social programmes, cultural egalitarianism over tactical secularism and market competition over weak governance, a common understanding of civil responsibilities and duties over identity-based prescriptions and expectations. All of 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 the 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. Alongside came social unrest (the Civil Rights movement), a sense of social decline and collective purpose (the pill, the hippies and feminism became easy targets), anger amongst the Southern Whites as segregation formally came to an end (crystallised in a racist campaign by Governor George Wallace of Alabama) and by the end of this churning, 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.

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 II efforts of Dwight Eisenhower, or the isolationist conservatism of Charles Lindbergh.

The intellectual climate of the new American conservatism came about thanks to the intellectual arguments of Austrian economists like Eugen Bohm von Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises and Frederich Hayek, dramatically popularised by Ayn Rand, transformed into a message that arrived at homes via William F. Buckley’s magazine The National Review, the columns of Irving Kristol, the powerful academic arguments of men like Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase and James Buchanan.

The political hour in India is similarly marked by such a ferment. Unease about the future, a flagging economy, rising expectations, a sense of cultural erosion, opportunistic politicians who facilitate illegal migration, perceived and real threats from extraordinary scales of corruption, environmental degradation, income inequality and political appeasement of Muslims (a patronage system that rewards Muslim elites at the cost of the Muslim poor) in the name of secularism—are writ large.

With such concerns underscoring our social life, the Indian Right has to fight against the waves of State-fostered poverty, against crony socialism and crony capitalism, against an intellectual culture that discounts the ineradicable oneness of Man that our traditions speak of to arrive at a simple calculus that fosters, bribes and rewards social divisions.

To this end, the Right has begun to restate its philosophic orientation in a new language that goes beyond the 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, Indian conservative thought has to play catch-up with the developments proffered by Indian democracy.

Nowhere is this change seen more vividly 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 programmes, 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 programmes or the language of minorityism that it mistakes for secular values. The defeated Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, mumbled in disbelief that despite so many yojanas (social programmes) the electorate hadn’t seen it fit to reward him.

The incoming Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje had said that 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 recalibrated their own expectations and demands.

Astute newspaper reporters on the ground pencilled in this transformation early on. In The Telegraph, before the elections in late November 2013, Radhika Ramaseshan wrote extensively about the declining popularity of freebies. It is still too early to say why the standard political assumptions about the electorate changed. Some have voiced anecdotal reasons. The then-editor of The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, said that the people in Rajasthan wanted the freebies, but they also wanted English education and the ability to grow their businesses 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 be coming to an end. The glories of the Congress’ ancien regime, its court manners are all, seemingly, irrelevant to the new emergent India.

Irrespective of whether Gupta’s claims survive closer scrutiny, what is clear is that there is a new set of ideas, a different kind of vocabulary and a mood—about achievement rather than assistance—in the air. In an astute reading of Mr Modi’s Independence Day speech, Pratap Bhanu Mehta called his willingness to speak of toilets, women’s safety and open defecation a sign of the “confidence of a self-made man”. That this speech resonated with most Indians reflects that what we have is not a “new” mood, but that a “different” set of expectations about how personal and public life ought to be has found voice.

The midnight’s grandchildren have begun to reject the grammar of governance their parents had built.

The BJP seems to have picked up on this transformation, on this grassroot urge to break free of the State’s shackles, more than the Congress. During his campaigns in Patna, Modi—despite his theatrical flourishes—reminded his listeners soberly that there was only one message: Vikaas, Vikaas, Vikaas. Development, Development, Development. And like Raje, he insisted on development, not through handouts but through growth. He offered Gujarat as the model. There and elsewhere, he 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 that is, no doubt, decidedly Hindu. (In Bihar, with a respectful nod at Laloo Yadav and his OBC vote base, Modi spoke of Dwarka, which is supposed to have been Krishna’s kingdom: “Yadu-vansh ke saath hamara puraana rishtaa hain”: Gujarat has an ancient relationship with the Yadu clan). But lest he be reduced to an unimaginative Hindutva-type, 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.

When Modi or Raje begin to put the Hindutva message of the RSS/VHP kind of social conservatism on the back-burner, and make a case for a political vision different from that of Nehruvian legatees, 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 the making. Its ambitions are grander and Mr Modi’s zeal near-messianic. The BJP, for now, has little use for Ram Janmabhoomi except as a 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.

Can it be successful in becoming the ‘establishment’ party? We are in uncharted waters here. However, what is clear is that when the usual intellectual or journalistic discourse in India dismisses the Rightist project 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 or two. 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 Hasan Suroor writes in a Times of India op-ed piece 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 to justify their existence; the Right has historical angst, pride and resentment to propel it into the future. The Right prefers improving the present rather than abandon the legacy of our ancestors in search of some Utopia.

None of this is to suggest that 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 is about to be born, after long gestation. 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 the conservative movement 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 themselves. He was guided by a deep faith in the power of “culture” as “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, a 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 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?

It is this outcome that is inspiredly captured in Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ book Saving Capitalism from Capitalists. Rajaji’s conservatism argues that both systems—planned economies and laissez faire— are prone to deformations without the idea of dharma. This is a formulation that echoes Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking about individual need to restrain his behavior—be it in terms of greed, sexual pleasures, 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 (both 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. When Mr Modi asks parents to keep a check on their sons as they would on their daughters—he echoes Rajaji’s idea that restraint is a bedrock of society. That would be Rajaji’s true legacy in the days ahead when Indian conservative thought begins to advocate and theorize more effectively.

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