Indian Political Conservatism: A History
The Indian right wing’s journey to legitimacy, consolidation, and political success has been anything but smooth.
The ideology has had common strains of thought running through it, but it has been stretched and contracted over the years – and then 2014 happened.
Now the way forward must be contemplated.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the pre-eminent centre-right party in India, made history by storming to power with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, under the leadership of Narendra Modi. This was the first time a non-Congress party won the majority in the lower house all by itself.
The party, perceived as the face of the “Hindu Right”, had reached the corridors of power. It was an event viewed with disgust by much of the liberal establishment. For others on the right, it was the final coup de grâce delivered to the deracinated elites who had let the country down badly over the past seven decades. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, 2014 remains a landmark year.
But it also should prompt us to study how this came about. What is the history of the Indian conservative movement? Where does one place its origins? Why did it take so long for a conservative party to gain power in what is a deeply conservative and religious country?
Modern Indian conservatism (as well as modern Indian liberalism) arose in reaction to the colonial experience and the encounter with European civilisation and the subsequent loss of political and later cultural and intellectual sovereignty. As India fell under the Company rule, there were two broad types of Indian reaction:
- A liberal reaction that was critical (perhaps overly so) of Indian tradition and religious practice – and looked to the West as a source of inspiration to remake Indian society and religion
- A conservative reaction that also was, at one level, admiring the English, and their ascent over the past couple of centuries, yet sought inspiration from the Hindu past for course-correction and civilisational revival instead of engaging in self-loathing/radical “reform” for the sake of it
Ram Mohun Roy, perhaps, best represents the “liberal” Indian reaction. In many ways, he was the first “Indian liberal” as described by the historian Ramachandra Guha. The conservative reaction emerged a little later in the late 1800s – best epitomised by the likes of Swami Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.
Vivekananda sought to reinvigorate the Hindu religion with a strong focus on the monistic variant of Vedanta philosophy. Bankim, however, sought to create an Indian national consciousness, which drew on Indian tradition/religion, to help establish an Indian “nation” – not one artificially created by British rule but one that is natural with a common ethnic, cultural, religious bond holding it together.
Bankim helped create a personal image of “India” as that of the mother goddess – better known as “Bharat Mata”. Though the idea of Bharat Mata long precedes him, it was his Anandmath and Vande Mataram which popularised the idea.
The Bharat Mata notion was very critical in the history of Indian conservatism. Here was an attempt to personify the Indian nation and develop a loyalty to it that drew on religious and cultural roots of the Indian people. It was not anti-Muslim, but nevertheless acknowledged the Hindu glue holding India together. Nor was Bharat Mata a Bengali or a North Indian idea. It captured the imagination of Hindus everywhere. Subramania Bharati, the great Tamil poet, eulogised it.
Also, this was at total variance with later liberal notions of “constitutional patriotism” where there is no room for “Bharat Mata” but merely loyalty to an impersonal Constitution, a loyalty that has nothing to do with religious, cultural, or ethnic sentiment attached to the land.
The other characteristic of Indian conservatism, which had its roots in the nineteenth century, is the view that Indian civilisation was being threatened by external thought movements not grounded in Indian realities – this included both secular enlightenment rationalism and Christianity. This view emerged by mid-nineteenth century. A manifestation of it was in Northern Ceylon in the figure of Arumukha Navalar – a Tamil Saivite scholar, who was a rare “Hindu missionary” who acknowledged the “conversion” threat and engaged in counter-missionary activity. In the North, Arya Samaj represented a similar movement that met with considerable success.
Emergence Of The “Political Hindu”
So we have discussed thus far both the Indian scepticism towards abstractions borrowed from alien cultures as well as the development of the idea of India as a mother goddess and nation – the two foundations of Indian conservatism with its roots in nineteenth-century conservative thought.
Now let us turn to practical politics. For much of the nineteenth century, Hindu conservatism was not explicitly political, because India did not have any self-rule, so there was little scope for a party representing the ideas just discussed. This changed with the Reform Acts of early twentieth century, particularly the Morley Minto reforms of 1909.
The Morley Minto reforms included a highly controversial feature. It awarded a separate electorate to Muslims in response to a request from a Muslim delegation. This was almost an explicit official acknowledgment of the fact that Muslims are a separate nation within India. In fact, three years prior to Morley Minto, in 1906, a political party representing Muslim interests had been formed in Dhaka called “All India Muslim League”.
It is not a surprise, then, that the Hindu Mahasabha representing Hindu interests was formed in 1915, some six years after the awarding of a separate electorate to Muslims in 1909. So the point to note here is that an explicitly political formation of a party representing Hindu interests happened only as a reaction to a similar formation of the Muslim league. The Hindu Mahasabha was an act of reaction.
The 1910s and 1920s were a period of growing Hindu political consciousness. Within the Congress, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a major Hindu face who saw nationalism as a cultural project, in sharp contrast to liberals like Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Outside of the Congress, we had the Hindu Mahasabha. Its rhetoric and ideology were greatly enhanced by the Muslim League politics at the opposite end as well as the Khilafat movement abetted by the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi in the early 1920s.
Year 1923 was an important one in the history of Hindu conservative movement. That was the year the future Mahasabha leader Vinayak Savarkar wrote his famous booklet Hindutva, which made a civilisational case for the idea of “Hindu”. Savarkar was not a religious man. Yet he acknowledged the “Hindu-ness” (Hindutva) stemming from a cultural and civilisational connect to the fatherland, which he expected of Muslims and Christians as well, if they wished to be culturally Indian. In the booklet he stated:
The Hindus are not merely the citizens of the Indian state because they are united not only by the bonds of the love they bear to a common motherland but also by the bonds of a common blood. They are not only a Nation but also a race-jati.Vinayak Savarkar, Hindutva
His book is very important because Hindutva remains to this day the ideology of the Hindu right, at least on paper. His was a clear articulation of the ideas of civilisational India, originated in late nineteenth century, now pushed forward more aggressively in the 1920s in a more polarised political climate.
At around the same time, there was a new organisation that emerged. A man named K B Hedgewar formed a breakaway volunteer organisation named Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. Now why was the RSS formed and what was Hedgewar’s issues with the Hindu Mahasabha are not crystal clear. But the RSS had an apolitical character that focused more on service with a social orientation than the Hindu Mahasabha.
For much of the 1920s and 1930s, the Hindu Mahasabha remained the prime face of Hindu politics, and not RSS. Yet the former declined by the late 1940s, partly because of its aloofness from the Gandhian movement. By the time we reach 1947, it was the RSS and not HMS which was the rising star of the Hindu right.
Post-Independence Evolution Of Hindu Politics
Year 1948 was a dark one for the Hindu conservative movement. It was the year Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. The assassination maligned both the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. So, soon after the independence and formation of the republic, the right had to rebrand and reinvent itself to be a strong political force. It did so through the formation of a new party – the Bharatiya Jan Sangh – founded in 1951 by erstwhile Hindu Mahasabha member Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
Mookerjee distanced himself from the Hindu Mahasabha post-1947, partly because of the latter’s refusal to turn “mainstream” by allowing Muslims to become members. His new party, Jana Sangh, collaborated more with the RSS and was conceived as a “nationalistic” alternative to the Congress. The word “Bharatiya” in Bharatiya Jana Sangh was important. It was perceived as a nationalist party that sought to present a case of Hindu cultural nationalism that transcended personal belief.
How did Jana Sangh fare post-1952? Here’s a quick look at the vote shares of Jana Sangh:
So, it was a party that was significant on the national stage with a consistent 6-10 per cent vote share. But it never graduated past that. The leadership of the party was sourced to a great extent from the RSS. Prominent young leaders in the 1960s included Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani, who came into their own in the 1970s. But there were also leaders like Balraj Madhok, who did not come from a strong RSS background.
The Swatantra Experiment
One of the reasons that conservative politics (besides the Jana Sangh) remained stymied in the 1950s-1960s is because much of the conservative right was ensconced within the Congress, with conservative leaders like Rajendra Prasad, Morarji Desai, and others being part of it.
The scope for the right wing in India increased beyond the Jana Sangh only in 1959, with the formation of another right-wing party, the Swatantra, by senior statesman C Rajagopalachari. The Swatantra, interestingly, was positioned as a more firmly conservative party than Jana Sangh.
It was explicitly conservative, and espoused free markets, lower regulation, closer partnership with the United States, and upholding the rights of princes, among other things. But Swatantra was never quite a Hindu party, though many of its leaders like Rajaji were religious Hindus in private life.
Here’s what Rajaji once said about Jana Sangh –
Jan Sangh has quite a few good leaders...What is needed, however, is a broadmindedness that not just practices toleration but looks upon Mussalmans, Christians, Parsis and others as politically and culturally as good as Hindus.
The Swatantra party polled roughly 7-9 per cent of votes throughout the 1960s, and together with the Jana Sangh, the right’s share was close to 15 per cent. An alliance of the two parties, and possibly an earlier split of the Congress (rather than in 1969), might have made a difference to the fortunes of the right, but that alliance never materialised during the 1960s.
Decline Of The Right In The 1970s
The right declined greatly between 1967 and 1984. It was a time when the Congress moved left firmly under Indira Gandhi. Swatantra died out. The Jana Sangh and Swatantra party ceased to exist in 1977 and merged into the larger anti-Congress formation named Janata Party to defeat Indira Gandhi post-emergency.
The Janata Party was a non-ideological formation comprising anti-Congress parties of all hues ranging from socialists to Hindu conservatives. While it did win power in 1977, its internal contradictions caused its government to collapse by 1980.
Post-1980, the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh within the Janata Party felt the need for its rebirth as a separate right-wing party rather than continue as part of the largely centre-left Janata Party, which did not relish the Sangh’s presence. This gave birth to the new party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the early 1980s.
The newly formed BJP was off to a bad start. In 1984, while it did get close to 8 per cent of the votes, it won just two seats in Lok Sabha. Clearly, the new party was not working very well. This was probably because the party was confused in those early years. There was a current within it that wanted it to remain merely a centrist formation with no strong Hindu sympathies. The moderate wing was dominant in the BJP during the early 1980s. But the results were not very good.
This was when a decision was taken to move away from middling centrist mediocrity and to re-embrace its Hindu exceptionalism. The party officially adopted “Hindutva” as its ideology in 1989, a concept not novel by any means, but with its origins back in the 1920s in Savarkarite ideology. That ideology had its rebirth in the late 1980s, partly because of the policies of “minority appeasement” pursued by the Rajiv Gandhi government. It materialised through the Ayodhya movement – embraced by the party leadership under Advani.
The Ayodhya movement changed the BJP fundamentally. It greatly democratised its base, and it graduated from being a party of the urban middle class and traders into a party of the Hindu masses. It was a period when many Other Backward Caste (OBC) leaders embraced the movement.
To give a sense of the remarkable impact of the movement, it is useful to trace the BJP vote shares from 1984 till 1991:
In 1996, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party with 161 seats. It then consolidated its position in the 1998 and 1999 elections and remained in government (albeit in coalitions led by it) from 1998 to 2004.
The six-year dominance of centre-right politics at the centre from 1998 to 2004 was unprecedented in Indian history. However, it fizzled out and the BJP had a setback in 2004 when it lost power rather unexpectedly. The 10-year eclipse from power that followed was in part caused by a leadership vacuum. The movement needed a revival, and it received the same through the persona of Narendra Modi.
2014 And Beyond
But the renaissance of the party in 2014 when it increased its vote share from 19 per cent in 2009 to 31 per cent was different in character from what happened between 1989 and 1991. This time, Modi’s appeal rested primarily on his “strong leader” image and incorruptibility as opposed to a specific Hindu agenda per se. But, there is little doubt that Modi was perceived as a leader representing Hindu pride, which made a difference.
As the BJP and the movement look forward to 2019 and beyond, it needs to think hard on how it wishes to evolve in an India immeasurably richer and more upwardly mobile than it was back in 1989. This survey of Indian political conservatism suggests that right-wing politics in India has seldom rested on any specific “orthodoxy”, like for instance, the “free market” theories that have great influence on the Republican Party in the US. Its origins are primarily cultural, as we noted in our study of nineteenth-century conservatism.
This begs the question – once the cultural questions get resolved, what will be the raison d'être for the conservative movement?
A nationalistic orientation certainly helps. But this has to be coupled by a more forceful and principled conservative articulation on both economic and social issues for it to remain the “conservative” party of India.
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