A History of The Conservatives vs The Liberals

Nikhil Bhave
Saturday, 14 March 2020

Jaitirth Rao’s The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-wing Thought is a very engaging attempt at bringing to light the ‘other side’ of Indian discourse and freeing it from the fetters of a rigid ideology is welcoming.

Much of the 20th century saw a struggle between the ‘Communist’ and the ‘Capitalist’ societies, which came to represent the struggle between the Right and the Left. But if we look carefully, it is the struggle between ‘Conservatism’ and ‘Liberalism’. However, the lines now have blurred to such an extent that the moderates of both sides are accused of being ‘agents of the other’, and the extremists are slowly beginning to dominate the discourse.

Of course, Conservatism is everyone’s favourite whipping toy when it comes to taking the blame for society’s ills. But a look at the political landscape shows that it is the Left which is on the retreat nowadays, and ‘Conservatism’ is slowly emerging as people’s preference. This has been the scene even in the traditional Left strongholds such as South America and Eastern Europe. Even France and Germany are seeing a large section of people disillusioned with the Left. 

The reasons are clear. The people were promised more equality in pay, more jobs, better living standards and such life sundries. We mustn’t forget that it was the excesses in human suffering observed by Karl Marx during the Industrial revolution, a firmly Capitalist phenomenon, that gave rise to the idea of Marxism. But the ‘pro-worker’ regimes, to a large extent, turned out to be a case of more like music band, The Who’s song, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Aristocracy was replaced by bureaucracy. In Indian context, the White sahibs were replaced by the Brown sahibs. Their attitude remained the same. A pushback to the other side was but natural.

But again, are these your classical Conservatives and Socialists/Liberals? Problem is, neither of them now fit into the traditional mould. Both George Bernard Shaw and Adam Smith would be horrified at the brand of Socialism and Conservatism being peddled around today. They would be especially horrified at the ‘cancel culture’ prevalent today, with sharply defined sides and no room for greys. If someone belongs to ‘our’ ideology, he is always 100 per cent right. If s/he/they belong to the other side, they are 100 per cent evil with no room for any grey areas. This form of selective thinking has even gripped the media, with pro-Right outlets suppressing anything harming their narrative, and pro-Left ones doing the same. In other words, creating an agenda instead of reporting facts. 

It is high time, at least in Indian context, we took a stock of the situation, and that is where Jaitirtha Rao’s latest The Indian Conservative - A History of Indian Right-wing Thought can be a good starting point for one half of the discourse.

Nowadays, Indian Right-wing, also believed by many to be equivalent of Indian conservatives, is becoming firmly associated with the RSS-BJP camp. But both its history as well as scope goes far beyond that referred to as ‘Hindu nationalism.’ It is something far different than what the extremist elements are espousing right now. 

As Rao puts it, the main difference between Conservatism and Liberalism is that the latter seeks changes immediately, while the former believes in doing the same, but they want everyone to come on board first. They work towards more levels of acceptance from the target population. Any efforts to top-end things, says the author, are viewed with suspicion by the Conservatives. As far as India is concerned, he is not wrong. We upended various things and replaced them with a Soviet Russia-style top-down, Centre-controlled mechanism riddled with bureaucracy. Many of the ills that plague us remain firmly in place and have become even more insidious. 

Towards this end, Rao points us towards some of India’s earliest reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy were supporters of the British rule. They are considered liberals today, but they were very much for changes by evolution rather than forcing them upon an unwilling populace. One needs only to look at the French Revolution and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities to understand the disaster such upheavals can bring.

For this, Rao pins much of the blame on the Left-liberal intelligentsia. Indeed, Marxism’s attitude of trying to look at everything with the perspective of class is flawed, as can be seen again and again. Speaking of current context, where do we fit people like Osama bin Laden, Pol Pot or Reginald Dyer into the class hierarchy? All were well-read and can hardly be called members of the working class but have left a bloody and divisive footprint on history. 

The Indian Conservative is divided into five quite big-ish chapters, with each chapter focusing on various angles such as economy, politics and culture. We get to learn quite a lot about a lot of history hitherto left unseen. How many people outside of Southern India are aware about a gentleman named C Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani? 

Rao’s very engaging attempt at bringing to light the ‘other side’ of Indian discourse and freeing it from the fetters of a rigid ideology is very welcome. Now, can we expect a similarly well-thought to Rao?

Name: The Indian Conservative: 
A History of Indian Right-wing Thought
Author: Jaitirth Rao
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Pages: 261
Price: Rs 599

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