Caravan has carried a very interesting article by Ramachandra Guha, Where Are India’s Conservative Intellectual? The article addresses what has long worried people who see merit in the economic policies of conservative politics, in India, but at the same time disapprove of their religious agenda.
If you remove the Muslim majority countries from the mix, India is the only major democracy where religion finds an important place in conservative politics. Guha attributes this to the fact that those who espoused this brand of politics in India, mainly in pre-independence era, a time when the conservative voice was quite strong, were affiliates of organizations with a deeply Hindu character.
In a post-independence India, Guha observes, conservatives gradually lost their prominence in Indian politics as mainstream Indian politics gravitated towards the Left – where both the ruling party – the Congress – and its principal opponents – Nehru and his detractors (Jay Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and the Communists) - represented socialist, liberal political orientation. This left-orientation was also found in academia.
Guha dismisses the current lot of columnists and opinion makers with a soft spot for conservatism on the ground that their body of published work is limited to 300 to 400 word articles. This absence of conservative intellectuals in India, Guha concludes, is responsible for religion being a major part of the conservative thought.
Conversely, he says, the West has always had intellectuals in conservative politics who have always kept religion out of it. Western conservative thinkers, Guha says, base their idea of identity around which conservative politics revolves on cultural and geographical similarities.
To press his argument that the presence of conservative intellectuals would have helped Indian conservative politics keep religious extremism at a distance, Guha cites the example of Jagdish Bhagwati, the conservative economist who is an economic adviser to the current conservative government in India, for advising the BJP government to reign in the religious fringe if it wanted to carry on with its development agenda.
Guha poses Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) as a model conservative intellectual. Guha says Rajaji was patriotic who could rise above his personal differences with his political opponents and unite with them in national interest, like he had supported Nehru on the Kashmir problem despite his personal personal differences with Nehru. Rajaji was religious but far from being an orthodox. His economic outlook was conservative in nature and therefore opposed to Nehru’s. Rajai had argued for more openness in economy but Nehru had dismissed his views calling them reactionary and unsuitable for India only to be proved wrong a few decades later.
Guha’s analysis of Western conservatism is mainly theoretical and that’s why it misses an important point. Although theoretically Western conservative parties have kept religion out of their identity mix, the tendency of conservative politics to be majoritarian, even if based on demographics, automatically excludes communities following minority religions in Western societies. Identity and religion are hard to separate, especially due to rising religious radicalism however desirable it may be.