The condescension of intellectuals is not a new experience for political formations on the right. The Conservative Party in the Uk has often been described as the “stupid party” and even the “nasty party” for its views on law and order and immigration. More than anything else, this disdain has stemmed from the general disinclination of those who consider themselves wedded to tradition to reduce their beliefs and convictions to either theoretical constructs or dogma.
Indeed, the right has often been distinguished by its quasi-spiritual vagueness. In the preface to historian Arthur Bryant’s tract on conservatism published in 1932, celebrated Scottish novelist Colonel John Buchan argued strongly against reducing conservatism to a dogma: “Conservatism is above all things a spirit...and the fruits of that spirit are continuity and unity...it believes that the state is an organic not a mechanical thing, and that there should be no violent disruption in growth. it conserves what is still alive but it ruthlessly lops off the dead boughs.”
On his part, the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, often regarded as the father of modern conservatism for his opposition to the French Revolution, expressed his distaste for “abstraction” because he was always mindful of “human frailty and the particular circumstances of an age and nation”.
To philosopher Roger Scruton, the inability of conservatism to “announce itself in maxims, formulae or aims” wasn’t evidence of any intellectual shortcoming. It stemmed “from an awareness of the complexity of human things, and from an attachment to values which cannot be understood with the abstract clarity of utopian theory”.
Burke was quite explicit about not rejecting “prejudice” out of hand. “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise; prejudices and prescriptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.” Consequently, apart from fascists who remain committed to radical ruptures, the traditional right has acted on the belief “that a living society can only change healthily when it changes naturally – that is, in accordance with its acquired and inherited character, and at a given rate”.
The emphasis on the context of human experiences and attitudes clearly indicates that the scope for right-wing and conservative universalism is limited. The nineteenth-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion that “the Conservative Party is national or it is nothing” still holds.
This is despite attempts by right-wing think tanks to suggest that adherence to globalisation, free trade, entrepreneurship, and fiscal prudence can be a universal bond among non-socialist formations. Within the EU, particularly in Germany and some Scandinavian countries, there is also a trend among conservative parties to discover global commonalities centred on human rights and shared sovereignty.
The extent to which these post-national impulses in Europe stem from the bitter experiences of two world wars and an abhorrence of the fascist inheritance is worth considering. A study of the complex relationship between culture and politics in nineteenth-century Germany has, for example, suggested that “cosmopolitanism quite often became a refuge for those who could not but stay aloof from national culture”.
Right-wing nationalist movements are invariably rooted in specific social formations and cultures. They tend to be vastly dissimilar. Yet, there are broad common strands.
First, what distinguishes national movements with a conservative orientation against liberal tendencies is the primacy attached to community wisdom over individual choices.
“The condition of mankind,” wrote Scruton, “requires that individuals, while they exist and act as autonomous beings, do so only because they can first identify themselves as something greater – as members of a society, group, class, state or nation, of some arrangement to which they may not attach a name but which they recognise instinctively as home.” The aim of politics is to ensure that rampant individualism does not come into conflict with community interests and endanger civil order.
The community, in turn, is defined by historical memory. In explaining Burke’s resolute defence of “native” society over the depredations of the East india Company, the chronicler of conservative thought Russel Kirk argued that: “He had defended those liberties not because they were innovations discovered in the Age of Reason, but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage. Burke was liberal because he was conservative.”
To Burke, only a small fraction of human knowledge was formally codified, with the greater part captured in instinct, common usage, customs and tradition. This may explain the recurrence in the English imagination of the idea of the “ancient Constitution”, celebrating ancestral rights that predated the norman conquest.
Even when these myths are shown to have tenuous links to history, they serve a valuable social purpose. Political philosopher David Miller identified at least two functions: ‘...they provide reassurance that the national community of which one now forms part is solidly based in history, that it embodies a real continuity between generations; and they perform a moralising role by holding up before us the virtues of our ancestors and encouraging us to live up to them”.
In practical terms, this translates into respect for what the British Conservative politician David Willets has described as the “unreflective but deeply felt values of the normal citizen”, and the celebration of what Scruton described as “ordinary prohibitions and decencies”. Indeed, ordinariness has been a powerful idea when taking on an arrogant establishment committed to changing society in its own image.
Secondly, conservative nationalists, as we have seen earlier, have attached great importance to the sacred in maintaining national life.
There have been attempts to rework conservatism as a secular, rational approach, but as the American conservative writer Irving Kristol quipped in 1956, “conservative disposition is real enough but without the religious dimension, it is thin gruel”.
As late as 1959, in a tract for the Conservative Party for the British general election, Lord Hailsham argued that: “There can be no genuine conservatism which is not founded upon a religious view of the basis of civil obligation, and there can be no true religion where the basis of civil obligation is treated as purely secular.”
Over the years, this commitment to Christian doctrines has eroded throughout Europe – although there is a spirited fightback in countries such as Poland and Hungary. The post-Christian consensus centred on secularism, according to conservative nationalists, has undermined national unity. In the words of Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling, the “loss of the Church’s psychological reassurance” introduced “uncertainty in the historic English personality which has made coherent feeling difficult to maintain”.
Cowling attributed this transformation and collapse to liberalism which, after the late 1960s, came to be equated with “any decent moral opinion”. In a scathing attack, he described the emergent liberalism as “a movement for spreading what can only, with unavoidable vagueness, call ‘niceness’. Liberals hated anything that might cause pain or stress...One liberalism or another operating in this idiom picked up a hostility to everything from punishment to meat, from sexual repression to academic testing.”
Thirdly, while there is no uniform pattern in how nationalists view the state and its role, the tendency in conservatism is to circumscribe the authority of the state by the will of society.
There is a view, at least among conservatives in the West, that the state should not impose any preconceived version of the good on a reluctant society. In the words of David Miller, conservative governments should aspire to create “an environment in which the culture can develop spontaneously rather than being eroded by economically self-interested action on the part of particular individuals”.
A more radical view suggests that the state should desist from intrusive involvement in the management of the economy. In Scruton’s view, “The state’s relation to the citizen is not, and cannot be, contractual. It is therefore not the relation of employer and employee. The state has the authority, the responsibility, and the despotism of parenthood. If it loses those attributes, then it must perish, and society along with it. The state must therefore withdraw from every economic arrangement which puts it at the mercy of individual citizens.” Needless to say, this purist view is not widely shared.
Finally, nationalist conservatism perceives itself as the embodiment of national identity. A conservative is much more than just a patriot; he is simultaneously a nationalist, with a primary commitment to the nation state.
Although this may often imply an adherence to cultural homogeneity, the reality isn’t entirely black and white. David Miller’s sympathetic view of national identity in the modern context seems closer to reality: “If we think of national cultures not as implying complete uniformity but as a set of overlapping cultural characteristics – beliefs, practices, sensibilities – which different members exhibit in different combinations and to different degrees, then...it is reasonably clear that distinct national cultures do exist.”
However, national identity naturally involves a large measure of genuflection to authority. going by Scruton’s stark formulation, the price of a national community involves “sanctity, intolerance, exclusion and a sense that life’s meaning depends upon obedience and also on vigilance against the enemy”.
Such an espousal of national identity is naturally at odds with the multiculturalist view that sees the acknowledgement and even institutionalisation of group differences as a compelling necessity. Apart from the old liberal desire to promote civic values to bind people, there are influential voices seeking to decouple the majority culture from the wider political culture and separate the nation from the state. The tensions involving the EU and countries such as Hungary and Poland are a consequence.
In recent years, the notion of ‘constitutional patriotism” – a phrase coined by the German intellectual Jürgen Habermas –has been put forward as an alternative to national identity, possibly to overcome potential internal conflicts involving nationhood. The idea originated in post-war Germany and was an attempt to create a completely new political identity that carried nothing of the troubled baggage of the past and was based entirely on rights and procedures. Since then, the idea has evolved into a prescription for post-national goals and constitutes an attempt to ensure that “the nation-state becomes denuded of cultural content”.
Adherence and commitment to a constitution is an important facet of a political democracy. It, at best, demarcates both the liberal and the conservatives from ultra-right fascists and ultra-left communists seeking the violent overthrow of the existing order. But, as David Miller has argued, “It does not provide the kind of political identity that nationality provides. In particular, it does not explain why the boundaries of the political community should fall here rather than there; nor does it give you any sense of the historical identity of the community, the links that bind present-day politics to decisions made and actions performed in the past.”
Nor does it help to relegate national identity to a “private set of cultural values”. important as these undoubtedly are, they cannot serve as substitutes for a “public understanding of the terms on which we are going to carry on our collective life”.
This brief survey of the ideas and principles that govern nationalist conservative thought, particularly in the Anglophone democracies, may serve as pointers in locating India’s nationalist conservative politics in a wider context. But two caveats are in order.
First, both English and American conservatism emerged in self-governing states with democracies that evolved and matured over centuries. India, however, had lost its sovereign status and was a subject nation until the middle of the twentieth century, this despite islands of independence and patchy bids to regain sovereignty.
The manifestations of nationalist conservatism were, under the circumstances, likely to be different. In pre-independence India there was a larger focus on custom, culture, religion and national pride than on political and state institutions.
Secondly, there is a problem posed by translation. Many of the doctrinal shorthands that emerged in Europe and America had, in many cases, no equivalents, either linguistically or conceptually, in the Indian languages. In his study of the indian liberal tradition, Christopher Bayly referred to the unsatisfactory translation of “liberal” as udarvadi.
Similar difficulties are encountered in attempting to capture the essence of “conservatism” in Indian languages. A possible way out is to view conservatism in oppositional terms:
• as the opposite of liberalism: anudar panth
• as that opposed to progressivism: rudhivad
• as anti-revolution: kranti virodh
• as anti-egalitarianism: asamantavad
• as opposed to state controls: vaishvikta
None of these appear entirely satisfactory, and it is a possible reason why conservatism suffers from non-usage in the Indian languages. In political discourse, it is used synonymously with dakshin panth (right wing) or even pratikriyasheel (reactionary). Even in English-language usage, the use of conservative/conservatism as implying a political orientation, rather than a set of attitudes, is rare.
The expression “Hindu right” and the deeply unsatisfactory “Hindu fundamentalism” are the preferred choices in the media. In part this is an expression of political preference but it may also be explained by the larger unfamiliarity with the literature on the subject.
The spectacular influence of Western political thought – particularly John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Auguste Comte, and subsequently, Karl Marx – on indian intellectuals professing either liberalism or socialism, has been exhaustively studied and documented. By contrast, the roots of india’s conservative traditions, being largely indigenous, have been less scrutinised.
While some scholars have detected European influences – conscious or otherwise – on Indian political thought, the indigenous knowledge systems that shaped the minds of those stalwarts that don’t fit easily into the “progressive” mould have been relatively less explored. The study of India’s conservative nationalism is still at a nascent stage.
Excerpted with permission from Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right, Swapan Dasgupta, Penguin Viking.