The most difficult thing for anyone aspiring to be a conservative intellectual is to be able to delineate what exactly they wish to conserve. More important than the question of which traditions should be conserved and which ones should be let go of is the question of method. This does not necessarily mean being programmatic, but what is required is a criterion which is not simply premised on the age and continuity of the tradition to be conserved.

What is interesting about Jaithirth Rao’s new book, The Indian Conservative, is that it seeks to refute this characterisation, writing that “the idea that conservative thinking is frozen in time or calls to mind a golden past is a caricature presented by its opponents.” His idea of conservatism is deeply drawn from the English tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and more recently, that of Roger Scruton.

This book is primarily an attempt to discover and consolidate an Indian conservative tradition in the same mould. “The conservative position”, he writes in his lucid and engaging introduction, “is that improvements have to be gradual, and preferably peaceful…conservatives have as their primary concern the freedom and well-being of individuals. Freely formed and voluntary, organic associative institutions are viewed positively while state-sponsored collectives are often viewed as inimical to individual interests”.

Liberalism by another name?

In his attempt to avoid falling into the trap of right-wing extremism, Rao’s definition of conservatism leans dangerously towards that of liberalism. We find in both the same theses: change has to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the focus has to be on individuals rather than groups, and firm belief in the wisdom and benevolence of the market rather than in state control. Rao is surprisingly aware of this problem, and he does on many occasions attempt to draw a line between conservatism as he sees it and liberalism. He argues that while today we conceive of reformers like Rammohun Roy as liberals because of their opposition to customs like sati, what we need to focus on is not their desired reform but the way they went about it.

Roy was “an exemplary gradualist”; even BR Ambedkar, notwithstanding his vehement opposition to the caste system, was a constitutionalist and therefore a believer in evolutionary reform rather than revolutionary upheaval. Gradual change, for Rao, is the preferred method of the conservative reformer. But even here he finds the dangers of conflating conservatism and liberalism; his only way of avoiding it is to claim that while liberals draw their motivation from abstractions like utility and the common good, conservatives draw theirs from ‘lived reality’.

The difference between the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau is crucial for Rao. While one may appreciate his return to this age-old debate between Hobbes’ negative concept of the state of nature and Rousseau’s positive perspective on the Noble Savage, Rao just reiterates the clichés surrounding the two while avoiding any deeper discussion of their thought. Statements like “…starting with their founding guru Rousseau, liberals have a profound sense of grievance against society, against the way humans have organised themselves until now” are examples.

Rao, like other conservatives, conceives of society as an organic whole rather than a bundle of immanent contradictions. Yet it was Hobbes himself whose concept of state is one based on the internal inscription of war (thus civil war) into the very body of the state as Leviathan. The state of nature, where there is a war of all against all, is not negated but internalised into the structure of the state.

Against the Leftist

The real enemy however is not the liberal, who is just the other side of the coin, but the leftist intellectual. Rao is staunchly against revolution and believes in the efficacy of evolutionary change. Just like all other conservatives, Rao believes that there will be enough time to solve all the problems we are currently facing.

Yet what if that is no longer true? Thankfully, unlike American conservatives, Rao is not a climate change denier, so he must understand that objectively speaking, there isn’t much time left to change things. It is this inconsistency of the conservative thinker that always seems to be decisive for its relative lack of appeal in academic circles and not the hegemony of “dim-witted leftists” as Rao claims.

Even as they are firmly situated within the universe of capitalism, they seek to discredit revolutionary change, all the while blind to what Marx had seen: that it was none other than the bourgeoisie, who “historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors”.

The changes brought about by capitalism can hardly be called gradual and evolutionary; the collapse of “organic” social and political formations worldwide due to colonialism and imperialism is a stark testament to its power. Rao, who was himself the founder of an IT firm, Mphasis, has to be intimately aware of this revolutionary power of capital, and in this respect his disavowal is disappointing.

An alternative tradition

The book is divided into five chapters on the history of Indian conservative thought. While Rao is certainly not a theoretician, he is an exceptionally well-read and erudite historian of the Indian conservative movement. In all the chapters he constructs an alternative conservative tradition in opposition to the leftist and liberal tradition.

In the economic sphere he highlights the work of Dadabhai Naoroji and RC Dutt, and especially that of statesmen like C Rajagopalachari of the Swatantra Party. Rajagopalachari’s translation of the ancient Tamil text Tirukkural was part of his lifelong attempt to argue against taxation as not just inefficient but also immoral. For Rao, texts like Tirukkural, for so long ignored by the liberal class, have to be rehabilitated and studied to understand the origins of Indic economic thought.

In the political sphere Rao finds two competing strands of conservative thought – both from Bengali intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Ram Mohan Roy and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Rao situates his own brand of conservatism within Roy’s lineage rather than Chatterjee’s, as he acknowledges that even today there “remains an ongoing tension between conservatism and revivalism” – while revivalists hark back to the distant past, true conservatives “attach equal importance to all periods of the past”. The legacy and institutions of the British Raj have to be approached in a similar manner, and thus Rao can claim that Lord Macaulay truly blessed this land with his English education policy.

In many ways Rao’s book is an introduction to what conservative thought could, or should have been, in this country. His strategy to further the conservative agenda follows what he calls the “Rajni Kothari strategy of influencing parties from the outside” rather than staking it all on one monolithic party or movement.

What is disappointing about this otherwise engaging book is its consistent diatribe against left-wing intellectuals. For some reason it seems to me that Rao has based his virulent antipathy to the French intellectuals Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida entirely on the book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

Neither Derrida nor Foucault were conservatives by any stretch of the imagination, yet can one deny their lifelong and incessant engagement with the Western tradition? One wishes that conservatives would engage as deeply with texts as Derrida did with the European philosophical tradition; when asked by an interviewer in his library if he had read all the books present there, Derrida simply said “No, only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully.”

Rao’s endeavour to construct a conservatism that will eschew the extremism of the right-wing ideologues is definitely a positive move in the current Indian context. Still, it leaves us with a sense of the contradictions immanent to the conservative position, contradictions which are never recognised as such.

The dream of capitalism with Asian values has to be seen as one such monstrous contradiction, something which MK Gandhi, for all his flaws, was very alert to. Faced with the destructive and revolutionary power of contemporary capitalism, Rao’s book seems to simply echo the conservative antipathy to utopian visions and lost causes, without seeing (in the words of the arch-conservative GK Chesterton) that “the lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world”.

The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought, Jaithirth Rao, Juggernaut.