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‘The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought’ by Jaithirth Rao


Jaithirth Rao belongs to that rare breed of Indians who graduated from being a successful businessman to an intellectual, particularly moving to the right of centre. There are quite a few with such orientation. Many of them make an occasional or a flashy appearance through articles, blogs or tweet responses to situations, part-taking in discussions and the like. However, hardly anybody has boldly ventured into full-fledged intellectual space, leave alone representing the entire spectrum of traditional Indian thought. Jaithirth has stepped in this direction.

This is an important book in many ways. It is ambitious in that it hopes to present the rainbow of Indian Conservative Thought as a legitimate intellectual position and as relevant in the modern era as well. This grand ambition has in the least resulted in a good survey of sorts – marking the terrain of Conservatism, its conflict with Liberalism, and placing the Indian version of Conservatism in this crowded place – boldly and definitely.

However, the book leaves a serious reader dissatisfied with insufficiency. Let me state them in the beginning so that rest of this write-up can be placed in the right sphere.

  • Firstly, the grand ambition of the book packed into a few pages results in a not-so-thorough exploration of ancient Indian thought i.e., in the entirety of its philosophy and principles.
  • Secondly, there is a forced alignment of Indian Conservatism with Western conservatism without sufficient comparison and equivalence.
  • Thirdly, there is a certain obviousness associated with terms such as Conservatism and Indian Nationalism as though they do not need explanation or characterization.

Either they must be explained conceptually or empirically in a structured manner. However we learn through examples and author’s use of them sprinkled all over, and one is not sure whether it is comprehensive or random responses of the author. A theoretical narrative is absent.

There are bigger problems. He has chosen the word Conservatism to represent the Indian thought that has evolved over the centuries as a complex of unique principles and a definite philosophy. Although sprinkled, he explains Conservatism from the western stand-point perfectly through its emphasis on incrementalism, gradualness, problem solving, lived realities, empiricism, and so on.

Further, He is probably aware of the inadequacy of the term in the Indian context, and hence there is a clarification to that effect in Author’s Note as well. But I wonder why he stopped at that; and did not dare to choose a better term or explain the difference.

This may seem nit picking but it is not. We shall explore this later.

In particular, the Indian perspective of life is much more than the incrementalism that Jaithirth strongly associates with both his presentation of Indian Conservatism and the western counterpart. The book makes the grand mistake of equating Indian system of thought entirely to this version. The essential difference has not even been explored, leave alone theorized.

Nevertheless, the Book is a significant survey of sorts in this great attempt to establish Indian Conservatism in this play-field. Hopefully, this will begin a conversation between people on either side according intellectual legitimacy to each other.

To begin with, Jaithirth puts forth key characteristics of Conservatism in general. He clarifies a few misrepresentations and misconceptions about Conservatism – wittingly or unwittingly by the Liberals – that makes it convenient for liberal bashing. He does not explain them in sufficient measure but makes very critical points that help a beginner get started in this journey – better informed. Some, not all, of them –

1. Conservatism is not about being frozen in time and this criticism by liberals is nothing but a misrepresentation. A general principle of criticism is that it must be based self-descriptions of somebody/something, not transformed versions of it – made easy for criticism/dismissal. He correctly criticizes the simplistic view that conservatism values all that is old and opposed all change.

2. Conservatism concerns itself about how to change constructively without losing things of value.

3. Conservatism explained through essential concepts of horizontal social cohesion, limited geographies, shared solidarity and may not be in conflict with individual freedom.

4. Conservatism is fluid, empirical, local in its manifestation, but universalist in basis. (At this stage one would have thought that the book explains the philosophical underpinnings or world view guides this perspective – but the book fails to do). Conservatism’s Impulse is universal but it is against Universalist Ideology.

5. Conservatism does not compromise with supremacy of the individual (It upholds svadharma). Conservatives value freedom of individual but they do not uphold it as a universal value in isolation.

6. Conservatism believes in the impossibility of perfection hence it strives to be forever on the road of gradual perfection – kind of an asymptotic imagination of life.

7. Conservatives balance between the tyranny of collective and withering away due to individual freedom. Conservatives are well aware that love for the particular, community, society can become pathological. This is well identified. But they recognize the limitation of the individual.

8. Conservatism recognizes well negotiated change as more sustainable and valuable than drastic change. For e.g., Alexander Hamilton in New York getting people to abandon slavery without force. It recognizes the limits of drastic change – where the problem and the solution assume the same levels of tyranny as could be seen in French revolution and Russian revolution.

Jaithirth also makes a very strong defence of Indian Conservatism and Indian Nationalism. Here are some key observations he makes – let us continue to use the term Indian Conservatism as he uses it.

1. He places Indian Conservatism on a higher pedestal than its much- maligned political version of Hindu Nationalism; and makes a case for it as a System of Thought. Against criticism, he recognizes Indian Nationalism as a legitimate subset of Indian conservatism, and hence in the larger terrain of Indian Conservatism. He recognizes Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s contribution in presenting Hindu nationalism as intellectually legitimate.

However, the book does not go beyond making these observations – it does not convert this into a productive intellectual argument with closure.

2. He correctly identifies places of importance in ancient Indian texts where evidence of Indian Conservatism can clearly be found – Shanti Parva of Mahabharata, Chanakya’s Arthashastra, that very favourite of liberals – Thirukkural. Ancient Indians knew that the collective could clash with the individual and vice versa – Allasami Peddanna is an example of that.

Ancient Indians are against the brutal Matsya Nyaya where the mighty rule over everything else. They recognize the realities of Yuga Dharma (the way of the times) and the Sukshma Dharma (that subtle righteousness that is accessible only with struggle). But these references do not evolve further into a philosophy and the principles of thought behind it.

3. He defends Indian Nationalism leveraging its Hindu past – for an enduring renaissance it has to leverage the strength of the society hence terming it reactionary is wrong.

4. He correctly recognizes the limitation of ways of Subhash Bose, Mohammed Iqbal, and Adigal. Their ways were too reactionary without sufficient thought. Although it is an aside, he does not explore the driving force behind minority insecurities of Sir. Syed Ahmed Khan. But these are all an aside.

5. The Book succeeds in explaining extreme nationalism adequately – as we witness it. It is merely a protective stealth against forced change due to an alien thought imposed on us. However, this section on extreme nationalism in India is riddled with unnecessary apology. An opportunity to explore the difficulty of responding to the assault of Abrahamic thought is missed out (There are many more misses).

The biggest miss is in not characterizing Indian Conservatism through essential principles of Indian perspective of life. Let us begin by what he identifies correctly but does not provide a philosophical basis for.

The Lack of Philosophy in the Book

Rao unabashedly presents many essential characteristics of Conservatism in the book that are far less understood in the liberal backlash against it. Conservatism is forever on the road of harmony without opposing change. It is in the perspective of Change that it differs from Liberalism and not in opposing Change – which the author explains at various places.

Rao provides a very good narrative of how Indian stalwarts, like true Conservatives, approached the British rule in the initial years by accepting them as ruling and working with them towards change.

In this perspective of change as background, he explains how Conservatism accords respect to an independent market and characterizes such a Market adequately. He recognizes the Conservatism prefers tradition, traditional patterns and style even in Change – yes, there is a love of tradition, may be even excess of it.

He defends Conservatism’s emphasis on Civilizational continuity – for the strength of the society comes from it. Change of water in the bathtub is good as long as the baby is saved.

Strong points that they are, Jaithirth does not create a basis for these characteristics from philosophy and perspective of life. That is a huge miss without which things often sound like an apology. While he recognizes – not in as many words – that there is a difference in Theory of Change between

Liberalism and Conservatism – he does not characterize the theory.

Worse he does not differentiate the Indian Conservatism and its western counterpart through such a Theory. That is the fundamental need of the hour. Indian perspective of Change is best explained by the trinity concepts of Srishti (change/creation through Artha and Kama), Sthiti (dynamic stable equilibrium), Laya (the end/ making way) and the interrelationships between the three, how the notions of Ruta (Universal Principles of Truth), Dharma (the beholding) come out of the philosophy of Sristhi-Sthiti-Laya, and how Desha- Kaala-Vartamana then attain the kind of prominence that it does.

Every aspect of Conservatism that he recognizes can then be explained through these unique concepts of Indian philosophy and established for the value that they bring to life in general. The vibrant community life of India can be explained on the basis of this philosophy as an essential way of living these principles.

Indian Philosophy recognizes Change as inevitable (Artha and Kama – part of Purusharthas) and as a fundamental nature of life, but not as a necessity.

In this perspective of change, what is necessary is a trajectory of balance, consistency and continuity – everything else is a striving for it. Hence, you do not strive for change but for a balance in that inevitable change. It is a striving for the most harmonious, safe and enriching route and destination in sailing. It is not a search of better destinations at the risk of disastrous routes.

In this harmonious route there is beauty in daily life, and hence the importance for grihastha dharma. Water in the bathtub has to change and that is the fundamental need of the baby; but it must be changed with beauty and enriching experience – for the baby, for those who change it, the water itself and so on. Its love for the past is not a re-creation of the past, but a striving for civilizational continuity; because healthy change requires that continuity and connect, as disconnect from the past leaves the life less rich in general.

Collectively these principles can be described as striving for ‘saatatya’ (continuity in Change). A life of Community is emphasized because these civilizational aspirations are best achieved through a community. When change alone is emphasized and the Individual glorified it is always at the cost of those aspirations that do not serve even the aspirations of Liberalism.

The Indian Philosophy of Saatatya

In the light of all this, terming Indian Conservatism as a branch of conservatism kind of flattens the system of thought that is India. The essential difference is lost. We could even say that the Indian perspective should be referred to by its own terminology- may be Saatatya. The essential difference with Western Conservatism is that the nature of world as ever changing and ever evolving is fundamentally recognized.

The ‘Sthiti’ in India is not a stable unchanging state. ‘Sthiti’ is defined dynamic stable equilibrium. ‘Srishti’ is to achieve this ‘Sthiti’. The perspective of Change (Sristhi) then is forever to be in that balanced path (Ruta) so that Sthiti is maintained. Harmony in the dynamic is the consideration. Change is inevitable (Artha and Kama) but characterization of it, and achieving harmony (how not to lose harmony in change) is the concern of ancient Indian thought.

This is a grand vision that celebrates change and balance on an equal footing. The essential difference with Liberalism is that the past is not something from which you are desperate to break. The present should be in a healthy state of Sthiti, the past strived for it and the future must be so as well – it is not a desperation for progress and development with artificial definitions for it that society cannot relate to.

Civilizational Continuity is beauty of life – there is no apology in defending this.

Another essential difference between Indian Conservatism and the Western one is Market is a virtual entity managed by communities through incremental interventions. It is neither an independent entity as an Institution nor something that must be managed by the state.

It should become as much powerful as can be managed by communities without overrunning any community or individual. Neither should it become too powerful nor should it become servile to the state. This is essentially the reason why India had a thriving business community, industry, technology without suffering either capitalism or communism until the British came.

Other minor issues of the book

There are other minor issues I have with the book.

– Somewhere Rao mentions that ‘The fourth perspective’ of moksha in Purushartha is automatically achieved if first three are dealt with – this may not be correct. The relationship seems to be different. On the one hand it is the objective of moksha that sustains one in the path of dharma too. The story of Kartaviryarjuna and Nahusha is an example of how in spite of one being in the right path one can derail gradually if renunciation is not valued. Dharma, of course, sustains Artha and Kama. On the other hand, Artha too helps in a greater realization of Dharma. Shanti Parva explains these complexities very well. Dharma becomes sukshma because of this. There are multiple ways in which things can derail.

– The Indian renaissance during the British era being thought in India was nothing so drastically new – if we look at it from this perspective of Srishti- Sthiti-Laya-Ruta-Dharma and Purusharthas. The leverage of cultural and civilizational capital has continuity. It is part of the ever-rebuilding process. It need not be looked at in isolation – neither should it need an apologetic defence.

– There is an excess of listing of people and their position with respect to Conservatism- without deep dive into their positions and the purposefulness of the philosophies guiding them. But, in a small book with great ambition this is bound to happen.

– The explanation of Nazism as misplaced conservatism is too simplistic and not consistent with Indian thought. From an Indian perspective, Nazism is not Conservatism at all. It is akin to very Asuri thought.

– There is an apology of sorts at various places such as references to Hindu extremism, etc. Guha’s point – What is the difference between Liberalism and Conservatism then?

The grand liberal plan

Rao then brings forth a question raised by Ramachandra Guha. If all those characteristics of Conservatism are the way Jaithirth puts forth – what then is the difference between Conservatism and liberalism? Rao characterizes this difference as

– The emphasis between ideology (liberalism) and lived realities (conservatism)

– The disdain for the wisdom of the common (liberalism) as opposed to respect (conservatism)

This characterization is quite correct. Disdain for the common leads to totalitarian tendencies. While the communists become totalitarian in a literal sense through the state, Liberals are totalitarians in subtly different way that they try to manage society through an intellectual a control over institutions and constitutions. The author falls short of saying that but many of his arguments indicate that. Liberalism does not negotiate with society with humility and an equal basis.

Instead, Liberalism seeks an exalted platform through which it can wield an invisible control over the society. Liberals pick on the imagination of the past by Conservatism and tend to slightly transform it. This transformed past makes it easy for them to present a narrative of constantly breaking away from it. It is not that the Liberals totally ignore collective identities.

However, they are leveraged only when are useful for a political purpose of intellectual control over the society. In that he exposes their hypocrisy. They only create or respect those collective identities that they can patronizingly hand hold. Conservatism on the other hand have a contract with both ancestors and the future.

Hence, disdain for society, community and ideologies for drastic transformation into the future are absent. This is nothing but Saatatya. Rao also correctly identifies the limited and apologetic way in which the liberals support market. However, this enlisting of differences between conservatives and liberals is a bit too apologetic.

Further, the difference between Indian Conservatism and Modern Liberalism is much bigger. The Indian Conservatism questions the modern notions of progress and development of both Liberals and Western Conservatives. It proposes a wholly different Theory of Change based on Sristhi- Sthiti- Laya, Ruta, Purusharthas, and Saatatya. The harmony it visualizes is far more dynamic, sustainable and realistic.

Finally, in summary, the book is an important step in this important intellectual conflict that India is going through. One wishes that the book serves as a conversational point and each conflict highlighted becomes an independent discussion, argument, debate, theory in discussions and books. The book shows the difference in the shoot but misses the roots.

Let our journey go into the roots.


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