Conservatism, the arch-creed which preserves and conserves, has a long history going back to the origins of parliamentary democracy during the classic age of revolutions. Back in its hoary tradition, its figurehead Edmund Burke looked at raging revolutions straight in the eye, just when ‘people’ in France and America killed off kings and dethroned an empire with sheer collective will. To be sure, the main conservative idea then was to be cool in the heat of change so as to preserve old privilege. And so it did. Britain remains a monarchy. In India today, conservatism has acquired a kind of revolutionary import, in that it is the byword of change. Overwhelmingly, the Modi mandate is certainly not about protecting old privilege. Quite the opposite. It is all about validating the new.
Modi’s constituency Benares, the perpetually old city of India, or Varanasi as it is called today, has a habit of concealing the new. On the face of it, Benares represents heightened Hindu piety that is on daily display at its iconic ghats. As the symbolic capital of Hinduism, it is no surprise that Modi, the leader of Hindu nationalism, chose to represent it. This is also where upper-caste Hindus prefer to go and die. Yet in its modern incarnation, Benares has been the city of arrival of the new. It was the city that birthed commercial capital in India.
On the eve of the British empire in India, while Europe was in revolutionary mode, a new commercial force of bankers, magnates, creditors and traders poured their money into the temples and ghats that appears today as the timeless architecture of Benares. Predominantly Hindu and urban, this new social group helped pull the rug from under the formidable Mughal empire with their sheer commercial power that controlled trading and credit networks and drew India into emerging global capitalist horizons. Benares became the defining mid-point to the dominating and belligerent Englishman’s Calcutta and the fast fading Mughal empire’s seat in Delhi. Whether they were Marwaris or banias, they traded with the expansionist East India Company and provided credit to warring Indian rulers. We know how that story ended. The British violently closed the gap that had appeared between a new Indian commercial prowess and an old political power, and dominated the subcontinent for nearly two centuries. The British empire is mercifully long gone.
This election, dubbed as the ‘economy election’, with Varanasi as its epicentre, has also closed the wedge that has reappeared between the new economic order and political power. Big but relatively young business houses such as the Ambani and Adani groups each gained a billion-plus dollars in value overnight as soon as results became official. With unprecedented influence on the political process and in part through the media, new money and entrepreneurial activity has charged the political landscape with aspiration. Few deconstruct this aspiration. The first-time voter, numbering around 100 million, has overwhelmingly turned its back on Indian history since independence and has aspired for change. They and other not-so-young Indians have helped close the gap between money and power from below, as it were, casting their lot with India Inc and its political figurehead of Modi. The assumption is that the wealthy will generate growth that will be experienced by individuals, even by those far removed from Dalal Street. It is a plea and a mandate for capitalism from bottom-up, if ever there was one.
If you are a Marxist reading this, this is the point where you shout ‘false consciousness’. Which is to say that they who have voted thus just don’t know what they have done; indeed, they have voted against their own self-interest! This is the quintessential conundrum that has allowed conservatism to become the pre-eminent force of democracy in the world. Workers and labouring poor mandated the regimes of Thatcher, Reagan and Bush. The entrenched powers of the trade unions and the state were broken and diluted in favour of enterprising self-help, with a faith in the magic of markets, even as inequality grew in direct proportion to wealth. For Anglo-America, it was not about the new versus the old, but about turning right.
Conservative India, however, has appeared on a curious historical reversal of the old and the new. The Congress today stands for entrenched privilege and that has now been rejected. In a major overturning, the party that stood for national progress and economic development is now perceived as the old guard, with the stench of stasis hanging over it. The hundred-odd-year, robust Indian left-liberal tradition that was later institutionalised in the Nehruvian state also lies in tatters.
New, global and conservative India is the mirror opposite of Nehru’s India. In the old nationalist days, conservatism in India was much like what Burke wanted it to be. With an impulse to preserve, a form of ‘Hindu populism’ was also birthed in Benaras a century ago. Stalwarts like Madan Mohan Malviya restrained Nehru’s dependence on the English language in favour of Hindi and challenged his desire for a religion-free political vocabulary. Other Hindu populists like P.D. Tandon weighed on Nehru, stalling the reform of the Hindu Code Bill and in the process killing off Ambedkar’s career and radical plans in the first decade of free India. Most famously, at the moment of independence, Sardar Patel invited the then hub of conservatism—the Hindu Mahasabha—to join the Congress. The power of the left-liberal tradition was such that it could incorporate a weak conservatism within its big-tent approach to politics. Even the southern stalwart Rajaji’s attempt to have a separate conservative party led to the still-born Swatantra Party. At that point, only the Communists ducked the Congress zeal for incorporation as a means to dilute political competition, but in the process they became a social-democratic rather than a revolutionary force.
Yet the single continual thread of conservatism that exists since the onset of mass politics in India and through the Nehru era is its avowed and consistent commitment to the free market, even as it changed party forms from the Mahasabha, to the Jan Sangh and now the BJP. Hinduism provides the spiritual succour, as much as identity, to the hard knocks that brutal and anonymous market participation entails.
The conservatives are the new radicals of India. Benaras once again, as in previous centuries, captures and symbolises change. Anti-history—and to that extent revolutionary—this mandate is directed towards the future. What that will be would be to witness history. Nevertheless, the mark et today has acquired a new and powerful political presence. Neither a return to the past nor its preservation, but rather this departure from history, represents the redefinition and globalisation of Indian conservatism.
(The writer teaches modern Indian history and political ideas at the University of Cambridge)