Challenging the institutionalised ‘common sense’ of India’s political discourse

Swapan Dasgupta’s book is a valuable chronicle of the conservative political stream in India.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Terms of discourse, much like terms of trade, are favourable and unfavourable to some. The dominant position in setting these terms, as held by the Left in India’s academic institutions and a major section of the English media, led to an unchallenged common sense. As a result, the rival political streams of thought, as that of conservatism, weren’t heard in their own voice, not taught in their self-definitions and self-perceptions. Instead, in post-Independence India, the contrived Left-liberal consensus ensured that the voices of the Right, if heard at all, were treated as points of departure from what was an institutionalised common sense imposed from above.

It often led to a stark lack of curiosity about conservative political thought. In the Indian context, the neglect of academic engagement with the conservative stream hasn’t been limited to the Indian Right alone. In fact, the normally Eurocentric study of political thought in Indian campuses haven’t offered space to a detailed study of even modern Western figures of conservatism in political thought—ranging from Edmund Burke in the 18th century to Michael Oakeshott in the 20th century.

In the seven decades since Independence, very few attempts have been made to look at the strands and themes of the conservative school, interchangeably called the nationalist school too, in Indian political thought. Among the more recent ones, scholar-turned political commentator and Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta’s sympathetic engagement with the modern stream of conservative political thought in India has been remarkable for its continuity of purpose and clarity of exposition.

In 2015, Dasgupta delivered three lectures at King’s College, University of London, addressing three interrelated themes. As a series, the lectures were one of the more organised attempts at understanding conservative politics, its ideological underpinnings and its practical imperatives in modern India, before and after Independence.

Four years later, and coinciding with the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections, Dasgupta’s new book Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right (Penguin) traces some key figures, attitudes and subtexts in the political belief system of what’s generically called the Indian Right. Preceded by three essays by him, the book is actually an omnibus comprising three parts and 27 chapters, each featuring writings, speeches and even interviews which are representative of various shades of conservative political thought and its various exponents since the 19th century.

In his essays and in compiling the representative ideas of different voices of Hindu nationalism, Dasgupta is aware that a book of this nature is significant much beyond the immediacy of power configuration in the country. “The book is not about Hindu nationalism in power, but as a social and political movement,” he writes in the preface.

In the next 400 pages, the book seeks to achieve that with an eclectic exercise encompassing the reflections of some of the leading lights of Hindu nationalist thought on various aspects of nationhood, nation-building, cultural nationalism and national regeneration. In the process of doing so, the book has primarily focused itself on the political Right, while only fleetingly addressing themes of the economic Right as represented by now defunct organisations like the Swatantra Party.

Preceding the omnibus, Dasgupta’s three lucidly argued and informative essays contextualise the historical elements of conservative political thought in modern India. Blending the erudition of his early years as an academic with the analytical focus of much of his later life as a political commentator, Dasgupta offers a useful introduction to a neglected and a grossly misunderstood stream of political discourse.

In doing so, he offers a primer on the constituents of a Right-wing outlook—a necessity given the common misconceptions, or even ignorance, about the school of thought. He stresses the point that Right-wing nationalist movements, rooted as they are in human experiences and attitudes, are culture and social formation-specific. Hence, they generally don’t, and shouldn’t, claim any universal set of beliefs. Moreover, conservative thinkers generally avoid abstractions of maxims and formulaic proposals as they tend to derive their core from what British conservative politician David Willets described as “deeply felt values of the normal citizen”.

Dasgupta, however, adds that beyond these culture-specific dissimilarities, certain common strands in conservative though are still identifiable. Citing thinkers like Scruton, Burke, David Miller, Kristol and Hailsham, and historians like Cowling, Dasgupta lists a few common features: community wisdom, historical memory, idea of sacredness, making the authority of state subordinate to the will of the society, and finally, an embodiment of national identity.

In the wake of the resurgence of the idea of the nation-state in different parts of the world, it’s important to note how Dasgupta emphasises the role of nationalism in the conservative worldview. “ A conservative is much more than a patriot; he is simultaneously a nationalist, with a primary commitment to the nation-state”.

He argues that such an idea of national identity may not always mean homogeneity, as he quotes David Miller: “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.”

In an age of legalistic notions of belonging , it’s important that Dasgupta argues how Jurgen Habermas’ idea of “constitutional patriotism”—though important for political democracies—is inadequate as a replacement for national identity. Despite its useful role as a bulwark against extremes, it can’t offer cultural personality the way national identity does. “It (constitutional commitment) 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,” Dasgupta quotes Miller, while explaining the appeal of national identity.

The conservative perspective on the persistent appeal of nationalism is important in times when the nation-state is believed to be regaining centrality. As argued in an earlier piece, the comeback of the nation-state—having its moorings in the nature of international order that emerged in the 19th century—has belied many predictions of its disappearance in the last few decades of the 20th century. Such premature obituaries of nationalism, as seen in the writings of scholars like Francis Fukuyama (“defanged” is what he calls it in his famous 1989 essay “End of History”), had only to wait for a few years to eat their words. Someone had already foreseen that such predictions were quite naive. In an essay for the bimonthly journal Foreign Affairs, which in February this year had a special issue on New Nationalism, historian Jill Nepore remembers what Stanford historian Carl Degler had said in 1986. Degler was perceptively critical of his colleagues for abandoning the study of the nation.

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler argued.

Having identified certain commonalities, Dasgupta distinguishes modern Indian nationalist conservatism from its English or even American variants primarily on two grounds. The latter had grown in self-governing states and democracies over the centuries while the Indian response started taking shape in India’s existence as a subject country till the middle of the last century. Second, he identifies that conservatism, when translated to Indian languages, runs into semantic confusion, as the idea of conserving and persisting with certain values doesn’t get conveyed in the equivalents used for it.

Dasgupta argues that tracing back to the 19th century, there was no clear divide between Congress nationalism and Hindu nationalism in their response to colonial subjugation. Such distinction was visible much later in the freedom movement, though a group within the party committed to Hindu interests didn’t disappear in the later stage too. He attributes any suggestion of any such divide in the formative period of modern Indian national consciousness to a flawed “assumption that nationalist consciousness from the late 19th century was a direct consequence of English education and Western political thought. Subsequent historical research has revealed that while English-educated Indians assumed prominence and occupied the national stage, there were other indigenous influences that were just as important.”

Dasgupta cites the work of historian CA Bayly (Origins of Nationality in South Asia, Oxford University Press, 2001) to argue how national sentiment against British rule in the 19th century was rooted in “some patterns of social relations, sentiments, doctrines and embodied memories” as much as they were shaped by “ties of nationality forged by pilgrimages, notions of territoriality, emergence of cross-caste solidarities, and even an emotional alienation from the state after the establishment of Muslim rule”. All that combined to form what Bayly calls “sacred landscape” in popular imagination.

There is one more assessment that Bayly’s study offers, namely, the lack of a rigid liberal-conservative divide in the approach towards socio-cultural reforms. Both impulses were seen as “joined at the hip from birth”. For instance, a celebrated reformist like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (known for his advocacy of widow remarriage) was also seen opposing the Age of Consent Act. These details of historical reasoning, though not unknown, counter some of the lazy assessments of the period.

Dasgupta also reflects on how the political consciousness of the Right envisaged the cultural content of nationhood in terms of a Hindu identity, descendants of a common Vedic past. The very idea of cultural nationalism, which later became a guiding principle for the political Right in India—Jana Sangh and its successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party—was designed in a way that it sought to accommodate the diversity of the country and its diverse people on basis of unity in civilisational values, if they believed in the common civilisational values of the ancient country. Hindutva, or Hinduness, was defined more in terms of those civilisational, or by extension, cultural values, and not necessarily in religious terms.

The second essay, in particular, dwells on how cultural nationalists like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhayay, Swami Vivekanand and Bal Gangadhar Tilak had their different approaches to aim for reasserting the cultural sovereignty of Indian nationhood. The approaches were quite different; they ranged from serving the daridra narayan or the poor people to direct political confrontation to realise the political space for the national regeneration of a vanquished land.

In this context, it’s useful to read the exposition of Deendayal Upadhayay’s “integral humanism” philosophy, believed to be the ideological anchor of the Modi-led BJP government’s welfare schemes. In a way, it also explains how the party seeks to philosophically reconcile its advocacy of economic freedom with the pursuit of welfare in public policy and delivery.

Dasgupta also addresses the question of the treatment of the Hindu identity within the Mahatma Gandhi-led Congress which had its fair share of Hindu interest advocates like Rajendra Prasad, KM Munshi, Vallabhbhai Patel and Purushottam Das Tandon, to name a few. At the same time, the institutional articulation of nationhood by Right-wing organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been dealt with, with its elements of continuity and change, common grounds and divergence, and differing points of emphasis on cultural and political programmes. Dasgupta particularly brings it out through the different approaches of VD Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha and MS Gowalkar of the RSS.

In the political realm, it’s important to note that the idea of India’s nationhood expressed by organised political parties of the Right exposed the tension in constitutional idea of secularism. While conforming to the tenets of respectful treatment of religious freedom of all faiths, the Hindu nationalist was more interested in the cultural centrality of common civilisational ethos.

Jana Sangh, founded by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951, had found in cultural nationalism a unique framework for accommodating diversities in the core of civilization ethos. The party stated in its manifesto:  

“Our diversities are no sign of disintegration or deformity; they are on the contrary an evidence of natural growth and enrichment of our cultural heritage. For a vast land as ours it was but natural that somewhat different patterns of life should have grown in different zones, localities and sections. But all of them stand … united in Bharatiya Sanskriti, which has never been tied to any particular dogma or creed. All the creeds that form the commonwealth of the Bharatiya Rashtra have their share in the stream of Bharatiya culture which has flown down from the Vedas in unbroken continuity absorbing and assimilating contributions made by different way as to make them indistinguishable part and parcel of the main current.”

In 1998, its successor the BJP—established in 1980—defined Hindutva not in religious terms but as an expression of cultural nationalism. The party explained it in its manifesto saying:

“The unique cultural and social diversity of India is woven into a larger civilisational fabric by thousands of years of common living for common shared values and beliefs and customs. Our nationalist vision is not merely bound by geographical or political identity of ‘Bharat’ but it is referred by our timeless heritage. This cultural heritage that is central to all religions, regions and languages in a civilizational identity constitutes the cultural nationalism of India and which is the core of Hindutva.’’

In one of his recent interviews, Dasgupta observed that the glue of Hindutva could be seen as, to draw an analogy, the undercurrent of Britishness as a national character that co-exists with all constitutional claims and freedom for diverse groups of people.

Such assertion in the 1990s was seen by some as inconsistent with constitutional secularism while others, including VS Naipaul, saw it as a creative force within a national society confronting its wounded past. The constitutional project of secularism was also seen as an imposed protocol on a country teeming with believers—an overwhelming number of people who were at ease with the public face of religiosity as they were with its conduct as a private affair. In many cases, the distinction was too thin to be relevant.

Many scholars and commentators, as Dasgupta also shows, pointed to this mismatch between the Nehruvian project of elite modernisation and the mass reality. He cites sociologist TN Madan as saying “that the major religious traditions in India do not have a history of ‘privatising’ religion and detaching it from secular life”. He further quotes Madan: “Secularism is the dream of a minority which wants to shape the majority in its own image, which wants to impose its will upon history but lacks the power to do so under a democratically organised polity. In an open society the state will reflect the character of the society.”

To add to that, social scientist Ashis Nandy, as Dasgupta cites, has pointed towards the import of secularism to India as a part of the  unimaginative attempts to replicate the conditions of western history in India by making it conform to such alien models. Nandy observes that secularism in India is “borrowed from Western history and has been during the last hundred years or so, a symbol of the efforts to internalise that history and redesign contemporary Indian history according to the demands of that history”.

Devoid of cultural inheritance of India’s long past, India’s encounter with state-administered secularism was always going to be a mechanical application. Any scheme of national self-expression which excludes such large part of its historical and cultural memory is set to be so. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, in moments of reflection, was aware of the tension that was lurking insidiously. Almost two years before the Constitution was enacted, he posed these questions to the Muslim community at the convocation ceremony of Aligarh Muslim University in 1948:

“I have said that I am proud of our inheritance and our ancestors who gave an intellectual and cultural pre-eminence to India. How do you feel about this past? Do you feel that you are also sharers in it and inheritors of it and, therefore, proud of something that belongs to you as much as to me? Or do you feel alien to it and pass it by without understanding it or feeling that strange thrill which comes from the realisation that we are the trustees and inheritors of this vast treasure . . . You are Muslims and I am a Hindu. We may adhere to different religious faiths or even to none; but that does not take away from that cultural inheritance that is yours as well as mine.”

Dasgupta follows his essays with 23 chapters combining the leading voices of nationalist thought in India, before and after Independence. These writings, speeches and interviews of people—as divided by their lifetime as Aurobindo and Girilal Jain and as different as RC Majumdar and VS Naipaul—are a valuable addition to the corpus of literature on the conservative political stream in India.

Four years ago, at the beginning of his lecture series at King’s College, University of London, Dasgupta had qualified his scope of inquiry by saying that there are other forms of political Right in India too. That holds true for this work of considerable ambition too. That, by any means, doesn’t take away from the seminal importance of this book. It stands as the chronicler of strands and voices which have defied institutional neglect and “good taste” indifference, as Mukul Kesavan once put it, to challenge the common sense of India’s political discourse.

While posing that challenge, the book’s ambition clearly lies in introducing readers to an alternative common sense.


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