Ram Madhav
March 9, 2024

In Pursuit of Conservatism

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on March 9, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Should we call ourselves “conservative”? A section of India’s ruling right-wing establishment appears to be mulling over this. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government completes 10 years in office, its unapologetic embrace of India’s cultural and civilisational identity has prompted many in those circles to enthusiastically come forward to identify with the concept of “conservatism”.

There is a global context to it. Of late, with more and more countries in Europe electing right-wing parties to power, conservatism seems to have returned as the flavour of the season. It is being written and talked about a lot these days, not with the usual pejoration, but with a sense of either sympathy or fait accompli.

Indians are prone to obsessions with ideologies and tend to assume that conservatism must also be an ideology for the right wing. “All ideologies are idiotic, whether religious or political…” warned noted spiritual master Jiddu Krishnamurti, “for, it is conceptual thinking, the conceptual world, which has so unfortunately divided man”.

From Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill in the 18-19th century to today, terms like conservatism and liberalism represent political movements that respond to certain socio-political challenges of the times. Western conservatism stood for principles such as individual freedom, limited government, constitutionalism, unity of community, responsible fiscalism, open market economy, centrality of religion and family and an abstract idea of human dignity.

The very word “conservatism” has a “timid” sound, complained renowned Austrian-British political philosopher F A Hayek. Yet, like him, many were surprised to see it ascend the political ladder in country after country. How is it that this name “redolent of passive obedience of the past” should become such a dominant force, they wondered. That too in such modern and economically developed nations like the US and countries in Western Europe.

Conservatism’s success lay less in its doctrines — there are none common to all anyway — but more in what the regimes that swore by it delivered. As we see in history, dictators like Hitler and Mussolini openly espoused socialism. In fact, the very name Nazism was derived from the German word for National Socialism — Nationalsozialismus. Mussolini publicly acknowledged the legacy of Italian socialist heroes like Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. The dictatorships that the communist ideology promoted, from Lenin, Stalin and Mao in the past to Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un now, are too well known.

On the contrary, the track record of countries with conservative regimes, from the US to the United Kingdom to Germany to Italy, has been much better, compared to their revolutionary counterparts. They created economic prosperity and social stability. Whereas the 18th century conservative Britain was an island of a strong industrial civilisation, their French neighbours across the English Channel were busy promoting revolutionary activism and military adventurism. As Minogue wrote in the same review, although the word may sound a bit odd and awkward “there is no problem about associating conservatism with dynamism”. We unknowingly make the mistake of positioning conservatism as an ideology against liberalism. Conservatives are liberal too while many liberals hang on to ideas that conservatives hold as sacrosanct. In fact, during the French Revolution, the conservatives who occupied the right chamber of the parliament stoutly opposing the aggressive enthusiasm of the revolutionaries, often called themselves liberals. Even today, in several countries like Australia, the party of the conservatives is called the Liberal Party.

In their riveting account of the history of American politics, John Mickelethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, the British journalists, conclude in their book “The Right Nation” that irrespective of the Democrats and Republicans rotating power, America remains a conservative nation at its core. Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement about the “American creed” consisted of a deep commitment to individual freedom, constitutionalism, patriotism, limited government and rejection of tyranny and despotism — all considered conservative ideas. Interestingly, not many liberals will be found opposing several of these ideas. Barring issues concerning sexual morality and statism in economic activity, the classical liberals embrace several of those issues that the conservatives do.

But the challenge that the US in particular, and Western societies in general, face today is the hijacking of the liberal movement by left-wing radicals who want to dismantle society as a whole. While a word like conservatism stood for rational and progressive ideas, a benign word like liberalism came to be identified with anarchy, thanks to this bunch of radicals.

Conservatism may not be the same everywhere. Donald Trump represented a populist-nationalist version of it, which can be identified with trade protectionism, hawkishness on China, restriction on immigration — both legal and illegal — and a fierce dedication to fighting the culture war.

A few months ago, I met one of the “bad boys” of the EU, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban. A proud conservative leader, hated by his peers in Europe for his stand on the Russia-Ukraine war and his resistance to “woke” ideologies, Orban represents a version of conservatism that is gaining popularity in eastern and central Europe. In power for almost 15 years now, he built Hungary into what the OECD describes as a “high-income country”. “God, religion, family, nationalism and patriotism — no compromise,” he told me when asked about the criticism that he endures. That is his brand of conservatism.

Like the US, India, too, is a conservative nation at the core. Swami Vivekananda called it “Dharma prana Bharata”, meaning religion was the soul of Bharat. Gandhi understood it well. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, an unabashed admirer of socialism, admitted in the Constituent Assembly that India was a “deeply religious country”. Narendra Modi, too, understands it perfectly well.

Latching on to the conservative bandwagon may or may not mean much domestically for the Indian right wing. But at a time when global conservatives are waging fierce battles against radical left anarchists, with whom even Western liberals are highly uncomfortable, a powerful country like India standing by that political movement definitely means a lot for them.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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