Ram Madhav
April 27, 2024

Providing the Thatcherist Heft

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on April 27, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Brussels, the seat of European Parliament, witnessed a unique tussle between the Conservatives and the Liberals recently. Rising popularity of the conservative political movements in Europe seems to have rattled the overzealous liberals who decided to collide head on with them, with an eye on the upcoming elections to the European Parliament in June.

Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, is leading the revival of “national conservatism” (NatCon) movement, joined by a powerful cohort of leaders like Donald Trump in America, Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister of Italy, and Marine Le Pen in France. As the Economist reported recently, of the five most populous countries in the European Union – Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland – four, except Spain, have the conservative parties either in power or leading in popularity with more than 20% vote share. Latest addition to this list was Geert Wilders, the firebrand conservative leader in the Netherlands, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) shocked the West by emerging far ahead of all other parties in the elections in November last year. Short of majority, he may or may not succeed in forming the government. But he succeeded in making a strong case for conservative revival in the liberal bastion, boosting the morale of the conservatives.

Unnerved by this conservative upsurge, liberal zealots resorted to illiberal tantrums when the conservatives planned their ninth National Conservatism Conference in Brussels earlier this month. Yoram Hazony, a Jewish-American leading light of the conservative movement, described the liberal onslaught, a political version of the notorious ‘cancel culture’, in a detailed social media post. The liberal party mayors first denied permission for the conference to be held at a venue near the EU citing fears of so-called “anti-Fascist” protests. When the organisers, Edmund Burke Foundation of America, secured Sofitel hotel as the alternate venue, mayor of the district not only got the permission cancelled just one day before the event, but also boasted about it as a great liberal victory.

The conference went ahead at a nondescript venue in a poorer neighborhood of Brussels, while the Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo decried the shenanigans of his colleagues as “unacceptable”.  Prominent conservative leaders like Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage from UK and Eric Zemmour from France were there. But the star attraction was Viktor Orban, who called out the hypocrisy of the EU’s so-called liberalism that sought to deny his right to speak.

Rise of conservatism must be seen in the context of what is happening in the liberal wonderland of America. The celebrated University of Columbia has announced closure of its campus this semester and teachings through virtual mode after an uncontrollable agitation by the Left-wing protestors over the happenings in Gaza engulfed its campus in New York. The New York mayor fumed at the protestors and their threats to the Jewish and other law-abiding students, but the police, sulking over the liberal calls for defunding of their force, showed lukewarm response to the appeals by the university authorities. Even the metro stations around the campus were forced to shut due to protests. From Harvard and Yale in the East to Stanford and UC, Berkeley in the West, Left-Liberal anarchy is ruling the campuses in America.

Classical liberalism of Thomas Hobbs or John Locke was noble intentioned and stood for the marginalized sections of the society. But the takeover of the movement by the extreme left poses a serious threat to fundamental human values today. Distortion of liberal principles like DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion, propagation of an extreme “woke” version of human identity and rejection of all other ideas leading to ‘cancel culture’ is disheartening to many true liberals too.

Professor Randall Kennedy, an eminent scholar of race and civil rights, published an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson denouncing the unscrupulous use of DEI statements in academic hiring. “I am a scholar on the left committed to struggles for social justice,” he wrote, adding, “The realities surrounding mandatory DEI statements, however, make me wince.” Lamenting that aspiring professors are required to “profess and flaunt” their faith in DEI in a process that “leans heavily and tendentiously towards varieties of academic leftism”, Kennedy exhorted that mandatory DEI statements “ought to be abandoned”.

The conservative case, on the other hand, is sublime. “God, religion, family, nation and patriotism” was how Orban summed up his conservative ideas in a recent interaction. At Brussels, speakers essentially identified the mainstream media, unbridled immigration, political correctness, global NGOs led by people like George Soros, and “Bolshewokism” as the challenge.

As the conservatives begin to reassert, liberal backlash is also intensifying. Liberals seem to have the upper hand not necessarily because of the legitimacy of their ideas but because of the control they obtained over the instruments like academia and media. Conservative movement has its own weaknesses that the liberals exploit to demonize it. It has its demagogues and hate-mongers. But most conservative leaders are decent and sensible. They champion ideas that are the need of the hour.

Global conservative movement faces the challenge of leadership in the face of a determined liberal onslaught. Viktor Orban or Marie Le Pen are popular leaders, but still represent small populations. There is a Trump or a Meloni or a tech-tycoon like Elon Musk. Yet, there is no Margaret Thatcher to bring necessary “Thatcherist” heft to the movement. The ship of conservatism is sailing strong in the face of many vicissitudes, internal and external. A strong Indian leadership can stabilize its journey and succeed in creating “Brand Bharat” as the 21st century conservative alternative to the disruptive extreme left-liberal politics.

Indian nationalist intellectuals need not worry about plunging into the European identity politics and the liberal-conservative divide. On the very Indian ideological soil of cultural nationalism, pluralism, democracy, and global family, the conservative movement of the world can find its roots and converge. Many classical liberals too may find traces of their beliefs in that tradition. Challenge, though, is to stand up for the ideals of Indian nationalism and seize the opportunity.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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