Book Review: 'The Indian Conservative' Is Less History, More Right-Wing Apologia

Jerry Rao’s book defines conservatism so loosely, it falls short of being a serious contribution to existing debates

Conservative columnist and serial entrepreneur Jaitirth “Jerry” Rao has emerged as a popular voice attempting to speak for and to the Indian Right in recent times. His latest effort, The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right Wing Thought is, in spite of its title, much less a ‘history’ than an apologia that takes the easy way out by putting praiseworthy ideas in the basket of conservatives, and laying all faults at the door of ‘extremists’ on the left and right.

Unfortunately for those hoping for a serious engagement, this apologia is more opportunistic than magisterial. Wikipedia articles are better cited than the claims in this book, which has no citations at all. Even direct quotes are few and far between, with the first appearing on page 63.

For all these evidentiary flaws, Rao’s idea of conservatism has its virtues. For one, he is able to acknowledge that nations are imagined communities, and not eugenic realities, as many of his—to use an oft-used term in the book—fellow travellers propose. He also acknowledges the historical fact of ‘Hindu’ being an identity that was only constructed recently.

Since he concedes that the Hindu identity is a work in progress, it allows Rao to imagine a form of Hindu nationalism that is not bigoted. His conservatism is a project that imagines a future with a ‘band of brothers’, with a Hindu coalition that spreads across caste lines, and that may even accommodate Muslims and Christians, albeit firmly under the umbrella of Hindu paternalism instead of as equal citizens of a secular nation.

For Rao, conservatives reject revolutionary change for evolutionary change, because revolutions often end in tragedy. He is committed to the position to the extent of denouncing the Babri Masjid demolition, though he tries to cast it as an instance of ‘mob violence’ which leaders were only ‘consciously unwilling’ to stop. However, more recent ‘revolutionary’ measures like demonetisation are conspicuous in going unmentioned and uncritiqued, while Modi comes in largely for praise.

Rao also draws a line between nationalism and the idea of the ‘master race’ that looks to subjugate other nations. His conservatism also calls for peace and the eschewing of violence. Along these lines, he is explicit in rejecting notions of an ‘Akhand Bharat’ and recognises Pakistan as a separate nation.

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He also says ‘it is easy for a “band of brothers” to turn into a band of murderers’, and calls out Hindu nationalist ideologues for othering Muslims, adding, “The violent outcomes of such othering must make good conservatives shudder”.

Jaithirth Rao
The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought
Juggernaut, 2019

Finally, Rao sees conservatism as supporting the liberty and rights of the individual, and by extension, he supports free markets, which he sees as voluntary deal-making. In terms of society, he supports the family as potentially having ‘advantages in our evolutionary biology’.

Absent in all of these is any serious consideration of empirical critiques of the idea of free markets, and vast troves of scholarship on the many failures of the heteronormative family as an institution.

Everyone is a conservative

What makes someone a conservative? In Rao’s frame, any one trait of conservatism is sufficient, with hardly any disqualifying criteria. This allows Rao to appropriate wholesale an entire roster of figures to his cause. Indeed, even something as revolutionary as the Indian constitution is declared as a conservative document based on parts of it having evolved over time. When a concept is defined this loosely, it loses all meaning.

According to Rao, Gokhale is a conservative because of his moderate stance with respect to British rule, but Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who were stridently against British rule and often clashed with Gokhale, are also conservatives.

Dadabhai Naoroji, who became a Liberal Party MP in Britain, is a conservative. The reason he did not run as a conservative MP is because, in Rao’s words, the British conservatives were ‘silly’; not because they were even more reprehensibly racist than the rest of the Raj, as many conservative movements continue to be today.

The ‘support for British rule’ criterion is used to declare Jyotiba Phule as a conservative, while his radical rejection of the Vedas and Brahminical tradition go unmentioned. Indeed, Rao’s definition of conservatism is so wide that he wants to claim Gandhi, Ambedkar and Lincoln as conservatives.

Quixotically, the only major figure who does not make the cut is the figure the Indian Right has striven so assiduously to appropriate: Subhash Chandra Bose. The reason for Bose’s exclusion in Rao’s personal schema is that Bose had links to fascists, and supported a Japanese invasion of India. And Rao dearly wants to separate the Right Wing from fascism. Bose is contrasted with Syama Prasad Mukherjee, sold as a conservative patriot.

Among the many contradictions in the book, in this case, Rao finds himself on the same side as the communists that he cannot abide. The CPI excoriated Bose for being ‘the running dog of Jap Fascism’ in its newspaper, People’s War, in 1945. Perhaps this makes the CPI of the 40s conservative as well?

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More expectedly, Iqbal, whose turn towards Muslim conservatism led to the partition, is not a conservative at all because his suggestion of a Muslim homeland was radical. But the same Syama Prasad Mukherjee, a vocal proponent and supporter of the equally radical Bengal partition that became a model for the latter partition, remains a conservative.

The other move Rao consistently makes is to justify ‘conservative’ moves with the same ideas he uses to discredit ‘radical’ ones. So, while the well-known closeness of Hindutva leaders to the foreign power of the British is seen as ‘tactical’ and ‘instrumental’, the same courtesy is not extended to Bose’s relations with the foreign power of the Japanese, even though Bose literally freed and repurposed Indian prisoners of war.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

In this way, one logic of the book is: ‘if the people Rao calls conservatives did it, then it was right, and for the right reasons; if the others did it, then it was wrong, and for the wrong reasons.’ A close ally to this is, ‘if it was right, the conservatives did it; if it was wrong or turned out badly, it was done by extremists or started by liberals’.

There are also problems with unsubstantiated claims, showing Rao is not immune to our culture of Whatsapp forwards. Because the Congress elected Bose President during World War II, Rao references (without citation) a contention ‘that the majority of Congress members of that time were pro-Hitler and pro-Tojo’. Earlier, he suggests, once again without proof, that members of Indira Gandhi’s inner circle were KGB agents.

Conservative utopian thinking

Rao is at pains to dismiss utopian thinking, saying conservatism is ‘suspicious, even dismissive, of utopian fantasies’. And yet, so much of his own conservative ideas are utopic, and have indeed proven to just be bad when followed to their logical conclusion.

Take free markets, that he defends as ‘organic, evolved, voluntary human endeavours’, when no such thing has ever existed in the world, and where unregulated markets have repeatedly turned rapaciously monopolistic. Sure, ‘good’ conservatives are against monopolies, but do they possess any ‘organic, evolutionary, voluntary’ means of achieving it? There is a reason economic thinking has been nuanced far beyond the myth of free markets.

Take his idea of a ‘band of brothers’ who will all happily follow ‘features of the past that are worth preserving or that we feel are worth cherishing’. But who determines which these features are? And what of features that one group cherishes that are absolutely insufferable for the other? There are many Brahmins today who cherish notions of their inborn superiority—who will rid them of it if cherishing is a good thing?

Does not a desire to preserve ‘features of the past’ and to ‘cherish’ one’s own traditions end up reinforcing differences between groups as much as it reinforces unity within groups? That these differences can then be exploited by opportunists to divide and rule, as indeed the whole rise of Hindu and Muslim conservatism benefited the British?

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Rao suggests that conservatives are concerned about the pace of change, and about the ‘path to hell being paved with good intentions’. But the problem with conservatism is not its critique of process, which is often prescient. The problem is that they are mistaken about both the direction of change, and the urgency with which it is needed.

When Rao dismisses social justice movements as ‘grievance-mongering’, he dismisses that there are very real and urgent grounds for grievance. When Rao imagines individuals taking responsibility for themselves in free markets, he ignores the fact that there are many social impediments to these free-market interactions that economics alone cannot undo. No free market can undo the call centre hiring managers who reject CVs on the basis of caste surnames.

We can argue over the best way to achieve just ends, but we cannot wave away the injustices as imagined. Just as we cannot move towards a more just future if we are always moored to a deeply unjust past. And no one in Rao’s imaginary ‘band of brothers’ who is not an upper caste Hindu man will agree that the past was not deeply unjust in ways that continue into the present.

New ideas of how to get there are always welcome, and conservatives can help critique processes to ensure we avoid bad outcomes. But such a brand of conservatism will require much more up-to-date thought, and a relinquishing of impossible fantasies. For one, Indian conservatives will have to realize that the argument is no longer with Stalin, Mao or Freud. That adversary only persists in their imagination. Current debates are far more nuanced.

As an invitation to Indian conservatives to seriously engage in learning and thought, this book is welcome. Among the thinkers Rao wishes to label ‘conservative’ are Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze. I hope that, along with these figures, those who read Rao also go on to read Ambedkar and Phule. If they take these thinkers seriously, they are sure to learn many things about conservatism, and themselves. That may be the best possible outcome of this book.

Partha P. Chakrabartty is an independent journalist concerned with the intersections between politics, marketing and technology.