The precipitous decline of Congress worries many Indians who believe that choice and a responsible opposition are important. Democracies elsewhere offer a choice between liberals and conservatives through a two-party system. Liberals prefer modernity while conservatives favour tradition and continuity; liberals want rapid change, conservatives prefer it to be gradual. Conservatives tend to be more nationalistic, religious and market oriented; liberals are more secular and oriented to social welfare. It isn't easy to transpose these terms to India but it can serve a useful purpose.
In India, a single party has dominated since Independence and the opposition has rarely been constructive or effective. That single party today is BJP, having replaced Congress's long rule. India's two national parties reflect partially the dichotomy between liberals and conservatives. More importantly, many Indians feel left out. Some of them are deeply religious who seek continuity with tradition but they do not want a 'Hindu Rashtra'; they prefer 'Indian' nationalism over 'Hindu' nationalism. Others are suspicious of utopias like socialism. Can conservatism give them a home?
Soon after Independence, Congress made a radical departure from traditional economic arrangements by adopting a socialist, statist agenda. Opposition to it came from the conservative Swatantra Party, which defended economic freedom against Congress's Licence Raj. Although in 1991 Congress jettisoned socialism, it has remained a reluctant reformer. Liberals within the Congress have invariably prevailed over conservatives. Even if the dynasty were to abdicate today, it is unlikely that the party would shed its left of centre, pro-poor, liberal, secular credentials. Those who want to transform it into a modern day Swatantra Party are chasing wild dreams.
BJP can lay a stronger claim to conservatism based on its religious nationalism. Republicans in America, Tories in England and Christian Democrats in Germany also provide a home for religious and nationalist conservatives. In 2014, the mesmerising aspirational rhetoric of Narendra Modi persuaded many middle of the road Indians to vote for a reinvigorated BJP. The Chaiwalla's victory was compared in social terms to the British conservative Disraeli's Tory democracy. Although the new supporters of Modi were religious, they did not care for Hindutva and hoped his economic agenda would prevail.
One of them was Jaithirth Rao whose forthcoming book, The Indian Conservative, draws inspiration from a long line of conservative Indian thinking from Ram Mohan Roy (and even the Mahabharata) through Bankim Chatterjee, Vivekananda, Lajpat Rai, Rajagopalachari, BR Shenoy, and others. Like a good conservative, Rao values continuity and regards the modern Indian state as successor to the British Raj.
He appreciates the British for unifying India and leaving a legacy of Enlightenment values, enshrined in our Constitution. He offers a provocative counterfactual: what if the governors of Bombay and Madras had been independent and had reported directly to London (as Ceylon's governor did), independent India might have been a much shrunken nation. Rao believes that the tragic Partition of India might have been avoided if Baldwin had prevailed over Churchill and India given dominion status in the 1930s.
In the 19th century ferment, Ram Mohan Roy wanted Indians to tap into their rich intellectual traditions, modernise and reform them. In response Bankim, the Arya Samaj, and others preferred to revive them instead. This opposition continues today. Ramachandra Guha asked a few years ago, 'where are India's conservative intellectuals?' His premise, like Jaithirth Rao's, is that conservative intellectuals could help BJP modernise its ideology; shed its divisive, majoritarian mindset; and broaden its appeal to today's young, aspiring Indians.
Someone like Edmund Burke (father of modern conservatism) might even help bring closure to the wounds of Partition that have been reopened by the change in Kashmir's status. Liberals, from Nehru onwards, have tried but failed to bring about a non-resentful assimilation of Kashmiris into India. Might a conservative today, someone like Rajagopalachari (the only self-styled Indian conservative) succeed? Burke, after all, did bring closure to the restless English mind over the violent French Revolution that was as startling and tragic as our bloody Partition. His message was a conservative credo: stop chasing utopias and worry about common decencies.
We do not hear voices of moderate Hindus or Muslims in contemporary Indian public life. They are drowned by the shrill sounds of Hindu nationalists and left secularists. Both have failed us. Once upon a time public figures like Gandhi, Maulana Azad, and Vivekananda spoke with credibility to the silent majority of religiously minded Indians. We could do with such persons today who will dare to ask, why do we need Hindu nationalism in a nation where 80% are Hindus?
The problem with left secularists, on the other hand, is that they were once socialists and only see the dark side of religion – intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism; they forget that religion has given meaning to humanity since civilisation's dawn. Because secularists and Hindu nationalists speak a language alien to the aam admi, they are only able to condemn communal violence but not stop it as Gandhi could in East Bengal in 1947.
We should have no illusions today about the rise of a contemporary, conservative party like the Swatantra. Our best hope is the spread of conservative ideals within the two national parties. It could result in a softer, more inclusive BJP and a more market friendly Congress. A conservative temper would help make Indians more comfortable with the free market and governments would not have to reform by stealth. It would further communal harmony, not by weaning people away from religion but encouraging moderate religious leaders to speak up for a decent, inclusive polity. The conservative ideal of modernising tradition is certainly worth embracing in a deeply traditional society like India.