Central & South Asia

A History of Indian Conservatism

In this guest edition of The Interview, Vikram Zutshi talks to Jaitirth Rao, author of “The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought.”
Vikram Zutshi, Jerry Rao, Indian conservatism, India conservative thought, Narendra Modi conservatism, history of Indian conservatism, India right-wing thought, Narendra Modi right-wing ideology, Dadabhai Naoroji India, Edmund Burke conservatism

Presidential estate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, India © Suhail Suri / Shutterstock

December 23, 2020 07:03 EDT

At the time of independence from British rule in 1947, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, adopted a mode of governance that came to be known as Nehruvian socialism. State control of industrial production and government interference in all spheres of life came to define this era and, indeed, the entire Indian political and intellectual landscape. Social mobility became virtually impossible without having the right connections or lineage, while a lumbering, deeply corrupt bureaucracy — the so-called “License Raj” — further handicapped the fledgling economy. Nehru’s descendants, including his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom served as prime ministers, further reinforced the socialist legacy.

The economic climate changed somewhat during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s tenure, when his finance minister, Manmohan Singh, carried out a series of long-overdue structural reforms in 1991 to spur economic growth by liberalizing Indian markets.

India’s League of Internationalists


A notable holdout to the near-total Nehruvian consensus was the Swatantra Party, committed to equality of opportunity of all people “without distinction of religion, caste, occupation, or political affiliation.” Created in 1959 by C. Rajagopalachari as an alternative to Nehru’s increasingly socialist and statist outlook, the party envisioned that progress, welfare and happiness of the people could be achieved by giving maximum freedom to individuals with minimum state intervention. Perceived to be on the economic right of the Indian political spectrum, Swatantra was not based on a purely religious understanding of Indic culture, unlike the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

Jaitirth “Jerry” Rao, a former Citigroup honcho, MPhasis CEO and presently chairman of the Value Budget Housing Corporation, in his 2019 book, “The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought,” explores the philosophical roots of modern Indian conservatism in five domains: economic, cultural, social, political and aesthetic. The book clearly and concisely conveys the intellectual underpinnings of conservative thought based on indigenous traditions and culture. True conservatives advocate for evolution and not revolution, and the idea that conservative thinking is static, frozen and fixated on a Utopian golden past is a caricature designed by detractors, according to Rao.

In this guest edition of The Interview, Vikram Zutshi talks to Jaitirth Rao about what it means to be an Indian conservative today, about the history of right-wing thought, and the conflicts in Kashmir and with China.

The text was lightly edited for clarity.

Vikram Zutshi: What is your personal understanding of conservatism? Can you give us a timeline of conservative thought in the Indian context?

Jerry Rao: Conservatism is more a way of looking at the world than a philosophy. In politics, conservatives support gradual, peaceful, constitutional change where care is taken not to abandon the good things inherited from our ancestors. In aesthetics, conservatives have a love for old established traditions in music, dance, drama, painting, literature and, above all, in town-planning and architecture. A conservative will always oppose the Corbusier school of town-planning and architecture.

In economic affairs, conservatives support market-based systems not because they are efficient, which they might very well be. Conservatives support markets because they are time-honored, organic, voluntary institutions evolved by human beings and are predicated on peaceful intercourse, negotiations, bargains and consensus.

Markets have a positive moral dimension as far as conservatives are concerned. Symmetrically, conservatives opposed central planning in economics as it concentrates power and reduces citizens to serfs. Conservatives believe in a minimalist state which is strong. They do not believe in anarchic libertarianism. Conservatives believe in cultural cohesion in societies. We believe that the culture we have inherited from our ancestors, while always in need of modest change, is nevertheless a precious legacy which we need to preserve and hand on to our descendants intact or in an enhanced way. It is not to be abruptly jettisoned.

The same spirit pervades apropos of the environment. Our forests, water bodies and landscapes are sacred trusts given to us, which we need to pass on as trustees rather than as short-term owners. Conservatives are usually positive toward religion, which is seen as an important cultural inheritance —  conservatives are very fond of religious music, liturgy, chanting, painting, architecture, sculpture, dance and ritual — and also as being a very successful part of the moral cement that a society needs.

The roots of Indian conservatism go back to the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata and the Tirukkural. Modern Indian political conservatism has had two fathers: Ram Mohan Roy and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. The intellectual descendants include Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani on one side, and Deen Dayal on the other. In economics, the tradition of Naoroji and Dutt has been carried forward by Shenoy all the way down to contemporary market-friendly economists. In aesthetics, the traditions of Bharata Muni, Sarangadeva, Abhinavagupta and Appayya Dikshitar have been carried forward by Ananda Coomaraswamy all the way down to the present efflorescence.

Zutshi: To what degree does the current government in India embody conservative ideals?

Rao: The present government of India, in political terms, is the very embodiment of conservatism. The Constitution of India represents a gradual constitutional change over the Government of India Act of 1935, which represented gradual constitutional change over previous acts like the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, the Minto-Morley Reforms, the Indian Councils Act, the Queen’s Proclamation, The EI Company Charter Acts, the Pitt India act and the Regulating Act. We have retained the same constitution for 70 years, unlike Latin American countries which jettison constitutions quite quickly.

Changes to our constitution have been done through a complex amendment process and has been subject to judicial review. While conservatives are not happy with all the changes, we must perforce be happy with the gradual, peaceful, constitutional nature of the changes. No revolutionary changes here.

Now, coming to the current political dispensation, which has been in power for six years, we can state that it is more conservative in character than the previous dispensation. It is not as market-friendly as some conservatives may desire. But it is more market-friendly than the government of the previous 10 years. It is also more scrupulous about constitutional propriety — no outrageous acts like retrospective legislation. In its emphasis on subjects like yoga and Sanskrit, it certainly supports a cultural continuity so dear to conservatives. Its focus on the Ganga River and on solar power demonstrates a sense of trusteeship about the environment.  

Principally, the government needs to be more market-friendly and it needs to dismantle large parts of the intrusive administrative state which it has inherited. It needs to hasten slowly in this area. I cannot think of any serious blunders.

Zutshi: At what juncture did your political philosophy begin to crystallize? To what extent does Indian conservatism resemble its American and British counterparts?

Rao: This took some time to grow. Reading a biography of Edmund Burke in 1975 may have been when it started. It has taken years, even decades to crystallize. There is an amazing synchronicity between the ideas of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, the ideas of the Tirukkural, the ideas embedded in the Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda and the ideas of Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli and Roger Scruton. In modern times, great Indian conservatives like Ram Mohan, Bhandarkar, Bankim, Rajaji and Masani acknowledged their debts both to the classical Indian texts and to Burke. 

Zutshi: There is much noise in the Indian media about the silencing and incarceration of dissenters. Many activists and academics have been locked up without due process, for example, Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Hany Babu and others. Do you think such draconian measures are justified?

Rao: The Indian state and republic have been under attack. The previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, emphatically stated that Maoists were India’s greatest security threat. So there is a continuity between governments in the threat perception. We are dealing with people who wanted to destroy bourgeois democracy from within. In recent times, the alliance between Maoists and jihadists who are bent on an Islamic reconquest of India has led to considerable concern and alarm. Those who supply the ideological basis for violence against the republic, those who shelter the extremists, those who help the extremists acquire arms and those who create a penumbra of respectability around people who violently murder Indian police personnel and ordinary citizens, have much to answer for.

These ideologies have until now taken advantage of the soft Indian state. They have been foolish. The Indian Republic has contained Naga, Kashmiri and Khalistani separatists and the bomb-throwers and murderers of Naxalbari. Sooner or later, the velvet glove was bound to get a little loose. That is what has happened.

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Zutshi: What is China’s long-term agenda with regards to India? What are we to make of the ongoing aggression between the two powers? Can India afford another war at this point? If not, what are its remaining options?

Rao: In my opinion, China’s leaders see India as an irrelevant pinprick. They see America as their natural rival. Having said this, the Chinese do have a desire to break up India and they will try their best to do so. There is no “aggression between the two powers.” There is only Chinese aggression and aggressiveness. I don’t know what we can make of it, except to assume that their expansionist and irredentist stance is not likely to abate. In strictly economic cost-benefit terms, we cannot afford it. But if the other option is servitude and disintegration, they do not leave us with much choice but to resist irrespective of the economic calculus.

Truman articulated the doctrine of “containment” apropos of the Soviet Union. A global coalition along those lines is the answer. We do not have the choice of being non-aligned now. The Soviet Union was far from us and did not attempt to encroach on us or weaken us. China is our neighbor and seems to have decided that we are like Poland of the 1930s. We might need to demonstrate that we are closer to the weak and inefficient Russia which suffered much but still did halt the efficient German juggernaut in the 1940s.

Zutshi: Finally, do you agree with the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir? More importantly, is the lockdown and curtailment of civil liberties justified?

Rao: Yes. It was a serious anomaly. It was detrimental to Kashmiri women, religious minorities like the Hindus and the Buddhists, Dalits, refugees and so on. It was allowing for the retention of a space for Islamist groups like the ISIS to infiltrate; 370 had to go.

Noisy sections of the valley’s population took the public and publicized position that a self-proclaimed ISIS terrorist was a hero and a martyr. The previous local government either could not or chose not to do anything. When such things happen, any organized state worth its name has to take drastic intrusive action. Let us not forget that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War and Pitt suspended habeas corpus during the Napoleonic Wars.

Zutshi: What will it take to bring Kashmir back to normal again, or is that just a pipe dream?

Rao: The Kashmiri Sunni leadership has to realize that if they do not change, in 40 years, they will resemble the Naga Muivarh faction leaders seeking medical treatment in Delhi and talking gibberish. The rank-and-file Kashmiri Muslims need to realize that they have been fed ridiculous propaganda. Joining Pakistan means joining a failed state that is a bit of an international joke. Given the years and decades of educational damage and brainwashing that has happened, this is not going to be an easy task for the Indian state to accomplish. But slowly, inevitably, inexorably, it will get done.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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