Why Indian conservatism strikes a fine balance
Democracies are mostly informed and guided by political ideologies, though technological change, globalisation and its backlash have somewhat blurred the lines. Politics in India is, and has been, more muddled and the leading parties have often taken the same position on different issues. The lack of any formal response from the leading parties to the ongoing Sabarimala controversy is an evidence of the ideological ambiguity in Indian politics. Can a case be made out for developing and articulating Indian conservatism based on the Indian experience?
The obvious question would be why do we seek to conserve values in a society that is unequal, has seen tremendously oppressive social systems, and is still poor? Would this mean perpetuating the status quo? Can we identify specific Indian values that would form the bedrock of Indian conservatism? Christopher Jafferlot quotes the reformer MG Ranade, who said that that India is conservative, “but that conservatism is its strength”. There would be no break with the past and we would not give up our creed, values, morals or customs.
A recognition that there is a lot of good in our cultural traditions and our institutions is a sound place to begin. The easiest way to destroy a society is to make it forget its collective memories and historical experiences. These are real and tangible, not imagined, and centred on the Indian nation, not limited to the nation state, which is a new phenomenon.
That should not mean that Indian conservatives should feel self-satisfied or that nothing needs to change. We are far from being an ideal society; and a conservative should not be a reactionary. Critical self-reflection is intrinsic to conservativism. All issues need to be discussed within society, argued over and consensus built up in the spirit of reconciliation of differences. But this change in the Indian context must not only be internal, but should be, and has been, incremental, and not revolutionary. The reasons for not wanting revolutions are straightforward. Revolutions often degenerate into violence and the resultant destruction leaves the disadvantaged worse off; their social and economic support systems simply cannot cope up with the dislocation.
No person or institution can have a monopoly over truth. Each path is valid for those who subscribe to them, which is the principle behind our celebration of diversity. However, we like to argue and discuss these different approaches in our search of truth, but not to impose one’s point of view or to discriminate on the basis of differences. The ability to reconcile differences is important as new differences would always arise; the process of reconciliation is, therefore, a continuous one.
The appropriate economic thinking of conservatism is the belief in markets as the most successful coordination device allocating resources in a large economy. Markets with appropriate regulation are about the exercise of human agency, which is the only way non-confrontational and non-antagonistic societies evolve. Any form of planning is necessarily top-down, and since it seeks to impose or bring about uniformity, it is by definition, authoritarian. At the same time, one must remain sceptical of market fundamentalism since societal assets, beliefs, values and aesthetics were not amenable to markets.
State control over the economy is fairly consistent with its interventions in bringing about social change. Tilak wanted every ‘son of Aryavarta’ to toil hard to abolish child marriage but opposed government legislating on it. Similarly, Tagore was to oppose Calcutta municipality’s plans to lay down a water pipeline to connect homes. In both cases, they felt that these were society’s responsibilities, and not of the government. The gap between State’s interventions in the market and in society on the one hand and political authoritarianism on the other is not that large, as history has shown.
Our shastras and other ancient texts did not endow rulers with any divine rights. The ruler’s job was to uphold ‘dharma’ by delivering justice and providing the kingdom with security. The limited State was to facilitate economic activities but not to control it. The Mauryas had controllers of currencies, weights and measures to ensure justice. However, kings were to stay away from interfering in social issues or in belief systems, else they would lose credibility and, potentially, legitimacy.
However, unlike liberalism, Indian conservatism cannot be just about the individual; or unlike socialism, just about society; but about the balance between the two: individual and community.
Can these principles be used to develop guiding principles for the present times?
Shakti Sinha is director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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