By Swapan Dasgupta
Some years ago, while researching for an article on Australia, I came upon an observation by Pru Goward, a journalist-turned-politician of the ruling Liberal Party, that has a bearing on today’s Indian politics. “Conservative governments”, she wrote, “don’t have natural supporters who are articulate and philosophical writers. The conservative intellectual group is very small in Australia. So the politicians are lonely and they are joked about all the time.”
What Goward observed about Australia can be said to be true for much of today’s democratic world. In Britain, the Conservatives have for long been derided as the “stupid party” and even the “nasty party.” Margaret Thatcher was denied an honorary doctorate by the dons of Oxford University—an astonishing act of petty-mindedness. Today, the Left-inclined cartoonists paint Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as variants of the upper-class twits portrayed in Monty Python skits. In the US, Ronald Reagan, arguably the architect of one of the most transformative presidencies after Franklin Roosevelt, was unendingly mocked for his ‘simple’ beliefs that were said to have derived more from John Wayne movies than the tomes of Adam Smith—a caricature that was also extended to George W. Bush.
In India, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s self-image as the enlightened, cosmopolitan socialist, his conservative opponents were painted as provincial bumpkins riddled with obscurantist priorities that ranged from cow protection to Ayurveda. To this was added the social disdain of the ‘progressive’ for the dhoti-clad bania, the supposed epitome of a commercially-minded ‘Hindu Right.’ When the Cambridge-educated Congress MP taunted the ‘chaiwala’ credentials of Narendra Modi he was simply mirroring attitudes the Nehruvian order tried to implant as common sense. This perverse common sense often masquerades as the modern alternative to India’s larger cultural inheritance.
The appeal of patrician socialism may well have diminished over the decades, but the projection of the ideological ‘Other’ as stupid, socially regressive and aesthetically unsound has persisted. Indeed, it has made a dramatic re-entry into the public discourse in recent months following the outbreak of the culture wars. The editorial pages of newspapers are replete with outbursts against the simple-minded ‘Hindu Right’ that has failed to understand the metaphors of Hinduism, the complexities of the historical process, diverse food habits and the ‘idea of India.’ In a recent article, a historian who made his mark in the echo chamber of Jawaharlal Nehru University asserted that the “Hindutva brigade has… failed to produce any notable professional historian. The new developments in the discipline have passed them by.” In short, the intellectual ecosystem of the Indian Right is seriously deficient and unworthy of being taken seriously by “professional” scholars.
That the Indian Right has been preoccupied with political activism rather than creating an alternative intellectual tradition isn’t in doubt. However, much of this failure can be attributed to the fact that the scholastic environment in Indian universities since the late-1960s has been unrelentingly hostile to anything inimical to the liberal and Marxist paradigm. The element of group-think was so marked that non-conformists such as the writer Nirad Chaudhury and the economist Jagdish Bhagwati found living in India quite suffocating: they became intellectual refugees from progressivism. Traditional disciplines centred on classical studies underwent such derision and neglect that Sanskrit studies survive today courtesy institutions in the West. The result: India’s ‘traditional intellectuals’ were completely marginalised from the intellectual mainstream.
It is worth remembering that this systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems didn’t take place only under British rule; the trend persisted in post-Independent India under the spurious guise of implanting a ‘scientific temper’.
That despite the absence of a level playing field, the Indian Right with a culturalist agenda (and commitment to economic deregulation) has grown exponentially over the past decades is significant. It suggests that when proffered a real choice, Indians are more inclined to put their faith in rooted traditions—particularly those grounded in traditional value systems, the family structure, collective historical memory and what can loosely be called common decencies.
For too long, Indian conservatism has been at the receiving end of condescension and caricature. It may now be time to turn the notions of stupidity upside down.
Sunday Times of India, November 1, 2015