It started with the Modi election in May 2014. The Left, intellectual or otherwise, political or economic, saw in the Modi-led BJP a threat to their monopoly over socio-economic discourse, and policy formulation. Historian Ramachandra Guha was the first (noted) intellectual lamenting the fact that the BJP (in his eyes synonymous with the “Right”) had no intellectuals, in sharp contrast to the abundance displayed in the Left camp. (“Where are India’s conservative intellectuals?”, Caravan, March 2015).
If Guha is right, then this is a fatal, and sad, commentary about the hegemony of Left-wing intellectuals. How come in the world moving away from communism, and socialism, and Left liberalism, there were no Indians, young or old, changing their view of the world? Shouldn’t the Left look inward and find out why its reign has been so unchallenged?
But Guha maybe wrong in his judgment—and indeed, there are plenty of Right-wing intellectuals in India, perhaps enough to provide a viable alternative to the Left. But all of this will be mere armchair, Twitter debate unless we define our terms carefully, and logically come to the Guha conclusion that India’s conservative intellectuals, not unlike the invisible hand, are nowhere to be seen.
I have a lot of admiration for Guha the scholar (and the cricket fanatic). Giving credit where it is due, Guha does proceed to establish his case in a logical fashion. Drawing upon history of thought, and ideas, it is necessary for him to first exclude from the definition of an Indian Conservative Intellectual (hereafter ICI) the possibility that an ICI could be socially liberal. Hence, economist Jagdish Bhagwati does not make the grade, but Arun Shourie makes it as the one and only economist member of Guha’s ICI team.
Guha then proceeds to define an ICI as a strong believer in the integration of religion (Hindu) and conservatism. Being a good scholar, Guha knows (and approvingly quotes) British conservative philosopher Robert Scruton, who reasoned “that reason and law rather than faith or religion should guide public affairs”. But in his endeavour to define an ICI as an RSS ideologue, Guha has to reject the Scruton vision of a conservative and define the ICI thus: “For British conservatives such as Scruton, the dominant religion is merely one of several factors in nurturing a national ethos… In the modern Indian variety of conservatism, religion plays an even more hegemonic role than in the American or Protestant variety. The core of Indian nationhood is premised here on the centrality of the Hindu religion”.
So, the conservative Right in India is religious (Hindu), and nationalistic. How does Guha establish that? By asserting that “the conservative tradition in India, enunciated by the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the ideologues associated with these groups, believes that nationhood is intricately bound up with religious affiliation.”
Proceeding with his search for the null finding that there are no right intellectuals in India, Guha is forced to make the following distinction: “Marxists insisted on the primacy of class; socialists on the primacy of caste; liberals on the primacy of the individual”. However, according to many, conservatism is an emphasis on individual rights, something they share in abundance with liberals. And there are plenty of conservatives who are not very religious and who do not believe in false nationalism as ordained by the Supreme Court (standing up for the National Anthem in movie theatres).
The Guha reasoning process is now complete. First, define the distinction between ideologue and conservative. Then do away with religion not being part of conservative intellectual thought in the world, but being a necessary part of conservative thought in India. Then define a political organisation, the RSS, as being full of “ideologues”. Nowhere in his 11,500-word article, with seven occasions in which the word “ideologue” is used, does Guha not once refer to the possibility that Left-wing social scientists, can ever be ideologues or “ideological”.
Hence, Guha’s denouement—no conservative intellectuals in India. And just so that no one misses his goal, the conclusion: “for the Sangh and its ideologues represent not conservatism, but bigotry and reaction.”
An economist cannot be a Right intellectual because she is socially liberal. Hence, among Right-wing economists, Guha finds only Arun Shourie to be conservative. A non-religious intellectual cannot be Right-wing because while that is expected in England, it is not the expectation for India, because Guha defines it to be so. Voila! No Right-wing intellectuals in India.
This conclusion is dependent on the false equality between Right-wing intellectualism and belonging to the RSS. The two can be quite separate, and should be evaluated on their own merits. If Guha had done so, he would have found that there is no difference in the economic vision of the Left or the RSS right.
Guha might have added, and would have been right in doing so, that the so-called right in India, has a strong moral undertone in its thinking. But I want to emphasise—false constructs of conservatism is not the exclusive preserve of the Left. Noted “Right-wing” professor at JNU and head of India Policy Foundation, Rakesh Sinha, confirms the identity between the Left and the non-economic Right on all matters related to economic policy.(“First Economic Satyagraha”, The Indian Express, December 10, 2016).
Sinha believes that India has been hurt by the neo-liberal economic reforms. According to him, India took a decisive turn for the worse with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1991. And that Modi’s demonetisation policy is the first economic battle for the “truth”. In his own words, “black money took off with the neo-liberal turn to the Indian economy in 1991.” And in common with Guha, he is eager to show that he has thought things through, and therefore defines away the cobwebs. “ Neoliberalism, a version of the 19th century politico-economic philosophy of laissez faire, enhances the wealth of a few and makes the majority subservient to the market, while making the state an executive of big business and capital.”
There is a way to test the veracity of Sinha’s thought. Both the Left and the RSS right dedicate all their thoughts towards elimination of poverty. No different than Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao. Not much poverty was reduced in India until the arrival of “neo-liberalism”. This neo-liberalism, initiated in 1991 by the PV Narasimha Rao-led Congress government, with Manmohan Singh as the finance minister, represented the explicit rejection of state-directed socialist doctrine that allowed India to begin its ascent towards a modern society, and now, hopefully, a less cash-intensive one.
During the first 40 years of our Independence, absolute poverty in India stayed nearly as constant as the socialist religiosity of the Left or the nationalist religiosity of the Right. With the advent of Sinha’s “neo-liberalism” in 1991, the poor began to benefit the most, such that by 2011-12, absolute poverty in India was down to 12.4 % of the population, according to the World Bank. By the World Bank poverty line, and estimation, absolute poverty in China was down to 9% in 2010. In other words, neo-liberalism had delivered progress for the poor in neo-liberal India as in state-led China. In both countries, poverty reduction proceeded at one of the fastest rates ever recorded.
But, wait a minute, the Left-Right “intellectuals” state, this poverty reduction statistic is wrong because it is according to an international definition, and one which is not sensitive to individual country cultural and social differences. Well, both should know that the World Bank poverty line is identical to the very Indian Tendulkar poverty line!
Proceeding towards the present, and future. Sinha opines that the BJP policy of demonetisation (what he terms economic satyagraha) “should be the beginning of a revision intended to humanise the market… It is up to Modi and his team whether they use the measure as a philosophical correction to neo-liberalism or just as a random programme.”
Where Sinha is right in his assessment that the way the BJP government goes post-demonetisation will define India for decades to come. I am hopeful that demonetisation was not random, and that future policies will reflect true “conservative intellectual rightness”. Like Guha, I also define my own terms—conservative intellectual rightness is no different than classic liberal thought, a definition that excludes the Left intellectuals, but includes the Right liberals.
The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and senior India analyst at Observatory Group, a New York-based macro policy advisory group. Views are personal