These problematic utterances, added to the longstanding image of a party associated with dynasti-
cism, cronyism, caste preferentialism and the criminalization of politics, have contributed to forging the
image of a crassly sexist, archaic political force, more in tune with the socially conservative elites that
have dominated UP politics and society over the past decades than the backward masses it claims to
represent. The evocation of the party’s ideological affiliation—socialism (‘samajwad’)—is usually met
with circumspection or sarcasm.
The question this article asks is the following: how do we account for such transformation of a party
that remains the self-proclaimed inheritor of the socialist movement in North India, which once stood up
against caste and gender inequalities and represented resistance against communal forces? Are the con-
tradictions among discourse, practice and professed ideology the result of a change of heart in the party’s
leadership, or is there a more structural explanation for the transformation of a party that initially rose to
challenge the domination of the traditional elites to incarnate the rule of the new elites of UP?
A sub-question that this article also attempts to address is to see whether the category of political
conservatism is useful in any way to characterize the trajectory of a party like the Samajwadi Party.
Political conservatism in India is usually associated with a right-wing traditionalist position infused
with religion.4 Similarly, conservatism in India is also associated with some form of upper-caste repre-
sentations grounded on religion, culture or social relations. It is also associated with forms of economic
liberal conservatism, the Swatantra Party remaining to this day its main ephemeral incarnation.
Can we find traces of conservatism in non-Hindu right and secular parties? What kind of definition or
conception of conservatism might be helpful to read their political beliefs and actions? Is there a defini-
tion or a conception of conservatism that would be helpful to differentiate between such parties, rather
than club them together under a generic label?
This article’s first contention is that to focus on party ideology would not lead very far. Ideology is a
poor marker of a party’s identity in India; which party, between the Hindu right and the left, has not
proclaimed to be pro-poor, pro-farmer and secular to some degree? What party can claim not to contain
any element of social conservatism? Parties in India have been described as pragmatists and oppor-
tunists due to the alacrity with which alliances and counter-alliances are made and un-made (Hasan,
2010; Sridharan, 2004). Ideology was also a vector of division among the socialists in North India
(Brass, 1990), or among the Dalit parties in Maharashtra (Wankhede, 2012).
The second contention is that one should not define a party from its discourse and self-representation
but from its sociology and political practices. The evolution of the sociological composition of a
party—its leadership, its cadres and elected representatives—is a good indicator of a party’s identity and
The third contention is, quite simply, that context matters. Parties trajectory and their sociology
largely derive from adaptation to the changing context of electoral competition.
This article adopts a minimalist vision of political conservatism, defined as a political philosophy that
favours a particular existing form of social and political order, in the face of external forces for change.
But rather than focusing on ideas, or philosophy, our definition of political conservatism concentrates on
practices of defending a particular social and political order. Conservatism in practice, or deed, rather
than in word.
The first section of this article deals with the origins and the ideological foundations of the Samajwadi
Party, specifically the double legacy of Rammanohar Lohia and Chaudhary Charan Singh.
4 See G. Sampath’s remarks on Ramachandra Guha’s article on the absence of conservative ideologues in India. Sampath, G. (2015).
The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-missing-conservative-intellectuals/article7461274.ece