The Roots and Varieties of Political Conservatism in India

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Subject MatterSpecial Section: Conservatism
The Roots and Varieties of
Political Conservatism in India
Christophe Jaffrelot1
A country that has not gone through a revolution, India has been the crucible of several reform
movements as early as the nineteenth century. But none of them intended to break with the past.
They even sometimes prepared the ground for revivalism. In parallel, Hindu traditionalism developed
in reaction to social and cultural change. In the twentieth century, these schools of thought found
political expressions in the Congress party where they inhibited the fights against the caste system
and land reform. These trends continued after 1947, in reaction to Nehruvian views, till conservative
Congressmen created the Swatantra party and then the Congress (O).
Conservatism, reformism, Congress, caste, land reform, C. Rajagopalachari
While conservatism has been considered as a significant school of thought in the history of ideas in the
West—see the importance of Edmund Burke in British and American political philosophy—this ‘ism’
has remained understudied in India. This may be due to the fact that no political party claimed to be
‘conservative’ (like the Tories in UK) and that very few public intellectuals claimed to be ones (for a
recent case, see Dasgupta, 2015).2
In this introduction, two sets of criteria pertaining to social and cultural attitudes will be used for
defining conservatism: the resilience of non-individualistic values (related to the extended family ethos
and caste hierarchies) and attachment to a religious worldview (reflected in the observation of traditional
rituals and the valourization of ancient beliefs).
These two attitudes were bound to resist change in India simply because India is one of the few
countries in the world where no revolution took place. The revolutionary movement not only could not
prevail but crystallized rather late in the twentieth century. Bhagat Singh himself declared in the 1920s:
In spite of all my efforts, I could not nd any revolutionary party that had clear ideas as to what they were ghting
for … Revolution necessarily implies the programme of systematic reconstruction of society on new and better
adapted basis, after complete destruction of the existing state of affairs. (Singh, 2007, p. 172)
Note: This Introduction and the following articles constitute special section on Indian conservatism. Remaining articles on this
theme would appear in next issue of SIP.
1 Senior Research Fellow, CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, France.
2 While the Swatantra Party was conservative—as we will see below—it used ‘liberty’ in its name.
Corresponding author:
Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, 56 rue Jacob, 75006 Paris, France.
Studies in Indian Politics
5(2) 205–217
© 2017 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023017727968

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