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Stamp of approval - India Today

Swapan Dasgupta ()
June 22, 1998

Title: Stamp of approval
Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: India Today
Date: June 22, 1998

It is strange, if not outright bizarre, that the mere mention of
"right wing" in India's intellectual circles is invariably
accompanied by a sneer and a slight curling of the lips. For this
astonishing feat of political correctness the credit must go to
Jawaharlal Nehru. Blessed with charisma, vision and skills of
articulation, India's first prime minister succeeded in
converting his personal predilections into conventional wisdom.
So much so that competitive politics in the world's largest
democracy was reduced to an internecine conflict between
different strands of "progressive" thought. Despite its very rich
legacy, Indian conservatism was relegated to the realms of
heresy. It just wasn't merely unfashionable, it was heretical.

Ideally, the election of a BJP-led Government at the Centre
should have turned this cosy world upside down. The BJP isn't
right wing in the same way as the Swatantra Party was. Despite
being strongly rooted in the trading community, it lacks an
autonomous economic philosophy. Its stand on the economy is
driven by its sense of nationalism. Yet, the BJP is India's only
conservative party. It is the only party that perceives change
not as an imposition from above, but as an organic improvement of
existing social institutions. To that extent, it is the closest
Indian variant of western conservatism. Neither Edmund Burke nor
Winston Churchill would have felt out of place in the BJP, though
Margaret Thatcher would never have approved its protectionist

Of course, the BJP has never seriously explored its intellectual
range. Having been nurtured in the protected Hindu-Hindi
environment of the Aryavarta, its interface with cosmopolitanism
has been uneasy. Confronted by the unrelenting hostility of the
Nehruvian order, it effected an orderly retreat into a self-
comforting world of RSS shakhas. At the root of its unwillingness
to confront the intellectual establishment was an unfamiliarity
with the western idiom. Until L.K. Advani reshaped the political
vocabulary with Ayodhya, the Sangh Parivar was intimidated by the
English language. The glib suaveness of its opponents left it
out of sorts. Consequently, it could never fully take advantage
of the end of the Left's history after the Soviet Union's
collapse. Despite its dramatic post-1989 electoral surge, the BJP
has remained an outlander at heart. It has meekly surrendered
before an insidious, left-liberal, intellectual snobbery.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has yet to muster the courage
to mount a counter-offensive. On May 11, he broke the mould of
Nehruvian foreign policy and effected a tectonic shift. Yet, he
persists with the myth of continuity, not least because he feels
that the alternative vision lacks the stamp of left-liberal
approval. On June 6, while awarding the Jnanpith prize, Vajpayee
got all squeamish when Urdu poet All Sardar Jafri questioned the
wisdom of India's nuclear policy. Instead of taking on the
disingenuous protests of a communist fellow-traveller, Vajpayee
conceded the high moral ground to Jafri. "One may differ with
his views, " he said, "but not with his vision."

Vajpayee may be complimented for his courtesy and generosity. But
such niceties are inevitably misconstrued as surrender. If he is
serious about ushering in a new order, the prime minister will
have to uncompromisingly contest the validity of the other
"vision". Having won an electoral battle, he will have to win a
more arduous intellectual war.

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