For the first time in independent India’s history, a general election has brought a conservative party with a clear-cut parliamentary majority to office. Although scores of analysts have weighed in about what that party -- the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- will do next, three other questions have gone unanswered. First, why has India never had a sizeable conservative party of any consequence? Second, why has it taken the country over six decades to elect a conservative regime? Third, what are the prospects for conservatism in India in the future?

To answer the first two questions, one must look back to the structures of the pre-independence Indian nationalist movement and its principal party, the Indian National Congress. Thanks to the INC’s dominance, there was little room for outside conservative groups to play a role in the nascent nationalist movement. That remained true even after independence. Things got worse for the conservatives in 1948, when Nathuram Godse, a member of one of the new India’s small conservative parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. He believed that Gandhi had contributed to the partition of India, which was anathema to Hindu nationalists. Thereafter, Hindu Mahasabha was discredited in the political arena; many of its key members were arrested and incarcerated, and the party withdrew from politics. Its militant arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was also banned for a year. Faced with such external opprobrium and internal differences, the party could not emerge as a feasible conservative force.

Another reason for India’s lack of a mass conservative movement is that, as Rajni Kothari, an Indian political scientist, argued, in its post-independence incarnation, the INC was an umbrella organization. Under its banner, individuals and groups with a wide range of political and ideological persuasions thrived; the party boasted pro-socialist elements, namely Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharaya Narendra Deva,  as well as ardent advocates of free enterprise, for example Morarji Desai. To be sure, those factions fought doggedly for their viewpoints within the Congress Party, as it is commonly called, but they didn’t split apart. Their common commitment to democratic discourse, Nehru’s towering influence, and the party’s robust organizational apparatus made sticking with the Congress Party worthwhile. Indeed, many conservatives viewed staying in the Congress Party as the best way to influence policy.  

It was only in 1959 that a prominent conservative leader, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, broke ranks with the Congress Party and formed a truly right-leaning party. Rajagopalachari had grown tired of Congress Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist leanings and, feeling unable to sway him, decided to strike out on his own. He built the Swatantra (Freedom) Party, which championed market reforms, was dubious about India’s Cold War foreign policy of nonalignment, and was unabashedly pro-Western.

Three years after Nehru’s death, in 1967, the Swatantra Party had its best-ever showing, winning a still-pitiful nine percent of the popular vote and 44 seats in parliament. It simply lacked the Congress Party’s vast organizational machine and its network of local leaders and powerful business interests. But what really hurt the party was that it was unable to convince significant segments of the electorate that it could usher in a better economic future. In a country awash in poverty, Congress’ pledges of socialism simply held more attraction that Swatantra’s stated goal of drawing down expensive government programs.

Throughout the 1970s, Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalized banks and other industries and made dramatic promises to abolish poverty. These policies were relatively popular, and the Swatantra Party’s prospects dimmed further. In 1974, it merged into a wider anti-Congress alliance, Bharatiya Lok Dal, effectively expunging itself from the political arena. For its part, the Bharatiya Lok Dal was composed of such disparate parties that it was never able to become much of an ideological threat to the Congress Party.  

Over the next few decades, Indian politics hung on the Congress Party’s missteps and successes. Under Indira Gandhi, the party faced steady organizational decline thanks to her attempts to centralize political power and her reliance on a coterie of trusted loyalists. Regional parties came on to the scene and, to head them off and to deal with various financial emergencies, in the 1990s the Congress Party shed some of its socialist ideological shibboleths and partially embraced the market.

And that marked the beginning of the end of any ideological coherence in Indian politics. Indian voters would have been hard-pressed to explain what Congress Party actually stood for in those days, and no other party successfully articulated a lucid economic and political alternative. Even when the BJP came to power as the head of a coalition in 1999, it dwelled inordinately on its pro-Hindu credentials and little else. This form of primordial nationalism, although not without some appeal, could not serve as the basis for a genuine right-wing party that would have nationwide appeal.

When the BJP lost power in 2004 -- in considerable measure because of its poor choices in coalition partners, its enchantment with its slogans (rather than real policies) about India’s miraculous economic growth, and its excessive emphasis on its pro-Hindu ideology. A Congress Party–led coalition returned, and an odd amalgam of populist policies and unsteady steps toward market reforms dominated New Delhi. That coalition’s second term, of course, was plagued by policy paralysis, allegations of widespread corruption, and anemic economic growth -- which proved to be the Congress Party’s undoing.

Under Narendra Modi, former chief minister of Gujarat, the BJP has filled the vacuum left by the Congress Party. His Hindu nationalist credentials have been commented on at length, as has his success in dramatically boosting the economy of Gujarat, his home state, through the adoption of market-friendly policies and swift decision-making. He has the potential, then, to evolve into an authentically conservative leader. It is evident that he won this election so handsomely not merely because of the rank ineptitude of Congress but also because he sketched out a vision of an economically vibrant India.

For Modi and the BJP to succeed as a real conservative force, the government must, at a bare minimum, generate economic growth by creating conducive conditions for both foreign and domestic investment, reviving stalled infrastructural policies, and creating a more transparent tax regime -- thereby improving the life chances of India’s massive youth population. A party that offers the prospect of prosperity for all may finally provide India’s electorate an attractive alternative to the namby-pamby socialist policies of the past decades.

Meanwhile, to build a truly mass base, the BJP will have to abandon its emphasis on Hindu nationalism. Hinduism, let alone Indian society at large, is far too heterogeneous to be steamrolled into a monolithic political ideology. The BJP tried to pursue such a strategy in the late 1990s when in office and then was dismayed when the public gave it the boot. There is little reason to believe that things would play out differently this time.

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  • SUMIT GANGULY is a Professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • More By Sumit Ganguly