SINCE 2014, THE India Foundation has been organising an India Ideas Conclave. An initiative of Ram Madhav, a general secretary of the BJP who I got to know when he was a functionary in the RSS, its first four sessions were held at resorts in Goa. This year, it took place at a hotel in Aerocity, Delhi.
What is unique about this event is that it sought to bring together all those individuals—writers, journalists, entrepreneurs, social media buffs and a few politicians—who constitute the Right ecosystem in India. Most of those attending are young and not always well known, and most are not BJP activists—though many were enthusiastic volunteers in the 2014 Narendra Modi campaign. More importantly, there is always a generous representation from south India and a sprinkling from the Northeast. In the early days, it was important to bring together people who were working in isolation, often in a hostile environment. Bringing them together was an act of both solidarity and reassurance, but also an important step in building alternative networks to take on the Left-liberal intellectual establishment that dominates the discourse in universities and the media.
I detected the nucleus of a Right network in the volunteers who often gave up jobs for two and three months to work for the Modi campaign across the country. They weren’t necessarily student union activists who see themselves as emerging netas. Large numbers of them were business school graduates, techies and others of similar backgrounds—there was always a deficit of liberal arts graduates. Some were driven by market economics and an abhorrence of socialist economics, others were propelled by Hindu civilisational concerns, and a few weren’t exactly sure why they were more comfortable with the Right rather than the Left.
This network would have been an invaluable asset in 2014 for any political party, and was especially so for one that—like most conservative parties across democracies—was often decried as anti-intellectual and stupid. Unfortunately, a great opportunity was lost when, after the successful election campaign, the volunteer groups were disbanded. Yes, a handful were accommodated in backroom jobs in the Government, but most went their own way to become bankers, entrepreneurs and join the ever-growing diaspora.
No doubt a new volunteer force will come into play for the 2019 General Election. Some of them will be guided by idealism and conviction. However, there is inevitably a big difference between those who sign up to help a party in power and those who do so before political power has been secured. The 2019 campaign will of course have considerable energy backed up by communications expertise. But it would have helped if there had been a more meaningful overlap from 2014.
Some hand-holding is absolutely necessary for two reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, the Left-liberal ecosystem—backed by global networks— still exercises a stranglehold. Anyone who consciously joins the Right faces sustained social opprobrium from his peer group. It is even worse for women, unless they have family connections with the BJP and RSS. Secondly, after the late 1960s— when the Left, backed by generous patronage of successive Congress governments, began its conquest of universities and other centres of the creative world, including the media and publishing—the Right was overwhelmed by an anti-intellectual tide. Creative thinking was at a discount.
Take the case of history writing, now an area where the Left has a stranglehold. Till the mid-1960s, there was a vibrant, loosely conservative tradition of historiography, presided over by stalwarts such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar and scholars from Allahabad and Kolkata. After them, there has been nothing. The field was left open for historians based in Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University to effect a radical rewriting of Indian history, including at the school level. So much so that this revisionism has become common sense. The only feeble challenge came from historians in the UK who were still infected with remnants of colonial historiography. The Right protested, but it failed to meet the challenge or even update the old traditions.
The instinctive response of the Right was a wave of anti- intellectualism. Mercifully, that is slowly changing. There is a new generation of accomplished Indians who are looking for meaningful intellectual alternatives and struggling to create alternatives. The India Foundation initiative is a small step in that direction, as is the flowering of online publications such as Swarajya.
If the Modi Government is returned to power next year, it must look beyond the worlds of technology and entrepreneurship, and also focus on the social sciences and liberal arts.