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Any Hope for Indian Liberals?

by Sharad Joshi, President of the Swatantra Bharat Party India. Liberal Times 4/95 (1995)

The ancient “Vedanta” tradition was a cradle of liberal tenets. The liberalism of ancient India, however, got suppressed under successive foreign rulers. Even the forces that came along with the freedom movement were all statist in the sense that they all favoured a strong interventionist state and even Gandhi’s anarchism proved to be little more than a scoring point with them. Today, with the fall of the Nehruvian model, there still seems to be little hope for the liberal democrats. With the Government itself resorting to blatantly populist measures, a serious programme of liberalisation would require the restoration of law and order, clearance of the Aegean stables of the judiciary, further pruning of the forest of economic regulations, dismantling of the bureaucracy, restoration of fundamental rights under the constitution and the working out of a reasonable exit policy.


Liberalism is far from being the dominant or even the mainstream school of thought in India. Worse still, most consider liberalism as an idea imported from abroad and as being derogatory to national pride. Within the country, the cry goes, that liberalism suits the convenience of the affluent and the strong minority and militates against the welfare security net that the weaker masses of the society need so badly. The defunct Nehruvian socialism is being replaced not by the vibrant forces of liberal entrepreneurship but by lumpen chauvinistic and communal jingoism.

The liberals, on the other hand, are handicapped under the electoral laws which require that to be eligible for registration and recognition, parties must swear allegiance to socialism and so reaffirm in a specific affidavit before the Election Commission. The situation is serious and fraught with grave consequences. If India goes the wrong way, even temporarily, the cost could be very high and the long term consequences could well spread to other regions as well.

Seven Centuries of Liberal Eclipse

Is it true that liberalism is an alien transplant on Indian soil? Liberal writers are partly to be blamed for this mistaken impression. Most of them come from the city-based, English speaking westernised class of elites. In their writings, they trace the beginnings of liberalism to J. S. Mill and Adam Smith and of Indian liberalism to Dadabhai Naoroji, Gokhale, Ram Mohan Roy, Narmad, Phule, Agarkar etc. These great masters remained briefly on the centre stage in the early days of British rule between 1860 and 1920, and were swept aside by the tide of nationalist-chauvinist and socialist forces. Liberal writers have left an impression that the pre-British indigenous culture was one of despotic authority tyrannising subjects resigned to their preordained fate. Apart from being untrue, this notion has given rise to a broad feeling that this alien phenomenon is unlikely to take roots here.

The ‘despotic rulers and tyrannised masses’ scenario certainly fits the situation prevailing in India after Muslim invasions in the 13th century. Aggressors can never rule a conquered territory through liberal democracy.

Power in occupied territories, not only political but also educational, economic or even cultural, tends to get centred in the political government. Liberalism in India got stamped out as far as the non-Muslim subjects were concerned, except perhaps at the village level.

Cradle of Liberal Tenets

That does not mean liberalism was unknown to India. In fact, there is reason to believe that ancient India was the cradle of tenets that form the core of modern-day liberalism. The traditional Indian societies were generally pluralistic. The King - Kshatriya by caste - was the unquestioned sovereign who was venerated as the very incarnation of Super-God ‘Vishnu’ but had little to do with the affairs of learning and of trade. Rajaji was fond of quoting a Gujarati proverb meaning, ‘Where the King is trader, his subjects are paupers’.

This poly-centrism may not, because of its caste basis, pass modern day scrutiny; but it constituted, at least in theory, a rare combination of muzzled monarchy and social prestige divorced from both wealth and power. The reality might not have been exactly as rosy as all that, but that such values were cherished at all so early in history is itself remarkable when compared to the situation then prevailing in Europe, China or Japan.

The liberalism of ancient Indian society does not appear to have been limited to superficial social and political structures. The ancient ‘Vedanta’ philosophy comes very close to the philosophical assumptions of modern liberalism - the uniqueness of individuals, rejection of absolutism, scepticism of authority and trust in the efficacy of competition.

The ‘Vedanta’ system held the material world to be illusory and refuted all claims of authority by temporal institutions claiming divine contacts. Truth, beauty and goodness represent eternal pursuits - paths and not stations - on which even the mighty ‘Shiva’ wades his way. Secondly, every individual charts his own course in life according to his inner inspiration. Despite the illusory nature of all existence, one is not to renounce action but pursue with full devotion all undertakings without any attachment. Thirdly, there is no contradiction between the unitary and the holistic. The inspiration of an individual is consistent with the objective of the Universe. All intermediaries like Church and Planning Commissions are pointless and counterproductive.

The tyranny of a monarch or of a church would have been inconceivable in the ‘Vedanta’ society. It is a pity that those wise men sought to increase their degrees of freedom through abstinence rather than through generation of affluence. This made them vulnerable to attacks by barbarian hordes. Worse still, they succumbed to the vain glory that they had come to the end of history and could not do better than continue in static equilibrium till the end of time. Thus, they ordained the disastrous caste system - division of labour by accident of birth - resulting in internal contradictions that were to prove so disastrous.

Plethora of Statists

The British who, unlike the Muslim invaders had a liberal background, established the rule of law and in many ways treated India as a laboratory of model-building. After the revolt of 1857, they limited their rule to administration and colonial exploitation. Maintenance of the Raj, naturally, had overriding priority. Consequently British rule, though soft by colonial standards, was far from being a liberal democracy.

The coming of the British gave rise to the grand masters of Indian liberalism, who generally held the view that freedom without equality would be pointless and that a period of probation under the British would help remove the iniquities of Indian society. It would also give birth to a genuine nation of unified people in a new era of freedom. But there were other schools which pandered to popular chauvinistic cravings more effectively.

Firstly, there were a number of socio-religious reformist movements which argued that there was nothing basically wrong with Hindu society. All it needed was some face-lift and a few corrections here and there. Hindus were divided and needed to be forged into unity through community activities. These movements promoted various activities like community or mass prayers on the lines of the Christian prayers and Muslim ‘namaz’. This was tantamount to abandoning of the essence of the Hindu’s individualistic relationship with one’s personal God. There were others like Tilak who used worship of God Ganesha mobilisation.

Secondly, there were movements that sought to glorify indigenous traditions and history in order to concretise the idea of a Hindu Nation- yet another attempt to follow the example of the victors. They were ostensibly upholding Hinduism, but in fact jettisoning its precious core. The present day communal forces - Bhartiya Janata Party, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena et al. - are descendants of these movements.

A third force that sprung up was basically a reaction to the attempts of the high-castes to arrogate to themselves the leadership of Hindu people including those castes and communities that were not allowed to enter Hindu temples or to touch Hindu scriptures. These were denied all access to education, to a decent livelihood and were considered untouchable. Ambedkar, Periyar Ramaswami Naicker and others organised certain castes and communities from the backward classes. The oppressed communities have traditionally been artisans and largely selfemployed workers. A programme for the destrangulation of village industries would have been appropriate for the general advancement of these people. It is strange that the leaders of the oppressed classes failed to evolve an economic programme of this type. To this date, the modern day descendants of this movement are infatuated with the reservation of jobs.

Gandhi represented a platform much truer to Hindu thought that upheld at the same time some sort of ecumenism - the identity of all faiths. The Mahatma worked actively for social reform, propounded a village based constructive programme for economic advancement and introduced a spiritual dimension in political activity which was to become his hallmark. Truth and non-violence were his creed and he was opposed to the very idea of a state which could not exist without violence. Gandhi was as close as one can come to the idea of an anarchist society. Faced with the harsh realities of life, he made concessions and compromises in his later years to such an extent that he accepted at one stage the need to nationalise all basic industries. Nevertheless, Gandhism essentially stood for minimal and decentralised government.

The Russian revolution, claims of socio-economic achievements by the new czars there and their anti-imperialist tirades had struck a sympathetic chord and endeared socialism to the Indian masses as also intellectuals. The Congress Socialist Party was formed within the Congress itself and Nehru himself was full of socialist effervescence since his visits to the USSR. Socialism in India meant not nationalisation but rather ownership by the toiler. But the State was to be the instrument of this transformation.

Socialist Brand of Statism

In sum, the “Vedanta” tradition of liberalism got suppressed under successive foreign rulers and the forces that came along with the freedom movement were all statist in the sense that they relied on the state to be instrumental in the desired transformation. All of them favoured a strong interventionist state. Gandhi’s anarchism proved to be little more than a scoring point. Independent India, instead of marking the first step in the direction of dissolution of the state, as the Mahatma envisioned, became an infamous example of a licence-permit regime with all its inevitable consequences : poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, indebtedness, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, criminalisation of politics et al.

Decline and Fall of the Nehruvian model

The end of the cold war pulled the rug from under the feet of many a tin-pot socialist regime. The Nehruvian socialist edifice had begun to crumble. This ought to gladden the hearts of all freedom-loving people who have suffered for almost half a century under the heels of a moth eaten planning regime which worked, in effect, as crony-capitalism - everything is banned unless you have the necessary contacts. Unfortunately, they find themselves caught between the devil and the deep sea.

The fall of the socialist brand of statists holds little promise for liberal democrats. The socialists are fighting a not so valiant last ditch battle advocating welfare programmes, protection of the environment and a policy of doles. The economic impasse has caused disillusionment in the public mind about the capacity of any government to do any collective good.

The situation is very similar to the post-Versailles situation in Germany. The Foreign exchange crisis that forced the Government to start talking of economic reforms has been overcome, at least for the time being, without any improvement in the balance of trade. The fiscal deficit is running uncontrolled. Political stability is a thing of the past. It only needs one reversal, economic or political, to put the people in a mood to welcome any comic-book Hitler. A good number of aspirants are already hovering around stoking the tires of age-old animosities and preaching communal and caste hatred.

Prospects for the Liberals?

Out of the various political forces which emerged after the advent of the Raj, the anarchist Gandhian school has fallen by the wayside and become irrelevant. Nehruvian socialism stands discredited but the dynasty continues to be venerated all the same. Left-of-centre parties are trying to sensitise the nation on the issue of ‘reverse injustice’ through reservation of jobs in a bureaucracy that has become the most difficult burden for the country. It is the Hindu chauvinistic parties capitalising on issues like desecration or demolition of this temple or that, the absence of a common civil code, Bangladesh immigrants, status of Jammu & Kashmir etc. that appear to be benefiting from the situation.

The Hindu political parties are understandably taking a protectionist position in the economic programme to reinforce their patriotic image. They are drawing good response to their opposition to the entry of multinationals into India. The 1996 elections are expected to bring in a hung parliament unless there are some unforeseen developments on the communal or Kashmir fronts.

Where do the liberals forces stand in all this? Organising liberals is almost a contradiction in terms and, hence, a formidable task in any country. How does one set about organising highly individualistic people opposed to the very idea of authority?

Rajaji who had a very high standing among the followers of Gandhi and who became the first Indian Governor-General of Independent India, had correctly foreseen the disaster that Nehru’s license-permit-inspector Raj would produce. He founded the first liberal political party in India, the ‘Swantantra Party’. It started off well but was swept out in the Indira wave after the Bangladesh triumph in 1971.

In 1994, an attempt was made to create a new liberal party - ‘Swantantra Bharat’. It polled over a million votes in the state Assembly elections of Maharashtra but secured only two seats in the Assembly. Its chances in the forthcoming parliamentarv elections are negligible since it cannot even register itself without dishonestly swearing false allegiance to socialism.

The economic reforms have come to a grinding halt, the Government considers itself under an obligation to take recourse to blatantly populist measures. A serious Programme of liberalisation will need to restore law and order, to clear the Aegean stables of the judiciary, to cut down the forest of economic regulations, to dismantle bureaucracy, to restore fundamental rights under the constitution and to work out a reasonable exit policy. Such a formidable agenda would require a very strong Government. There is no prospect of this happening in the near or distant future.

In fact, very few appear to be interested in a liberal polity. The beneficiaries of the Socialist epoch are trying hard to thwart reforms in every possible way. The political leaders have got used to earning commissions for securing governmental favours. Industrialists think they cannot do without state protection. Employees with their cushy jobs and side incomes want the bureaucracy to expand and are not enthusiastic about privatisation. Mafias control politicians and governments, and would not like to see their underground empires demolished through liberalisation. The only two categories of people who would be interested in liberalisation and globalization would be the farmers who have suffered hefty negative subsidies and consumers who have been fleeced by the socialist monopolist and have had to pay exorbitant prices for shoddy goods. The prospects are far from bright.

History - Indian Liberals’ Only Ally

But History has ample evidence that liberty blossoms in the most unexpected of places and at seemingly impossible times. The world is moving towards demolishing walls that have fragmented and distorted the world. India could not remain for long an island of statism. Indian history shows that people believe in minimal decencies and are capable of fighting against tyrants if a Gandhi comes along. An Indian Hitler will have to be exceptionally lucky to survive for any length of tine. This much hope ought to be enough for seekers of liberty and equality.