Liberalism in India

The first elections I followed with considerable interest were the 2004 general elections. I was still in high school, bred on Ayn Rand’s books. Rand is an attractive guide when one is just beginning to navigate the terrains of philosophy, if for no other reason than that she attempts to present a comprehensive system of philosophy dealing with questions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and even aesthetics. By the time the next general elections arrived in 2009, I had gotten over Howard Roark, libertarianism and radical capitalism. I had traded in libertarianism for liberalism and found my views on how to run the economy veering from the right to the centre left. The 2014 general elections, while affirming an overwhelming support for the agenda set by one political party, put a number of issues ranging from economic development and inclusive growth, secularism and crony capitalism centre-stage. The reason I delve briefly into my personal history with general elections in India is that they have both been a harbinger for and served as a background to my attempts to locate myself within the philosophical paradigms that surround us. The 2014 elections, more than ever before, prevailed upon me to truly attempt to define where I stood.

As I followed the last elections, I realised that I shared a number of my concerns about the BJP and its campaign with other detractors who I spoke to in person or read in print. However, aside from our concerns on the candidate’s communal past, his closeness to a few industrial houses, the propensity of the RSS to infringe on our social liberties and whether the development agenda would be inclusive, there was not much that united us in what we stood for.  This reminded me of Steve Almond, the American writer who, in a New York Times article, spoke about a rampant culture of complaint and little else amongst liberals. I remember engaging in numerous arguments against Anna Hazare and his supporters advocating the Jan Lokpal Bill on the web. While I was cogent in my understanding of why the Jan Lokpal Bill was a bad idea, I was made aware of the fact that I did not have an alternative solution or even a considered view about thinking about the problems that it intended to solve. So-called liberals in this country get a bad name, sometimes deservedly so, for this exact same reason. By only choosing to identify what we oppose and not what we espouse, we are unwitting participants in perpetuating the right wing agenda we oppose and also lower the standard of our civic discourse and the level of public debate. I qualify the term ‘liberal’ with the phrase ‘so-called’ because this umbrella term often lumps together a multitude of viewpoints (sometimes even, the lack thereof) without really enquiring into what liberalism entails. In this essay, I will attempt to expound what liberalism is, and where we can situate it in terms of the national discourse in India, and how its relation to another amorphous term, ‘Nehruvianism’ complicates our understanding of it.

The way we understand the term ‘liberal’ probably goes back to the 18th century Scottish historian William Robertson. Until Robertson, liberal was used in non-political contexts such as ‘liberal arts’. In 1769, Robertson’s book, History of the Reign of Emperor Charles was published in which liberal takes a political colour. Adam Smith, in 1776, used the word in a similar sense in his magnum opus, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. However, liberalism as a political philosophy can trace its roots to John Locke and his theory of natural rights about a century earlier in 1689. Locke’s significant work was in extending Hobbes’ social contract theory to include certain inviolate natural rights which would temper the absolutism in governments. This was the beginning of the theory of what we now know as classical liberalism. Over the next two centuries, liberalism came to be characterised by the primacy of the rights of the individual with particular attention to the protection of minority rights, the right of property and the obligation on governments to protect it and limited the role of constitutional government. Theorists such as Montesquieu and James Madison were instrumental in formulating systems to limit the powers of government through the notion of separation of powers and checks and balances. Since the age of Enlightenment, the values of liberalism have been at play to a large or small extent in various political movements like the Glorious Revolution in Britain, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the overthrow of the Czars in Russia, the Indian struggle for independence, to name but a few. Lord Acton defined a liberal as a person ‘whose polar star is liberty, who deems those things right in politics which, taken all round, promote, increase, perpetuate freedom, and those things wrong which impede it.’ This emphasis on individual freedom, gradually developed into an idea that individuals have inalienable rights to use their bodies, and property in any manner they choose, so long as they respect the equal freedom of others. Robert Nozick has been one of the most influential recent advocates of classical liberalism.

Over time, internal debates emerged with liberalism. To begin with, the emphasis was on a limited role of the government which allowed the individuals to lead their lives with optimum freedom. However, with time, a new breed of liberalism called social liberalism emerged. Beginning with the 19th century, theorists like Thomas Green Hill and John Hobson emphasised on the duties of individuals to promote the common good. Moving away from the laissez faire economics advocated by Adam Smith, liberalism gradually became synonymous with the idea of a welfare state characterised by a mixed economy. This is often confusing as there is constant tension between redistribution of wealth and private property, statism and limited government leading to an epistemological chaos with conflicting values seemingly co-existing. For instance, a popular understanding of a present day liberal is one who is for individual freedom when its comes to social and cultural issues, and statism when is comes to economic issues. On the other hand, a conservative is generally seen as one who is for statism when it comes to social and cultural issues and free market when it comes to economic issues. This, however is a far too simplistic assessment of things.

Ronald Dworkin sees this schism in the two forms of liberalism largely built around whether one gives greater primacy to the neutrality of the government or equality. This, to me is a useful way of looking at liberalism and what it seeks to protect. The primary tenet of the classical liberalism has to do with the government interfering as little as possible in the lives of  individuals. Dworkin calls this ideal the lack of normative value or moral judgement in governmental action, where the primary role of the government is to be neutral and all egalitarian measures flow upon satisfying this prerequisite of neutrality. The other view puts greater value on equality which is seen as primary to the idea of liberalism, and whether neutrality is required is dictated by the needs of achieving equality. John Rawls and Dworkin insist on the equality of resources as the fundamental tenet of liberalism, which applies not only to economic but also to social and cultural issues.  Rawls posited that policy decisions should be made by people in their ‘original position’ behind a ‘veil of ignorance.’ This method, called reflective equilibrium, ensures that decisions are always taken keeping in mind the interests of the worst off members of the society. Rawls himself called it the left liberalism.

Much like liberal traditions in the west have developed in response to the problems first of monarchy and absolutism, and later of inequality with growing industrialisation, the liberal traditions in India have much to do with our colonial past. Indian liberalism is often traced to Raja Rammohun Roy, who while not expressly identifying himself as a liberal, stood for a lot of values that the liberals treasure. Roy campaigned vigorously not only for the abolishment of Sati, but also for property rights for women, banning child marriage, education as means of social reform and freedom of press. While Roy’s generation worked largely around issues of social reform, the liberal way of thinking was inherited by the likes of Naraoji, Ranade and Gokhale. The Indian liberals never fully accepted the non-interventionist role of government espoused by the classical liberals, and the idea of individual rights was tempered to a more Indian understanding of the society aspiring towards common good. The experience with the British promotion of free trade which had led to the exploitation and ruination of many indigenous industries had left the Indian liberals wary of laissez faire. It is within these contexts that liberalism developed in India.

Ideologically, the period from the creation of Indian National Congress in 1885 till the independence in 1947 was a very interesting time. Political ideology developed in response to the colonial subjugation of the country, and the primary focus was on attaining self-rule rather than a particular form of rule. This allowed various forms of political theories to exist in parallel within the Congress, ranging from system of constitutional reforms promoted by Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das, socialism and militancy as means to a classless society advocated by Subhas Chandra Bose’s Forward Bloc and a unique cocktail of libertarianism, anarchism and passive aggressive politics practiced by Gandhi. Unlike the west, another unique feature of political philosophy was that it was not based on authoritative text which articulated clear principles. Ram Guha mentions in his essay, ‘The Absent Liberal’ that liberalism in India was a sensibility and not a theory. Leading theorists in the west were not the guiding lights for political movement in India, rather it grew an an intellectual response to the unique experiences of a large and diverse country. At some time during the last quarter of this period, Fabianism, which believed in achieving the goals of socialism but through gradual and peaceful means rather than bloody revolution, became the political language of Nehru and his supporters. At the time of independence, the likes of Patel and Rajagopalachari were strong counterpoints to Nehru’s Fabianism. However, the death of Patel in 1950 and the marginalisation of Rajagopalachari in the next few years coupled with Nehru’s immense popularity made this particular form of Fabian socialism the dominant political philosophy of a young, independent India.

Alongside we also see the emergence of another intentionally vague term, ‘Nehruvian’. It may be a bit much to call it a political philosophy. Amit Chaudhary, in his essay ‘Argufying’ calls it “the political expression for a particular kind of humanist discourse”, not the most elegant of descriptions but I am at pains to find a more satisfactory one. While Nehruvianism is a kind of worldview, its has most definite Indian underpinnings. Ramachandra Guha ascribes values such as social tolerance, respect for democratic procedure and a pluralistic idea of India divorcing it from a religious or linguistic identity. It also speaks of a certain kind of rationality represented best in the articulation for a need to develop a scientific temper in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Indian Constitution. In this sense, Nehruvian-ism was different from both an imperialistic reading of India, and the later nationalist reading which emerged as a response to it. Both of these schools of thought emphasised on the religious and spiritual nature of India, viewing it as anti-rational or culturally-rich, depending on their point of convenience. Nehruvian thinking, on the other hand, stepped away from the discourse of India’s cultural heritage as the site of struggle, and evolved through the responses to the unique challenges of making a nation out of a population of diverse identities, lack of institutions, an economy in ruins, and grave economic inequality.

Nehru’s liberalism, if it can be called that, was always more in the mould of social or left liberalism – statist with emphasis on social equality. Yet, the original tenets of liberalism which sought to safeguard individual liberty, particularly in the social and cultural spheres see no strong proponents in India’s political history. The impact of the dominance of Nehruvian discourse in the early decaded after independence was that liberalism got subsumed within it, both in the popular imagination and academic writings. The perceived failures of Nehru –in the eyes of economic right, creating a state controlled economy; and in the eyes of the left, not being able to push through socialist policies like land reforms completely– have unfortunately been projected on liberalism as well. For a while, the Swatantra Party played a lone hand taking on proposals such as the 42nd amendment, the ‘liberation’ of Goa, bank nationalisation and state monopoly on various sectors. However, post 1970s, the party had a miniscule following. This is a reflection of where liberalism has stood in the hierarchy of political values in India’s modern history. A number of policies that the liberals in the Swatantra Party fought against have been reversed. But, this has happened not through a serious espousal of liberalism but expedience or pressures of crony capitalism. Perhaps, the strongest proponent of the liberal philosophy in India has been the Constitution of India, still, more or less intact in its social liberal underpinnings.

As lamented in Guha’s essay, Gokhale’s missing portrait from the Senate Hall of University of Pune points to the lack of a popular liberal narrative in Indian politics. For instance, the Congress led UPA government brought in a range of measures like CMS, NATGRID and NETRA which will facilitate greater surveillance of its citizens, and the BJP led NDA government has questioned the foundation of privacy as constitutional right. What we see is greater state control when it comes to individual and social rights and liberties, and an egregious blend of license raj and crony capitalism when it comes to economic issues. As potential constituents of liberal interest groups, the onus is on us to identify and articulate not just what we are against, but a cogent understanding on what we stand for.


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