Published in Freedom First Magazine 1996, the following article by Mr. Sharad Joshi offers valuable insights on liberalism in India vis-a-vis its past, present and future. The author who was himself a liberal farmer leader and parliamentarian reflects on liberalism in ancient India and the lessons it has for liberals today.
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, 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 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. Socialism is yielding place to fascism and the fastest riding comets on the Indian horizon flaunt unabashedly their admiration for Hitler.
The liberals, on the other hand, are handicapped under the electoral laws which require that to be eligible for registration and recognition political 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 if temporarily, the cost could be very high and the long term consequences could well spread to other regions as well. The doctrine as also the ‘realpolitik’ of liberalism in India would bear close scrutiny.
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 western-cultured 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, Raja Rammohan Roy, Narmad, Phule, Agarkar, et al. 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-chauvinistic and socialist forces. Liberal writers have left an impression that the pre-British indigenous culture was one of despotic authority tyrannizing 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 root here. Indian liberals are, at least partly, responsible for their predicament.
The ‘despotic rulers and tyrannized masses’ scenario certainly fit the situation in India after the 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 and 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.
Early Polycentred Society
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. 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 power over the seats of learning and over the poor but scholarly brahmins. Rajaji was fond of quoting a Gujarati proverb meaning, ‘Where the king is a trader his subjects are paupers’. The political head had little to do in matters of learning and trade.
This polycentrism 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 fully as rosy as all that; that such values were cherished at all so early in history is itself remarkable even when compared to the situation then prevailing in Europe, China or Japan.
Cradle of Liberal Tenets
The liberalism of ancient Indian society does not appear to have been limited to superficial social and political structures. The ancient Indians, particularly of the mainstream ‘Vedanta’ school propounded theses that came very close to the philosophical assumptions of modern liberalism – uniqueness of the individual, rejection of absolutism, scepticism of authority and trust in the efficacy of competition.
Firstly, the ‘Vedanta’ system held all qualitative attributes 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 the mighty ‘Shiva’ wends his way.
Secondly, since the journey is the thing, every individual charts his course according to his own light. 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 lights of an individual are consistent with the object of the Universe. All intermediaries like the Church and Planning Commission are pointless and counter-productive.
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 vainglory that they had come to the end of history and could not do better than continue in static equilibrium till the end of time. This 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 for model-building. Their efforts to bring equality in the caste-ridden land were effectively thwarted by the revolt of 1857 and, thereafter 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 in removing the inequalities 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 prompted various activities like community or mass prayers on the lines of the Christian prayers and Muslim ‘namaz’. This was tantamount to abandoning the essence of the Hindu’s individualistic relationship with one’s personal God. There were others like Tilak who used public worship of God Ganesha for political mobilization.
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 frightened by the engulfing storm. The present day communal forces- BJP, RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena- 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 the entire 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, 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 self-employed workers. A programme for the de-strangulation 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 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 nationalize all basic industries. Nevertheless, Gandhism essentially stood for minimal and decentralised Government.
Failure of the Nehruvian Model
The Russian revolution, claims of socio-economic achievement by the new czars there and the anti-imperialist tirades of these latter 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, Nehru was himself full of social effervescence since his visits to the USSR. Socialism in India meant not nationalization but rather ownership by the toiler. But the State was to be the instrument of this transformation.
In sum, the ‘Vedanta’ tradition of liberalism got suppressed under successive foreign rulers and the forces that participated in the freedom movement were all statist in the sense that they looked upon the State as the instrument for the desired transformation. All of them favored a strong interventionist State. Gandhi’s anarchism proved to be little more than the scoring point of an obscurantist vision. 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 the license-permit regime with all its inevitable consequences: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, indebtedness, an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, criminalisation of politics, etc. The end of the Cold War pulled the rug from under the feet of many a tinpot 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. A 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 a socialist brand of Statism, however, 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 over 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 then ruling party 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 fires of age-old animosities and preaching communal and caste hatred.
Fascism to Replace Socialism?
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-to-Centre parties are trying to sensitize the nation to 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 to this temple or that, the absence of a common civil code, Bangladesh immigrants, or the status of Jammu and Kashmir, to mention a few, that appear to be benefiting from the situation.
The Hindu political parties are understandably taking a protectionist position in their economic programme to reinforce their patriotic image. They are drawing a good response to their opposition to the entry of multinationals into India.
Where do the liberal 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 a highly individualistic people opposed to the very idea of authority?
The Swatantra Party
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 quota Raj would produce. He founded the first liberal political party in India, The Swatantra Party. It started off well but was swept out in the Indira wave after her Bangladesh triumph in 1971.
Swatantra Bharat Party
In 1994, an attempt was made to create a new liberal party, Swatantra Bharat. It pulled over a million votes in the elections to the Maharashtra State assembly but secured only two seats. Its chances in forthcoming elections are negligible since it cannot even register itself without dishonestly swearing allegiance to socialism.
Economic reforms have come to a grinding halt. The government considers itself under obligation to take recourse to blatantly populist measures. A serious programme of liberalisation will need to restore law and order, clear the Augean stables of the judiciary, cut down the forest of economic regulations, dismantle bureaucracy, restore fundamental rights under the Constitution and work out a reasonable exit policy. Such a formidable agenda would require a strong government. There is no prospect of this happening in the near or distant future.
Chances for a Liberal Polity
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. Political leaders have got used to earning commissions for securing government 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 privatization. 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 globalisation 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.
The Indian Liberals’ only Ally
But history gives 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 cannot remain for long an island of statism. Indian history shows that our people believe in fighting over tyrants if an Indira Gandhi comes along. An Indian Hitler will have to be exceptionally lucky to survive for any length of time. This much hope ought to be enough for seekers of liberty and equality.