Is Liberalism the Cure for India's Socialist 'Virus'?

The economist Amartya Sen is -- along with writer Arundhati Roy -- the most prominent public intellectual in India’s English-language public sphere. Even at 80, Sen continues to publish new work around his favorite themes of welfare, human capability, social security and choice theory. He’s also closely involved with a project to set up a new university on the site of Nalanda in Bihar, an ancient center of Buddhist education.

Sen has always been known as a man of the left. But last week, while delivering the keynote address at the Jaipur Literature Festival, one of India's most important forums of literary and intellectual debate, Sen spoke for many when he said that despite his own views, his wish for India was to have “a strong and flourishing right-wing party.” “There is an important role,” Sen said, “for a clear-headed, pro-market, pro-business party that does not depend on religious politics.”

That remark, which came just a few months before India holds elections, was both an acknowledgement of and a reproach to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party in Parliament. The BJP continues, more than 30 years after its inception, to be a reactionary rather than a progressive right-wing party, never too far from making arguments that reek of chauvinist and unpleasantly majoritarian assumptions. Although the party instituted significant economic reforms during its six years as head of a coalition government from 1998 to 2004, these were mainly the work of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, its unusually forward-thinking prime minister, whose convictions didn't always square with those of the party.

Vajpayee is long gone, and when India goes to the polls, the BJP will once again likely offer Indian voters an alternative to the Congress Party’s “pseudosecularism” and the promise of “strong governance.” But the BJP's economics will continue to be a strange mix of socialism, subsidies and “swadeshi” (an emphasis on Indian-manufactured goods). Although its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, has a pro-business image, it has been built mostly upon cutting red tape, building infrastructure and improving government service-delivery mechanisms (not inconsiderable achievements). It’s worth reminding ourselves that Modi was among his party’s most prominent voices of opposition to the current, center-left government when it decided in 2011 to allow foreign direct investment in retail. And there’s no reason to believe he will revisit his thinking on that subject if he does come to power.

Sen was right in suggesting, then, that when it comes to economic ideology, Indian voters have a range of choices that is much more circumscribed than in most mature democracies -- and that this distorts all major debates on economic issues. In an editorial in the Indian Express, the newspaper’s widely respected editor, Shekhar Gupta, took up the theme, noting that the bright new force in Indian politics, the Aam Aadmi Party, was even more left-wing than the ruling Congress Party. “Socialism is the most persistent virus in Indian politics," he wrote trenchantly, and the BJP "has never even tried to get rid of it."

Gupta wrote:

Narendra Modi can look at this as a challenge or an opportunity. Challenge, because his own party, in its utter bankruptcy of imagination, has also chosen socialism as its economic philosophy. …

He doesn’t have to make the BJP the new Swatantra Party. But he can certainly benefit from moulding his party’s economics more to the ideas of Vajpayee. …

But if he is willing to take a risk and create a genuinely new platform on growth and free markets, he may just have an exciting new product in a tired, bored market. … Modi can’t be more secular or socialist than either [of the rival parties]. So the only way for him is to be more reformist. He can listen to Amartya Sen, even if he is no fan of his.

An eminently reasonable suggestion -- but Gupta could have written another piece the very next day listing all the reasons why Modi would never be willing to take up the idea, especially at this late stage. Indian economics as a political territory is one where all the players would prefer to split hairs (or advance by suggesting their opponents have more extreme left-wing views or a worse record on corruption) rather than break new ground and risk making stark differentiations. Why are there no electorally relevant political parties in India that present a version of classical liberalism, stressing small government, free markets and individual liberty? There are many answers for this, but one of the most detailed and convincing appears in political scientist Sudipta Kaviraj’s recent book "The Enchantment of Democracy and India."

Liberalism stresses the primacy of the individual as an economic and ethical agent -- and, therefore, emphasizes individual power and responsibility, as well as a reduced role for government in making decisions for society. But, as Kaviraj points out, one of the prominent peculiarities of India's democracy is that it was introduced to the nation without a prior historical process of social individuation, as in the West, or “a prior tradition of liberal political thought.” Although there are elements of liberal thought in the work of many major Indian thinkers, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore, there is no indigenous tradition of liberalism in a civilization in which the most pervasive thought system, Hinduism, envisions “socially standardized lives in which freedom of choice in vital matters" is not just limited, but is also "conceptually absent.”

Even in the seventh decade of Indian democracy, the primary transactional unit of Indian politics continues to be not the individual but the group, usually defined not so much by shared interests as by religious or caste identity. It has proved possible to graft socialism upon such a world -- but it is much harder to do the same with liberalism. It was an entirely characteristic gesture by the powerful (and superficially progressive) young Indian politician and prime minister-aspirant Rahul Gandhi last week, then, when he spoke up in favor of declaring the Jains, a large religious group, an “official" minority so that they could take advantage of government benefits programs.

The last Indian party to go to the polls with an intellectually coherent critique not just of an incumbent government’s interpretation of socialism but of socialism itself was the short-lived Swatantra Party, which had a brief moment in the spotlight in the 1950s and '60s when an ambitious group of intellectuals tried to institute a native liberal tradition. In his speech in Jaipur last week, Sen also made reference to the Swatantra Party and said he wished that a party with similar ideas could rise again.

Frankly, it’s hard to see one appearing in the short term, even though it would serve the invaluable purpose of shining a harsher light on the excesses of Indian socialism than it is used to. Before India's general elections in 1967, a prominent member of the Swatantra Party, the Bombay lawyer Minoo Masani, published "Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative," a stinging critique of the Congress government’s reliance on a socialist model of central planning and massive subsidies.

The book was also an attempt to expound on the merits of the liberal point of view. But Masani could find no Indian writers or draw on ancient or recent Indian texts to bolster his case. Instead, he found himself quoting Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, "the great British liberal,” who said, “Liberalism is a belief that society can safely be founded on the self-directing power of personality, that it is only on this foundation that the true community can be built. Liberty then becomes not so much a right of the individual, as a necessity of society.”

The self-directing power of personality? Even today, many Indians would hear that and think: What a suspicious and subversive idea! Not much has changed when it comes to the political appeal of liberalism, nearly 50 years after Masani wrote his book. Even though India is nominally a capitalist economy, expect every future Indian government to implement liberal economic reforms piecemeal, if possible by stealth or in a crisis, and without a coherent ideology behind them -- as Manmohan Singh did in 1991.

Sen won’t be seeing that party he dreams of -- unless, of course, he starts one himself.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View and the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf.

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