Last week’s column on the Indian Liberal generated a spirited debate on the Pioneer’s website and even wider reactions within the social media. My good friend Sanjiv Sabhlok who has toiled tirelessly to resurrect an Indian Liberal Movement first through the India Policy Institute and subsequently through the Liberal Party of India as the successor to Rajaji’s Swatantra Party expressed vehement disagreement. Sadanand Dhume a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a frequent columnist with the Wall Street Journal and an avid India watcher while expressing disagreement through Twitter made an interesting point on the failure of the Indian Right to reach out to Intellectuals outside of the saffron fold.
This follow up column is to put in perspective why there needs to be more engagement between the Indian Right and the Indian Liberal.
I am not speaking here of the shallow Indian Liberal some of who are celebrities dominating the news media landscape to whom Liberalism is nothing more than a calling card to elite clique. Nor am I speaking here of those to whom Liberalism is merely the extreme pursuit of personal liberty with little or no appreciation for Economic Freedom, Federalism and autonomy to Local Government on a wide range of issues from Education to Policing.
But first some personal background.
Coming from a Sangh family where my first exposure was perhaps to the Sangh prarthana well before the national anthem, my dabbling with the Liberal movement was a logical extension of a heightened political awareness from early childhood years.
My formative years were a mixture of first hand exposure to Sangh ideologues on the one hand and high degree of political awareness on the other. Two clippings from the Organiser remained seared in my mind – the first was an essay by Dattopant Thengadi calling for more “Modernization than Westernization”. The second was an argument on the need for a “Market based economy”.
The next significant influence during those formative years were Arun Shourie’s writings during the Mandal protests and the robust intellectual debate that followed during the RJBM movement. I will forever be indebted to Arun Shourie for having taught me early on to never be shy of challenging conventional intellectual wisdom even if one found oneself in the minority.
Campus life at IIT Mumbai opened up a window to the world of Political Economics that was hitherto shut. It is inexcusable that one can go through 12 whole years of Education within the early school system with no formal training on Economics and the various schools of thought. I hope that is beginning to change now with the various curriculum modifications introduced since 2006 but I must be sceptical given the preponderance of Left Liberal thought in the academia. I have argued on multiple occasions that Atanu Dey’s book Transforming India and Sanjeev Sabhlok’s book Breaking Free from Nehru must make it to school curriculum.
Luckily Economics 101 at IIT was not limited to the prescribed Keynesian text by Paul Samuelson, and the Professor went out of her way to introduce Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” as an outside the text essay. Over the years at IIT further exposure to thinking on economic freedom ensued through Ayn Rand’s many works.
This was also the time when political events in India of significant magnitude were taking shape. Nuclear Physicist Dr. Rajendra Singhji popularly known as Rajju Bhaiyya had taken over as the Chief of the RSS while the nation was witnessing the opening up of the economy and political turmoil simultaneously over Mandal, Masjid etc….
Here I was attempting to reconcile within my mind the two diverse streams of political thought that had taken root within me over the years. A lengthy handwritten letter to Shri Rajju Bhaiyya followed on the outside chance that he might actually read it. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a long hand written letter from Rajju Bhaiyya. The gist of that letter was that the Sangh was acutely aware that the future was bound to be dominated by economic issues far more than cultural issues as the country opened up and the Sangh was grappling with the question of how to respond to that future.
In the years that followed India saw a tectonic shift politically with the first BJP Prime Minister taking office. While being a passive observer to the changes happening in India from distant shores my exposure to Indian Liberal movement started through Sanjeev’s efforts over the Internet through his India Policy Institute. Before there was Twitter, Facebook, Blogs or YouTube Sanjeev was a Pioneer in using the Internet to bring together diverse individuals with common political thoughts to the Right of Center centered primarily around Economic Freedom. His use of e-mailing lists was unique.
As the NDA struggled to reconcile the demands of economic liberalization with protectionist impulses of Swadeshi movement, I got a close look at the Indian Liberal movement being both part of it partially and as an observer. It was fascinating to see how disconnected the Indian Liberal movement was from the political realities of India in some respect while being way ahead of its times in some other respects.
A combination of personality differences and lack of judgement saw the India Policy Institute falter and fall by the way side. A few years later well before the 2004 election Sanjeev had a second go at resurrecting the Liberal movement. This time the plans were grander and the outreach wider by drawing in the only two political parties that could remotely be described as Liberal – Sharad Joshi’s SBP and Jayprakash Narayan’s Lok Satta. These two political parties that could be described as liberal were marginal in their impact. Sharad Joshi the pragmatist politician that he was aligned with the BJP lead NDA ahead of the 2004 polls primarily on account of support for a statehood for Vidarbha. The grand design for a Liberal Party of India fell apart as a telling tale of how the dogmatic pursuit of Classical Liberalism was incompatible with the pragmatism demanded of a political upstart.
The liberal movement’s only other political hope, Jayprakash Narayan’s Lok Satta has since taken that pragmatism to its logical extreme by aligning opportunistically with the Communists. Attempts at rationalizing this come across as shallow after all the Lok Satta was on record backing the irrational Lokpal Bill.
What remains of Sanjeev’s efforts to resurrect a successor to C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra is his latest formulation Freedom Team India. Over the years I have questioned (myself on) Sanjeev’s judgment and lack of pragamtism but I continue to deeply respect his dogged persistence.
But here is the problem – today all we have is a smattering of “classical liberals” dominating the Opinion Landscape with intellectual positions deeply disconnected from the political realities in a classic case of “Ivory Tower” intellectualism.
Bibek Debroy perhaps stands out among a few others as notable exceptions who have been able to marry their faith in Economic Freedom with the political realities of India to take a clear and unambiguous political stance.
My own reconciliation of economic liberalism with cultural nationalism happened after 2004 Lok Sabha elections when I took to blogging. Reading and re-reading ancient Indian works thanks to the vast body of knowledge that has now become accessible digitally, a clear stream of thought has emerged to my mind.
A single common thread of intellectual thought running through – Dharma, Economic Freedom, the Republican State as conceived by Kautilya, Ambedkar’s Cosntitutionalism and on the limited Role of Government. Only one book in my opinion captures this single common thread over the centuries – the now out of print book by Mackenzie Brown titled “Shveta Chhatra or the White Umbrella“.
Within the political spectrum no political party today comes close to espousing all of the ideals within this single common thread of political thought. However one politician does embody most of these. Little wonder intellectuals like Bibek Debroy who symbolize a harmonious blend of the ancient and the modern have not been shy in sticking their neck out and taking a stance.
Hence my argument that Indian Liberals need to get out of their ivory tower of dogmatic Classical Liberalism and get behind the idea of Narendra Modi if not the man himself.
In closing, to Sanjeev’s comment on Modi’s illiberalism, I can do no more than point him to a book written in chaste Hindi in January of 1978 after the end of Emergency. If all the 227 pages in chaste Hindi are too much for the classical liberal to digest, the personal reflections on pages 219 and 220 should suffice to make a judgment.