Liberalism in India: Past, Present and Future: Paper Abstracts

The Mind of the Indian Liberal

Did liberalization make us more liberal? Can any country be, at once, so bewilderingly liberal and yet so exasperatingly illiberal? Sengupta believes that two simultaneous, if parallel realities have dominated Indian history – the Indian mind, seeking freedom and liberty, but Indian society, even though its diversity suggests endless negotiating space for freedom, has often stifled individual rights in the name of collective will. Where does the Indian liberal mind seek inspiration from? Where ought it?

Gandhi's Dharma vs Nehru's Vikas

I find that the nation’s founders’ notion of India derived from a strong idea of their responsibility, and of building a society devoid of social ills.  In that I would place them all on the same pedestal. Gandhiji veered towards cleaning the self as a means of cleansing society.  For him, it was every individual’s dharma to be ‘pure’ and ‘non-violent’. Nehruji’s views on the role of the government were more immediate, more rooted in achieving the ends. This chapter looks briefly into Gandhijis thoughts, followed by Nehrujis orientation towards a socialist path.

The Problem with Liberal Parties

The early and much-mourned demise of the Swatantra Party in India has always been a matter not just of anxious concern on the part of classical liberals. It has also remained a puzzle. What went wrong? Was it inevitable? Or was it something that could have been avoided by decisive actions? Why has it been so difficult for another version of this party to reappear on the Indian electoral scene?

The traditional explanation has been that a genuinely liberal position that supports a minimalist non-interventionist state and agency for individuals to enter into free unfettered contracts and leverage a free market to optimise their individual objective functions is at best a theoretical construct. People may buy into this position in moments of lucidity. But the seductive embrace of parties who promise to use the state to selectively dole out goodies and patronage will always end up being more popular because in fact it is more populist. This is aggravated in countries like India where poverty and deprivation exist on a large scale. Hence the need for every party to swear by redistributive “socialism” rather than individual initiative. While this may be true, its assertion is based more on a theoretical understanding of what the so-called “populace” wants and has wanted from ancient Athens down to today. To promise to “take from Peter and give to Paul” must always be popular with the Pauls of the world. And as long as the Pauls are in a majority, even if only a temporary one, this political strategy must prevail in electoral democracies.

Liberty and Locus of Power

Limited government and local decision making are among the cardinal principles of a liberal society and state. Whatever be the role assigned to government, if such role and power are dispersed in multiple authorities at different levels, liberty is safe. Horizontal and vertical decentralisation protects liberty, as opposed to a centralised, totalitarian system with a single locus of power. Local decision making gives citizens greater control over their lives and allows effective participation in democracy and governance.

And yet our Constitution and state structure have created a highly centralised, largely ineffective governance process that neither disperses power, nor allows people’s participation. Indian Constitution is a remarkably humane, liberal document. However, there was a clash between Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of limited, decentralised government with people gaining a significant measure of control over their lives, and Dr Ambedkar’s concerns about transferring power to the panchayats which were ‘dens of casteism and corruption’. Both had strength in their arguments. Gandhiji’s fierce opposition to centralisation and state control were at the heart of his opposition to colonial role. Ambedkar’s aversion to the hierarchical, caste-ridden society that institutionalised inequality by birth, and therefore the fear that the local elites would monopolise power and perpetuate caste rigidities at the village level were fully justified.

The failure of our nation-builders to reconcile the diametrically opposing views of Gandhiji and Ambedkar has proved very costly for the evolution of Indian state. The incapacity of the Constituent Assembly to arrive at such a synthesis created a strong union and substantially empowered, but vulnerable, state governments. Local governments were not made a part of the constitutional structure of Indian state, and they were relegated to directive principles along with many other homilies and shibboleths.

Reservations: Half Pregnant Constitution, Half Pregnant State

This paper examines the logic, legality and practice of education and job reservations for the backward castes and classes. There is a lot of confusion, some of it deliberate on the part of the interest groups, about what the Constitution does, or does not say, about reservations. There is also considerable confusion about the difference between a policy of reservations and a policy of affirmative action.

Section 2 discusses the Constitutional aspects of reservations, and Section 3 discusses the policy of providing reservation benefits to OBCs – Other Backward Classes. Section 4 delves into the distinction of reservations versus affirmative action.  . Section 5 discusses the simple fact that the one socio-economic group not benefitting from the ill-thought of policy of reservations is the section of society that could most benefit from reservations – the Muslims.

Worry about Opportunity, Not about Inequality

Looking back, communism's great appeal was its promise of equality. Certainly India’s path of democratic capitalism leaves much to be desired. But it doesn't mean all our social and economic arrangements are unsatisfactory. It only means that our path does not live to an ideal. While equality is desirable, most sensible Indians would now agree that the quest for absolute equality is hopelessly idealistic. Unattainable ideals create their own problems — too often they give someone a stick to beat others into submission. This is the unhappy story of 20th century history.

Welfare State versus Welfare Society: Rights, Entitlements & Empathy

The chapter will examine the proper role of the state from a liberal perspective. Given the problems and challenges in India, what should the role of the government be? How would a limited state benefit India? Is a welfare state, or some mechanisms for welfare, compatible with a limited state? The paper can have an appraisal of the welfare state and how welfare can be extended more efficiently. How can we gradually move toward reducing the size and scope of the state?

Liberalism for Whom? Confessions of an incorrigible liberal

The liberals across the world are in a quandary. In India, the liberal view of a tolerant, diverse and plural society, characterised by political and economic freedom, seem to be squeezed between the cultural and religious conservatives on the one end of the political spectrum, and various hues of Maoist and Marxist ideologues and extremists, at the other end.

Liberalism has a strong intellectual root, with well thought out perspectives on economic, political and social spheres on the basis of individual rights and liberty. Unfortunately, it has not been easy to translate these principles in to effective political campaigns, in a way which would attract the wider population. The problem has been compounded by a belief among a section of the liberals that the high liberal principles are not really for the masses. Some criticise the populist majoritarian tendencies in a modern democracy, with universal suffrage, as inherently in conflict with liberal values.

However, demand for greater political participation in the decision making processes, through democratic institutions have established itself as the governing principle of our age. Politics plays a critical role in a democracy, and the demos, the wider population have to be won over. The question therefore is, can liberalism discover a new political idiom to effectively communicate its principles to the wider population? Could there be a way to make liberal ideals popular and aspirational, to counter the populism based on political largesse and patronage?

Mohandas K. Gandhi, was a master political strategist, and the greatest mass mobiliser in the 20th century. Can the liberals in the 21st century take political leaf out of Gandhi’s book, to explore new political grounds to reach out to the masses?

Why India Needs a New Constitution

The factors that affect and determine the prosperity (or poverty) of nations are many. Some of them are necessary although none of them individually or severally are sufficient. The heterogeneity of people in various nations, the diverse geographical and environmental conditions, the different historical routes followed, the diversity of cultural practises, the technology available to them, the nature of competition for resources -- all differ in space and time for individual nations. This partly explains why it is so difficult to arrive at some formula for the economic growth and development of any particular nation.

Individuals differ. All humans are not created equal. But sufficiently large groups of people are quite similar to other large groups of people. It is not true that Americans are naturally intrinsically better than Indians -- at least not to the extent that Americans have a per capita income of 40 times that of Indians. What is different between Americans (or Germans or Scandinavians) and Indians is that they operate under different rules.

The conclusion has to be that India’s problem is structural and systemic, and not idiosyncratic. If the constitution were to change, the ultimate rules of the game would change, the policies (the derived rules) will change, and thus the action on the ground (the play of the game) will change, and therefore the outcome will change.

Religious and Cultural Freedom in India: Both too little and too much

It is 65 years since Independent India adopted a liberal and "secular" constitution, but it is clear that we are far from achieving those exalted objectives. Recent controversies over religious conversions, bans on books deemed offensive to some groups, illiberal laws that try to determine what people should or should not eat, and the lynching of a man in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) over suspicions that he may be storing or consuming beef tell us not only that basic individual freedoms are at stake, but that religious freedoms are being interpreted by governments to mean that nothing should ever be done to offend or upset any group or community. This may be politically convenient to some political parties seeking the creation of “specific “vote banks”, but it does nothing to promote genuine liberality or even religious or cultural freedom.

Kowtowing to religious groups has resulted in a severe curtailment of fundamental rights, including the rights to free speech and expression in which the derivative freedom of religion is rooted.

On the other hand, there is simply too much freedom – licence, in fact – given in the name of religious freedom. Loud music and processions that disrupt everyday life during religious festivals and events, azaans delivered on loud-speakers, and religious congregations spilling out into streets and parks ever so frequently are just some of the obvious encroachments on civic and citizen rights. Religious might is taking over religious right. Religious and cultural freedom, which ought to be available to every individual or a group of individuals without impacting or curtailing other people’s religious or civic rights, is spreading itself over spaces that are in the public domain. It is spilling over into public spaces, impacting other people’s rights.

Liberty & Security in Radically Networked Societies: A Challenge for Every Generation

The trade-off between individual liberties and national security is at the heart of the political institution called the state. The exact nature of this trade-off varies from state to state. As such, the exact quantum of this trade-off between liberties and security is an unsolved problem for all states in the world. As a democratic republic, the Indian state aspires that the degree of liberty forgone by the individual, in exchange of the protection provided by the state, be kept at the minimum.

This debate gains special significance in India with the emergence of what we call Radically Networked Societies (RNS). RNS is defined as a web of connected individuals, possessing an identity (imagined or real) and motivated by a common immediate cause. The defining feature of a RNS is its scale of operation, its wide reach and its ability to evade conventional national security measures.

In the past few years, it is these radically networked societies that have mobilised groups using the internet. Some examples include: the flight of North-East Indian peoples from Bangalore following circulation of videos over phones allegedly showing Muslim people being killed in North-East India, and the lynching of a Muslim man following circulation of WhatsApp videos projecting the man as a cow slaughterer.

With RNS as an emerging security threat, how can the governments uphold national security while minimising upholding individual freedoms? This paper will investigate the various measures that India can pursue in order to face the challenge posed by RNS, while ensuring that the encroachment over individual liberty is minimised.