The rise of PM Narendra Modi is due as much to his personal popularity as it is to the resentment of the people against the soi-disant “liberal” elite—both political as well as bureaucratic—who have ruled this country since independence. There is nothing in liberalism per se which should have generated such a sharp reaction: John Stuart Mill’s essay “On liberty” has inspired thousands in this country. And liberalism itself only emphasises that the state should respect a human being’s right to freedom of belief and expression; governments should function within the framework of checks and balances; the rule of law should prevail; and the sanctity of all lawful contracts should be respected.
These principles are unexceptionable and accepted by most right thinking people. Why then should Indian liberals (left liberals actually) be disliked by so many of their fellow citizens? One possible explanation could be that the rulers cut themselves off from mainstream thinking. Why this happened is a complex story.
The earliest liberals in this country—like William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society—came from Britain. They respected educated Indians and were able to convince them that liberalism was not at odds with Indian beliefs. They translated ancient Indian texts, like the Bhagvad Gita, and this led to the birth of the study of Indology in western universities.
Nineteenth century reformers who followed them like Raja Rammohan Roy in Bengal remained proud Hindus. Even as they worked actively for abolition of sati, widow remarriage and other social reforms, they remained in touch with their religious and philosophical traditions. By the turn of the century Vivekanand could proclaim “I am proud to belong to a religion that has taught the world both universal tolerance as well as universal acceptance……we accept all religions as true.”
Even though they were brought up on diet of liberalism in their own country, the English ruling classes in India did not practice these beliefs while they lived here. For them, Indians were an inferior race; and civilising them was “the white man’s burden”. They had a very limited brief—to maintain law and order and collect revenue. Not surprisingly, between the years 1900 and 1950, the Indian economy grew at just 1% per annum.
After independence, these attitudes hardly changed. The new Nehruvian consensus which emerged after independence recognised and gave effect to some liberal principles in matters political. New chapters on fundamental rights, and a federal democratic structure were incorporated in the constitution but that was as far as Nehru allowed his liberal thinking to go. Instead, he gave effect to his love for Fabian socialism through a license-permit raj involving a complex web of rules, regulations and controls that stifled private trade and industry.
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Throughout the next thirty years the savings-investment ratios remained low; and the rate of growth of the economy averaged 3.5%. First, hesitant steps towards reform were taken in the early eighties with the removal of a few quantitative restrictions on imports and broad banding of licenses; but the real process of liberalisation—reduction in the size of the fiscal deficit; decrease in import duties; and abolition industrial licensing—was carried through in the 1990s. India, thus, freed its product markets from state controls and immediately the rate of economic growth increased to 6% up to the turn of the century; thereafter, it has generally hovered between 7% and 8%.
Even seventy years after independence and a generation after economic reforms, the model of an “over-developed” state characterised by an unaccountable bureaucracy, vested with vast discretionary powers, continues to haunt our country. It is indeed ironic that whereas the UK reformed its civil service decades ago, we continue to cling to our colonial legacy. In fact, in its present avatar it is even more regressive than what it was during the days of the raj. The civil service now has become a cosy illiberal club. Such clubs, which in the name of liberalism protect vested interests, are also to be found in the professions, media, commerce and academia.
If PM is to maintain his connect with the masses, then he must try and deliver what the people want most. People want to see “an enabling state.”The state should provide basic infrastructure and should step in where markets fail or cannot function. The rest must be left to the animal spirits of the people; jobs will be created if investment takes place and industry expands, but the state must create conditions for that to happen. To be sure, this would be a truly liberal state.
Author is Former chief commissioner, Income-tax and ombudsman to the Income-tax department, Mumbai.