The Indian Economy Blog

September 29, 2005

Minoo Masani And The Swatantra Party

Filed under: Politics — Amit Varma @ 6:29 am

Regular readers of my blog will know that every once in a while I bemoan the absence of a classical liberal/libertarian/secular-right party in India (these terms aren’t interchangable, I know, but similar), such as the Swatantra Party of C Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani. Well, Chandrahas Choudhury has an excellent essay on Masani’s book, “Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative,” up on The Middle Stage, which takes us through how the issues Masani wrote about in the book still concern us today — mainly, the oppressive power of the state and the denial of individual liberty.

Hash — as Chandrahas’s friends call him — called me up yesterday to tell me about the book, and in the course of our conversation he remarked that Masani’s pro-free-market thoughts ought to have more takers in these post-’liberalisation’ times, and there ought to be space for a modern-day version of the Swatantra Party. I’m not so sure of that. In the 1950s and 60s, identity politics was not quite as entrenched as today, and though the Congress Party always won elections handily, they did so as India’s party of independence, Mahatma Gandhi’s party. There was still a space to debate ideas — or the Swatantra Party would not, for a brief while, have been India’s second-largest party in parliament.

Today, politics throughout the country, especially in the heartland, is fought on the basis of identity, mostly caste. Ideas don’t matter — and even when they do, classical liberal ideas are deeply unintuitive. For example, if prices rise beyond what a poor man can afford, it is natural for him to believe that it is in his interest for price controls to be imposed, and for goods to be cheap enough for him to afford. When he sees the inequality in society, and rich men living in large houses with many cars, it is natural for him to believe that redistribution is just and will solve these inequalities. It is natural for him to welcome a move to give him free rice, and if he is a farmer, free electricity. It is hard to explain to him, in layman’s terms, that none of these are solutions to his problems, that, in fact, they make things worse for him in the long run.

Most people are poor, of course, and ill-educated. The easy way out for politicians is to steer clear of economics, which they may not understand anyway, and stick to the things that win them votes. And thus the political space in India is defined by populism and identity politics. If a modern Swatantra Party was to emerge, who would take them seriously?

Previous musings on this subject: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

12 Comments »

  1. CR’s Swatantra Party was far from being a classical liberal outfit.
    Yes, they were against License Raj and espoused the idea of a small government. But many of their leaders were cultural conservatives and hardly libertarian.

    CR himself was a strong supporter of Prohibition.
    His writings betray his deap-seated aversion to the film industry, which he viewed as a corrupting influence. By most accounts, he was a Luddite who considered industrialisation to be a fetish.

    I’m not denying that he was one of the few post-independence leaders worthy of our admiration. But the fact of the matter is that ‘Swatantra’ was a right-wing conservative outfit rather than a libertarian one. It was definitely NOT a sectarian party a la Jan Sangh nor was it libertarian. ‘Secular Right’ just about fits the bill.

    Comment by shrikanthk — September 29, 2005 @ 9:42 pm

  2. Btw, Swatantra was heavily influenced by the Gandhian ideal of ‘Ram-Rajya’. Take for instance CR’s call for minimal defence expenditure, something that you wouldn’t associate with a right-wing ideology.

    Comment by shrikanthk — September 29, 2005 @ 9:51 pm

  3. And the guy(CR) was obsessed with Advaita. I hate those types ;)

    Comment by Nilu — September 29, 2005 @ 10:38 pm

  4. I guess the question to be asked is:
    Why did the Swatantra experiment fail?
    Is it because it’s ideology was too high-brow and its leaders prudish to the extreme?
    Why did Rajaji acquiese to an alliance with the Jan Sangh? Were they not strange bedfellows with little in common?

    Comment by shrikanthk — September 29, 2005 @ 11:54 pm

  5. I think we need to judge a political party by the policies they espouse, not by the personal beliefs of their leaders, be they fans of advaita or sceptics of technology, unless they try to impose their beliefs on others. In case CR did that, do educate me on the subject. But if not, his private beliefs should surely not be a subject of this discussion.

    Comment by Amit Varma — September 30, 2005 @ 1:35 am

  6. [...] 12:15 pm by Patrix Amit Varma in his typical libertarian thinking mode wonders if a modern Swatantra Party would survive in today’s India [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » Minoo Masani and the Swatantra Party — September 30, 2005 @ 12:16 pm

  7. i confess i was thinking about just the same thing the other day. identity politics wouldn’t be such a great hurdle.. just find a little spot in our country where one of the founders belongs to the dominant community..and if you can manage to get three/four mps elected who in turn can manage to stay in the news and in the right places in parliament..you can wrench enough bargaining/blackmailing power to swing policy.
    learn from the naxals- the tactics need to be modified to overcome adverse environment. look at ambumoni ramdoss and endless other fringe groups..

    Comment by kuffir — September 30, 2005 @ 4:19 pm

  8. CR was really great. The cultural conservatism of CR is a nonissue (as for the economy) because you could be a cultural conservative and still believe in total economic freedom. The lack of economic freedom is the number one reason for the sorry state of India now. I think India in the past was one of the richest countries in the world because various kings that ruled India (or parts of India) encouraged economic activity by the people. These kings were no social liberals.

    Comment by sv — October 3, 2005 @ 12:51 am

  9. Please read: “To Save freedom” from “Why Swatantra,” 1960, by C. Rajagopalachari, copy at http://sabhlokcity.com/writers/rajaji1.html

    No one is perfect, but in the early days of 1959, when the world was beholden to socialists, Rajaji had hit upon most of the classical liberal ingredients.

    More stuff at: http://sabhlokcity.com/writers/writings.html

    Thanks a lot for your interest.

    Regards, sanjeev

    Comment by sanjeev — December 2, 2005 @ 4:28 pm

  10. Hi Amit: You are probably aware of this,, but I discovered this site a few months ago: http://www.liberalsindia.com/.

    The Indian National Congress was a liberal party to begin with under the auspicies of people like G K Gokhale. It was nationalists like Gandhi and Tilak who marginalized the liberals within the party.

    Comment by Vivek G — December 5, 2005 @ 8:03 pm

  11. Hi

    The Liberal Group ian’t really a political entity. There was an attempt by a few liberals, led by Sanjeev Sabhlokh, to kick start a political party (they supported the SBP, led by Sharad Joshi, for a brief period, until they realised he wasn’t really in the Masani/Rajaji mould). In fact, he ran an active mailing list, subscribed by over 50 members. This did include a couple of people associated with the old Swatantra party.

    The exercise fizzled out, and Sanjeev has abandoned all hopes. However, I do think that the Swatantra party, if it did exist today, would have been a party of choice for the middle-class. It would be THE ideal alternative to the Congress and the BJP

    Comment by Hussain — June 25, 2006 @ 2:17 pm

  12. We are trying to revive the Swatantra party

    we created an online community:

    http://swatantra.simpleboard.net

    If you or anyone else is interested, we may be able to start a strong coalition to get our unified message of freedom heard!

    Comment by Bruce Varughese — July 27, 2008 @ 9:17 am

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