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?