We the people of India had been given a largely liberal Constitution at the birth of the Indian republic on 26 January 1950. Over the years, this Constitution has turned illiberal through many of the amendments it has been subjected to. One of first assaults came with the removal by the Nehru government of the fundamental right to property.
There followed a wave of nationalizations by the Indira Gandhi government in 1960s. The word “socialist” in the preamble of the Constitution was introduced by the 42nd amendment during the Indira Gandhi government. This amendment entrenched socialism into the fabric of India’s governance and polity.
Then in 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government made it mandatory for all political parties to swear allegiance to socialism, by amending the Representation of People Act 1951. This meant that no political party could be registered with the Election Commission without committing to the ideology of socialism. This effectively barred any liberal party from ever contesting elections in India. With this, the state became above the citizen, his liberties entirely at the mercy of the state. The servant of the people in the 1950 Constitution now became our master.
The insertion of the word “socialist” has been challenged by various individual and organizations over the years. The Supreme Court however, interpreted the word “socialist” in the Preamble not as an ideology but as an idea that informs social welfare. This is a highly contestable view, distorting the original and meaning of the word socialism, and the intent of Indira Gandhi and her son, in mandating it.
Though the Constitution is still a broadly liberal document, the many encroachments against liberty have to be expunged. Today India is a half-hearted market economy and open society. We have a contradiction with a largely liberalized economy on one hand and a deeply illiberal regime of property rights and freedoms.
The arch of history has always tended towards man’s natural state, of being free. And so it has in India, too. Amidst the impositions of socialism, a light of liberty was lit in 1991, as socialism bankrupted the country.
Twenty-five years ago we started reluctantly with economic reforms. The results were as expected. Growth rates began to soar. Living conditions improved.
The reforms still continue but there is no underlying understanding of liberty. Such reforms are knee-jerk reactions, rather than a structured move towards freedom. The government retains vast control over the economy. The administrative structure is colonial and an unmitigated disaster.
In spite of calls for reforms, no political party during the reform period bothered to align the governance system with economic incentives and accountability.
The country has been moving incrementally in this direction. Modi’s campaign used liberal rhetoric, such as ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. But this slogan was hollow; the size of the government has increased but core functions are not being delivered. Modi had a large cabinet and now it stands at 77. The central government employees are set to increase by another few lakhs.
The tenured bureaucracy is inefficient and unaccountable. The government owns a major portion of the economy through airlines, mines and various PSUs. Through the Life Insurance Corporation, it further owns equity in private companies. But the government can have no business doing business. Why is the government not disinvesting?
The trajectory of the Indian economy has been towards liberalism since the early ‘90s. Socially, however, the trajectory has moved towards conservatism and orthodoxy. This contradiction cannot be maintained if India is to progress. One cannot have a conservative society with a liberal economy. A liberal economic system must have an open society where the rights of the individual are upheld, freedom of speech respected and the state enforces laws that defend freedom.
Presently, the state remains weak and confused; it lacks the capacity to enforce laws – also given the broken police and justice system.
The liberalisation of India is unlikely to continue unless a clear distinction is made between classical liberalism and neo-liberalism. The IMF and the World Bank aimed at privatisation of PSUs, deregulation of markets and opening the economy to external trade. This is better known as the Washington consensus. This, however, is only a small part of the liberal state. This approach to liberalisation only considers a few economic aspects but leaves the basic facets of man’s activity untouched.
The classical liberal approach involves the defence of private property, a market economy subject to essential regulations, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of civil liberties including of freedom of religion, and international peace promoted by free trade. Our governments have no regard to the rights of the citizen and govern through fear. There is no accountability, no commitment to the individual.
Second, all political parties in India are committed ideologically to socialism. They differ only in a marginal sense from each other. Therefore, reforms have hit an ideological ceiling. To make India the world freest country is not the objective of these parties. For that to happen requires the full force of an internally consistent liberal ideology.
The country has suffered enough. The aspirations of the youth have been shattered again, and yet again.
Is there any hope for India? For the second time our history a liberal party is coming into being. It is young but surefooted. It is idealistic but will act pragmatically where necessary. It is a party given birth to and nurtured by ordinary citizens, under the guiding light of liberty. The journey it proposes to take towards a better nation has just begun. It is the Swarna Bharat Party, India’s only classical liberal party.
Citizens must ask: what is it that our governments should do. Do we want our governments to rule us or do we want a government that respects and protects our rights?
It is time for us to bend the arch of history towards liberalism. We the people must restore the country to the idealism of our founding fathers and fulfil the gaps where they fell short. Let us join hands in this journey towards a great country. Let our rallying cry be “Liberty first”.