A few weeks ago I wrote about Gurcharan Das’s book, India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State. While waiting for my hard copy to arrive from Gurgaon (that can take a few more months – through someone who may come from India), Gurcharan yesterday indicated that the book is available on Kindle.
I’ve immediately purchased it.
This is a fascinating book. I had provided Gurcharan with some thoughts on a draft manuscript and I’m grateful Gurcharan thought my input useful enough to acknowledge it.
I strongly recommend that EVERYONE interested in India buy this book, and read it thoroughly.
In this book, Gurcharan Das is firmly recommending a liberal party for India.
I've been trying to do exactly that since February 1998. And Gurcharan has always been a great supporter.
Since it was established in July 2009, FTI is the key vehicle for such change. We, on FTI, should not disappoint Gurcharan.
I've consolidated extracts from this book into a “story” about what Gurcharan wants from India's liberal party.
EXTRACTS (REORGANISED, STREAMLINED, with MY SUB-HEADINGS)
When I embarked on this project I was not seeking prescriptions. I was attempting only to understand why India seemed to be stuck after the two best decades of its economic history. As I near its end, I find that what was essentially a project of self-cultivation has thrown up a number of actionable ideas.
I advocate the setting up of a secular, liberal political party in India. Now that the middle class is growing rapidly and none of the existing parties addresses its needs; the timing is also right as the nation’s centre of gravity has shifted to the right. Such a party is needed to transform India into a strong, liberal state.
The Swatantra Party was ahead of its time
The Swatantra Party was such a party—but it failed. Founded in 1959 by the distinguished C. Rajagopalachari and N.G. Ranga, it sought to remind Indians they were in danger of losing their hard-won liberty as a result of Nehru’s socialist policies which were leading to a ‘licence-permit-quota raj’. The twenty-one principles of its manifesto broadly reflected a classical liberal orientation. By placing the state ‘at the commanding heights’, it believed that decisions that should legitimately be made by market forces were increasingly being made by bureaucrats.
The party quickly attracted eminent names from across the country: Minoo Masani, an articulate former socialist; respected business leaders Homi Modi and A.D. Shroff; former civil servants H.M. Patel, N. Dandekar and J. Prabhu Lobo; K.M. Munshi, a former Congress veteran; Dahyabhai Patel, the son of Sardar Patel, the former deputy prime minister; and a host of maharajas, as also the beautiful Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur. It performed surprisingly well for a new party, capturing eighteen seats in the 1962 general elections, and became the main Opposition in four states. In 1967, it won forty-four seats and was the single largest Opposition party. But after 1971 it suffered a precipitous decline, particularly after Rajaji’s death.
The Swatantra Party was ahead of its time as it tried to push water uphill in a socialist age. History shows, however, that it is difficult for a liberal free-market party to succeed in a modern democracy without a conservative social agenda.
The time for a new liberal party is nigh
It would be preferable to nudge one of the two major national parties towards a secular, free-market agenda of good governance [Sanjeev: I don't agree: one can't deal with any existing corrupt force]. But that seems almost a hopeless prospect. The DNA of the BJP is not secular; the DNA of the Congress is statist, populist and socialist.
Neither of the two has shown the commitment for institutional reform that is needed for good governance, let alone the ability to deliver it. [Sanjeev: Both are SUPER CORRUPT, hence their capacity/commitment for reform doesn't matter. They are CRIMINAL BODIES. ]
The regional parties lack a national vision, except perhaps the Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh, which in any case has not proven its electoral capability. The left parties do not believe in market-based outcomes.
So a new party is the only alternative for a young, aspiring, secular Indian in the twenty-first century.
The timing for such a party of aspiration is far more propitious than the 1960s of the Swatantra Party. The mindset of the nation has shifted in the past two decades from a command economy run by the state to one based on a competitive market. Its primary constituency, the middle class, is almost a third of the population and will be half the country in a decade. As the Anna Hazare movement has shown, it is impatient for good governance.
Difficulties this new party will face
Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ is difficult to sell at the polls, however, precisely because it is invisible. This presents a problem. Economic and institutional reforms and fiscal responsibility are not winnable platforms because their benefits are not immediate but come in the long term. [Sanjeev: If properly analysed, there are HUGE short term benefits as well.]
Market liberals have been successful either when they had a social or cultural agenda or were in coalition with parties with such an agenda. In India, it is imperative to be secular at this fragile point in the nation’s history. Social and cultural appeals can prove to be dangerous and divide the nation.
How these difficulties can be resolved
A possible solution to this dilemma is to follow Mohandas Gandhi’s inspiration. That is, to bring both the market-based economic appeal and a rules-based governance appeal under the umbrella of high moral sadharana dharma. [Sanjeev: I agree, in part, that both Chanakya's Arthashastra and the core of Hindu Capitalism, are compatible with a liberal agenda]
A party committed to ‘doing the right thing’ will instinctively resonate with an electorate sick of corruption. Such an appeal is secular in the best sense. It respects tradition while not being sectarian.
As the citizen of a poor, democratic country one must be concerned about reducing hunger and poverty. It is important not to cede the ‘inclusion’ or ‘social justice’ platform to the Congress and the parties of the left. The overwhelming task is to prove to voters that open markets and rules-based government are the only civilized ways to lift living standards. When open markets are combined with genuine equality of opportunity via good schools and primary health centres, the result is shared prosperity for everyone. [Sanjeev: That's where the detailed recommendations in BFN come in]
Need for bottom-up organisation
Conspicuously absent in India’s politics are disciplined party organizations, which help leaders in other democracies to mobilize support for specific programmes. Hence, there is an excessive reliance on the personal appeal of individual leaders to win elections. The liberal party should avoid this pitfall. It must create a grass-roots organization right from the start and manage it transparently like a modern organization. It should be ‘bottom up’ and not ‘top down’, and employ the powerful instruments of social media and technology. If such a ‘bottom-up’ organization is created, the party will be rewarded when it comes to pushing through programmes or when opposition mounts.
It would have a single-minded focus on the reforms of institutions and on the second generation of economic reforms. It would trust markets rather than officials for economic outcomes, thereby drastically reducing the discretionary authority of politicians and bureaucrats in microeconomic decision-making. This in turn would decrease the interface of citizens with the state and shrink the chances of collusive corruption.
Thus, the country would begin to move away from crony capitalism and towards rules-based capitalism.It will be the party of aspiration for a young India with governance as top priority, advocating relentlessly to reform institutions in order to restore the rule of law and fight corruption.It will do what no party has done—educate the voter and ‘sell’ institutional and economic reforms to the citizen. [Sanjeev: FTI's policy competition is part of this process.]Since most of the reforms are well known it will focus more on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’, thereby underlining a bias for action and implementation in order to improve the delivery of services to the poor. It will place the human agenda high and work tirelessly to improve the quality and quantity of education and health care (although not necessarily through the public sector). Finally, it will insist on confining religion to the private space.
It is also important to say what this party will not stand for. It will eschew dogma and the utopian politics of the extreme left and right. At both extremes, collectivism increases and freedom decreases. The idea of a perfect world in which all good things exist is not only unattainable but is also dangerous, and those who allow themselves to come under the spell of dogma, religious or secular, become victims of myopia and in the end less human. Spontaneity is the fundamental human quality, and it is not compatible with ‘total solutions’, as Isaiah Berlin has eloquently argued. Yet, one must do everything one can to reduce hunger and fight against injustice. Talking about equality is cheap in a poor country, and one must avoid it unless one is willing to enact great crimes or suffer great costs. Meanwhile, the best one can do is to work for open markets and rules-based government—that is the only civilized way to lift living standards, reduce environmental destruction and achieve shared prosperity.
The idea of a new secular party of governance and reform may seem hopelessly idealistic to the voter, who has grown cynical over time, but isn’t it common sense to want politics to satisfy our most basic needs and reflect our aspirations to create a better India?
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