Testimonies of India’s Liberal Traditions

Opening Remarks by Regional Director Dr. Ronald Meinardus at the Conference "Swatantra – Principle, People, Politics" in New Delhi on February 3, 2018
Dr. Ronald Meinardus at Swatantra Conference organized by CCS

History holds many lessons. We live in times of rapid transitions. As time flies by, it is important to pause for a moment or two, look back – and contemplate: Study the past if you would define the future, advises Confucius. This wisdom holds true for all walks of life – most certainly also for politics.

This in mind, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) proudly supports the online repository of Indian liberals at indianliberals.in, a unique data base of writings and other testimonies of India’s most important liberals. These sources, very probably, would be lost over time if not for the efforts of our partners Centre for Civil Society (CCS)  to digitize them in a systematic manner – and, thus, preserve them for future generations.

We celebrate the storage of the Swatantra Party’s arch at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) as a major project of preservation of India’s liberal history.  The political relevance of this project cannot be overstated amid suggestions liberalism, in today’s India, is on the retreat, yes endangered. Some go as far to say illiberal practices are increasing with a negative impact on the quality of democratic governance and national harmony.

In “Liberalism in India. Past, Present and Future” (edited by Parth Shah), Hindol Sengupta poses the question: “Can any country be so bewilderingly liberal and yet so exasperatingly illiberal at once?”

Some observers negate the existence of liberalism in India today. They point to the absence of a liberal party, and mention reports about increasing intolerance and political polarization.

I do not agree at all: In spite of many misgivings, India has a liberal tradition and, very much so, also a liberal present. There are many people who believe and fight for the promotion of liberty. These people are liberals, even – as is sometimes the case – they may not use the term liberal.

The focus of this conference is not so much liberalism as a set of values and principles. We will speak of organized liberalism, partisan liberalism and liberal party politics.

In this regard, India today is indeed a white spot on the global map. In his paper “The Problem with Liberal Parties”, Jaithirth Rao argues that political parties “in order to have a meaningful presence, must fall back on the identity factor”. This may be regional, linguistic, caste-based or religious. Importantly, he also says the Swatantra Party was an “exception” to this rule.

Not at all optimistic about the perspectives of the emergence of a liberal party in today’s India, Rao observes that the classical liberals have two alternative choices: Some may join the BJP “hoping to influence matters from within”.

The second choice is to withdraw from active politics and use vehicles like think tanks, journals and other groups to make an impact on the national agenda.

There seems to be general agreement that the Swatantra Party has been the first and only national party that aimed at advancing liberal principles – on the base of a true liberal program.

Their “21 principles” of 1959 stand out as a powerful political manifesto. The programmatic focus was on the antagonism with the socialist-leaning Congress Party. Economic policy was the leading theme and many points of the Swatantra principles remain relevant also in today’s India: The equality of opportunity, the principle of maximum freedom for the individual and minimum interference by the state, the fundamental right to education and the pledge for internal democracy within the party.

Politics is and always has been also a battle of labels – and for labels. Liberals are used to being termed right-wing and pro-business, both terms imply a lack of empathy for social justice and the working people. Both labels are also used for the Swatantra Party - falsely used in my humble opinion. Terming the party pro-business might be justified, if one adds that it was basically pro-economic freedom and thus pro-development. However, the term “right-wing” is more problematic, particularly in today’s perspective when the right is identified as “populist”, against civil liberties and diversity - and for nationalism.

Middle-of-the-road liberalism

In the book “Congress and the Swantantra Alternative”, Minoo Masani clarifies where he wishes to see the party: “The new party that we all desire to see should be what may be broadly called the middle-of-the road or center party which would eschew dogma and extremes of any kind.”

To appreciate the writings of India’s liberal giants, we need to consider the historical context. This was defined by the antagonism with the Congress whose socialist policies were ruining the country and undermining the prospects of sustainable economic development. Not surprisingly, economic liberalization had to stand at the top of the liberal agenda of those times.

For India’s liberals today, the challenges would be different. Liberalism is confronted with a government that, if you go by the rhetoric, aspires to unleash the powers of the market. With the extent and seriousness of this effort a matter of dispute even among supporters, the main concern lies elsewhere: suggestions tolerance and respect for diversity and civil liberties has suffered, are voiced not only by isolated advocacy groups.

The Swatantra Party was not concerned only about the economy. Principle 1 of the “21 principles” is testimony of a broader liberal agenda as the party demands “equality of opportunity for all people without distinction of religion, caste, occupation or political affiliation”.

“What India needs today is a reformation and a renaissance, writes Minoo Masani in a little book titled “We Indians” published by the “Indian Liberal Group” in 1989. “The reformation will free the Indian people from outdated religious taboos and orthodox attitudes which prevent social change. The reformation would put an end to untouchability and other evils manifest in the caste system.”

This book and many other writings of the leaders of the Swatantra Party are testimonies of a great liberal tradition. The archival storing of these intellectual treasures in the Nehru Memorial Library makes them accessible for future generations of scholars and political practitioners – for the benefit of all Indians and the world at large.