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This article gives an overview of liberalism in India.
The strengthening of British influence in Bengal with the battle of Plassey in 1757 coincided with significant developments of thought in England (John Locke in the 1680s, Adam Smith with his monumental book in 1776, and Edmund Burke) and in the USA (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, among others). The English language came to India in 1603 in Akbar's time but there was then no pressing economic reason for Indian people to learn English. It was only after the consolidation of Bengal by Robert Clive and the extension of the East India Company into the Indian political landscape, that the demand for learning English began to grow. By 1835, Indians were paying serious money to be taught English, as it gave them job openings in the Company. As Thomas Babington Macaulay noted in his famous Minute: “the natives” had become “desirous to be taught English” and were no longer “desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic”. Further, those who wished to, seemed to picked up English very well: "it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos." (see the Minute at ).
Those who learnt English quickly became aware of its literature, including the rapid evolution of Western political thought. This greater awareness of the advances in freedom laid the seeds for the demand for self-rule.
While people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) were beginning to articulate elements of these political arguments, no one was in a position to explore and articulate new insights. However they did catch up with key liberal ideas and began implementing some of these advances thought through their new demands for greater freedom in India. While the West was firmly embedding its new political institutions, or contesting the growing forces of socialism (which had overpowered parts of the feudal and aristocratic West), the Indian intelligentsia was grappling with the challenge of the first major task ahead of it, namely independence.
As well as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, other contributors to political thought on freedom in 19th century India included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842–1901), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915) and Pherozeshah Mehta (1845–1915). Theory led to an independence movement in India. Gandhi demonstrated through a humane, non-violent, and dignified protest, that all humans were equal and should be treated equally, including their being given the opportunity to govern themselves. This was a major advance in the theory and practice of freedom and can be argued to have had a major effect in ending the age of imperialism and the age of racial discrimination.
Nehru, who was very well-educated and fully aware of the history of liberalism, seems to have had surprisingly little faith in an individual’s ability to think and take responsibility for himself or herself. Nehru did not emphasise the importance of each individual undertaking self reflection and choosing among ethical alternatives. Possibly, in his view, making these ethical choices was too difficult for the common man. He definitely believed that these choices were best directed through state level dictates laid down by governing elites. Through planning. In any event, he veered toward collectivist and socialist thinking where decision making power is concentrated in the state. Decentralisation, where power and freedom vests with people at the lowest levels, was anathema to Nehru. He stated in his Autobiography : “socialism is ... for me not merely an economic doctrine which I favour; it is a vital creed which I hold with all my head and heart.” Indian industrialists (with their Bombay Plan) also sided with Nehru on a socialist pattern based on the Russian 5-year plan model.
Despite the environment in which socialist thought was flourishing, India was fortunate to enjoy at least a few liberties even before independence. The advances made in political institutions in England as a result of liberalism were imported and embedded into India over the decades by British rulers. Things like the right of assembly and protest under reasonable circumstances, the right to property, and freedom of expression ─ with a relatively free press, became a part and parcel of Indian political landscape before independence.
The 1949 Indian Constitution gave to Indians some of the liberal rights that the British and Americans had come to expect by then. In addition, India extended franchise to everyone: all adults had the right to vote in the Indian Republic. That was earlier than even most developed countries had provided to their citizens at that time.
But on most political issues, India adopted Nehru’s socialist model, that included a significant dilution in property rights, among others. The government entered businesses as its primary activity, to help it achieve the ‘commanding heights of the economy.’ Government factories sprung up quickly and began churning out shirts, watches, fridges, scooters, bicycles, milk, bread, and cheese.
Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, the second Governor-General of India, and a Bharat Ratna, was a close colleague of Nehru during the independence movement. But soon after independence he quickly began to see the risks to India of letting Nehru’s fervour with socialism go unchallenged. Despite having fought for independence by Nehru’s side, and without regard for his own advanced age (Rajaji was 80 by then), Rajaji decided to act to block Nehru’s onslaught on freedom. He formed the Freedom (Swatantra) Party, to oppose Nehru's policies.
For the next 14 years till his death in 1972 he waged a battle with Nehru’s Congress to advance freedom. But as Nehru was extremely popular at that time, and also had the resources of the government at his command, Rajaji’s was inevitably a losing battle. He wrote about his Party in 1960:
“The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival.
Rajaji’s opposition arguably helped India minimize the excesses of socialism. His party held 44 seats in Parliament in the Fourth Lok Sabha (1967–71). Swatantra was also part of the opposition to the Nath Pai Bill that advocated primacy for the Directive Principles of State Policy over Fundamental Rights. There were many other occasions when Swatantra acted as the voice of reason in a very unreasonable time. Making use of the free press and democracy, Swatantra pressed on for freedom, regardless of the difficulties it faced, but ran out of steam in 1973.
Since then, many new thinkers such as S.Raju, Sharad Joshi, Barun Mitra, Parth Shah, Gurcharan Das, Sauvik Chakraverti, and many others have emerged on the Indian liberal scene, contributing to the debate on freedom in India, and advancing classical liberalism.
The Indian National Congress, the flag-ship of Indian Independence Movement, was founded by liberal nationalist, like Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Almost the entire leadership of the Congress till mid-1920s was liberal in its stance. Sometime in the 1920s, the Congress leadership was taken over by socialists like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, forcing liberals to move into a separate platform. Gandhi however retained liberal leanings and never supported socialism. He was opposed to government taking over ownership of property. He wanted to bring responsible business (trusteeship) and local self-government.
After Independence, Swatantra Party was founded as India's Liberal Party in 1959. It was founded by Rajaji, but merged with B.K.D. led by Charan Singh. It has been India's only genuinely liberal political group so far, with a large number of seats in Parliament. This effort ended in 1973.
In January 2004 Indian liberals attempted to revive the spirit of the Swatantra Party by forming the Swantantra Bharat Party (SBP). SBP now has one seat in Parliament, namely of its President, Sharad Joshi.
A minor but distinctly liberal effort, the Liberal Party of India (LPI), based on economic and political liberalism, was floated in 12 April 2005 independent to the Swatantra Bharat Party. The need for a separate party arose over a significant difference of opinion regarding the level of transparency needed in a liberal party. However, LPI wound up within a few months given only a few active members.
The Lok Satta Party launched in 2006 claims to be rooted in liberalism, but its strategy and policies are awaited.
The Jago Party launched in 2008 is a serious political party based on principles of liberalism and it openly supports free market economy for India. It contested on 17 seats in Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and got around 0.5% votes.
In the meanwhile, Indians are able to take advantage of economic liberalism now on offer from a number of 'mainstream' parties, which, however, are not grounded in philosophical liberalism.
After Independence, India adopted the Socialist model of development. This led to creation of Licence Raj, the elaborate licences, regulations and the accompanying red tape that were required to set up business in India.
The economic liberalisation of 1991, initiated by then Indian prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh in response to a balance-of-payments crisis, did away with the Licence Raj and ended many public monopolies, allowing automatic approval of foreign direct investment in many sectors.
Since 1990, India has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world; during this period, the economy has grown constantly with only a few major setbacks. This has been accompanied by increases in life expectancy, literacy rates and food security. However, India had also shown fast growth in the 1980s while its rating in the Economic Freedom of Nations (EFN) had actually fallen. Agriculture which still employs 60% people had shown faster growth in the 1980s than the 1990s. In fact, post-liberalization, the productivity growth in agriculture has fallen behind the growth in population.
This is a list of both past and present political parties with liberal views.
Swatantra Bharat Party
Liberal Party of India
Lok Satta Party
Contemporary Indian Liberals