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14 August 2013, Gateway House

Reformulating the liberal agenda

India needs a new liberal party, which trusts markets rather than officials for economic outcomes, and focuses on reform of the institutions of governance. This new party must be accompanied by a recovery of the moral authority of our Constitution, and by individual engagement with everyday politics

Author and commentator

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India’s economic rise over the past couple of decades has been a remarkable event that has lifted tens of millions out of abject poverty and created a solid middle class. But it is also a story of private success and public failure. Prosperity has been achieved in the face of appalling governance. Indians despair over the state’s inability to deliver the most basic public services – law and order, education, health, and clean water. India desperately needs honest policemen, diligent officials, judges who give swift justice, functioning schools and primary health care centres.

Where it is needed the Indian state is near absent; where it is not needed, it is hyperactive, tying people in miles of red tape. Some Indians cynically sum up this paradox of private success and public failure with an aphorism: “India grows at night while the government sleeps.” But how can a nation sustain economic growth over the long term with a weak, flailing state? Shouldn’t India also grow during the day? The recent economic slowdown may indicate that India has begun to experience the limits of growing in the shadows.

Generally, Leftists desire a large state and Rightists a small one, but what India needs is an effective state, with a more robust rule of law and greater accountability. It is efficient in the sense that it enforces fairly and forcefully the rule of law, contracts, and rights guaranteed in the Constitution. It is strong because it has independent regulators who are tough on corruption and ensure that no one is above the law. It is enabling because it delivers services honestly to all citizens.

In India we seem to have forgotten that the state was created to act; it should not take eight years to build a road when it takes three elsewhere; it should not take 10 years to get justice when it should take two. At the centre, executive decision-making is paralysed, parliamentary gridlock prevails, and the courts routinely dictate action to the executive. An aggressive civil society and media have enhanced accountability in India, but at the expense of enfeebling an already feeble executive with limited capacity.

A successful liberal democracy must have a strong central authority to permit decisive action; it must have a transparent rule of law to ensure those actions are legitimate; and it must be accountable to the people. In short, India needs a strong liberal state with these three core elements. This was the original conception of the state as imagined by the classical liberal thinkers who inspired both America’s and India’s founding fathers. But building a state with all three elements is not easy, as each tends to sometimes undermine the other. While an aggressive civil society and media are enhancing accountability – for example, through the Right to Information Act – the state’s ability to act has been undercut both by a weak rule of law and, ironically, by society’s success in making the state accountable.

It is a mistake to think that the Indian state was weakened in recent times because of coalition politics, feckless leadership, and economic liberalisation. India historically had a weak state, though one counterbalanced by a strong society – the mirror image of China. India’s history is one of political disunity with constant struggles between kingdoms, unlike China’s history of strong empires. The type of despotic and intrusive governments that emerged in China and divested people of their property and their rights have never existed in India.

The king in Indian history was a distant figure and hardly touched the life of the ordinary person. The law, dharma, preceded the state and placed limits on the king’s power in pre-modern India. The king also did not interpret the law, unlike in China; the Brahmin, a scholar class, assumed that function. This division of powers may have contributed to a weak Indian state at birth, but it also prevented oppression by the state.

The modern Indian state is also a product of British rule, which, beginning in the mid-19th century, imposed a rule of law with explicit codes and regulations. Though efficient, that state was not accountable to its citizens. That changed in 1947, as independent India took those institutions of governance and made them accountable by developing into a vibrant, if untidy, democracy.

In the 21st century, true to its history, India is rising economically from below, quite unlike China whose success has been scripted from above by an amazing, technocratic state. It is also not surprising that India’s traditionally strong society is evolving into a vibrant civil society. The mass movement led by political activist Anna Hazare, which forced India’s political elite to accept a strong anti-corruption law in 2011, is only the most recent example of a historically weak state colliding with a strong society.

The hope for change lies with the young

A successful nation needs both a strong state and a strong society to keep a check on each other. Unfortunately, Anna Hazare’s movement, with its chanting multitudes inspired by a mystical faith in the collective popular will, might awaken people to the need for reform, but it cannot do the hard political work necessary to transform India’s tottering state into a strong, liberal one.

A sweeping anti-corruption law is a good idea, but it is only a first step. It will take patient, determined efforts to reform the key institutions of governance – the bureaucracy, judiciary, police, and Parliament – along well-known lines articulated by numerous committees. The federal trend, which is shifting power away from the centre and to the states, is a virtuous one, as is the slow decentralising of power and funds downwards to foster vigorous, local self-government in villages and municipalities.

But those trends do not address the central issue of how to reform the state institutions. If it is lucky, India might throw up a strong leader who is a reformer of institutions. Indira Gandhi was a strong leader, but she turned out to be a destroyer of institutions.

The next best hope is the aspiring younger generation, now about a third of the country – and destined to make up half of the electorate in a decade. Reforms happen when there is a demand for reform, and this class is impatient for reform. But it has no one to vote for because few politicians speak the language of public good and good governance. The existing parties treat voters as poor, ignorant masses who need to be appeased at election time with populist giveaways and appeal to the victim in the voter.

With high growth, mobility, and a demographic revolution, Indians who aspire to a better life will soon overtake those who see themselves as victims. Pew surveys show that a majority of Indians believe that they are better off than their parents and that their children will do even better. The person who got the 900 millionth cell phone number was a village migrant from Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most impoverished states, and no one in India’s political life captures his hopes. This rising youthful cohort will no longer accept a civic life shaped by those who are powerful and corrupt. Young Indians also have shown considerable ability to mobilise media and employ the new technology of social media. Political life may thus be set to change.

Filling India’s political void

A young, aspiring, secular India needs a new liberal party of the 21st century, which trusts markets rather than officials for economic outcomes, and relentlessly focuses on the reform of the institutions of governance. Since existing parties refuse to fill the empty political space at the right of centre, it is the right time for the birth of a liberal political party or the revival of the old Swatantra Party. The young, aspiring India will resonate with a party that trusts markets rather than officials for economic outcomes and focuses on the reform of institutions.

Such a party may not win votes quickly, but it will bring governance reform to centre stage and gradually prove to voters that open markets and rules-based government are the only civilised ways to lift living standards and achieve shared prosperity.

The young are puzzled as to why their tolerant nation offers astonishing religious and political freedom but fails in economic freedom. In a country where two out of five people are self-employed, it takes 42 days to start a business and the entrepreneur is a victim of endless red tape and corrupt inspectors. No wonder, India ranks 119 on the global “freedom index”and 134 on the “ease of doing business.”

India reforms furtively because no political party has bothered to explain the difference between being “pro-market” and “pro-business,” leaving people with the impression that liberal reforms mostly help the rich. They don’t understand that being pro-market is to believe in competition, which helps keep prices low, raises the quality of products, and leads to a “rules-based capitalism” which serves everyone. In today’s environment, the lack of leadership from business has changed the meaning of being pro-business; today it means letting politicians and officials distort the market’s authority over economic decisions, leading to “crony capitalism.”

Finding India’s new moral core

The rule of law is based on a moral consensus, expressed daily in the “habits of the heart,” as the 19th century French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville put it. People obey the law not only because they fear punishment but because they think it is fair and just, and it becomes a habit and a form of self-restraint.

Unfortunately, the leaders of independent India have failed to sell the liberal ideals of our Constitution. People have got the impression that the Constitution somehow “fell from the sky” and have never taken ownership for it (unlike the Americans, for example). Therefore, the second item on the liberal agenda after the creation of a liberal political party, is to “sell” the Constitution to the people and recover constitutional morality. The demand for governance reform must emerge out of a reinvigorated Indian moral core.

Early in the freedom struggle, Mohandas Gandhi discovered that the western liberal language of constitutional morality did not resonate with the masses, but the moral language of dharma did. So, like a consummate myth-maker, he resuscitated the universal ethic of sadharana dharma, not unlike the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, who embarked on a programme to build new “habits of the heart” based on dharma.

The notion of dharma imposed a moral core in pre-modern India and gave coherence to people’s lives, reduced uncertainty and provided self-restraint. It restrained the power of the state through rajdharma – it was higher than the king whose duty was to uphold it. For this reason the founding fathers of our Constitution often invoked dharma in their speeches and even placed the wheel of dharma, the Ashoka chakra in the new nation’s flag. The great Sanskrit scholar P. V. Kane, who won the Bharat Ratna, called the Constitution a “dharma text.”

Gandhi may not have been able to end untouchability, but he breathed life into the freedom movement. In the same manner, our challenge is make the Constitution a moral mirror by transmitting its ideas to the young as part of a broad citizenship project until they also become “habits of the heart.” A paramount duty of the liberal party will be to help in this and to recover India’s moral core.

Engaging with politics

The third piece of the liberal agenda lies with decent individuals to move out of the dogged pursuit of material comfort and engage with politics. Sixty five years after independence, the nobility of politics has been replaced by criminality. The best spurn politics, leaving it to the worst.

The right place to begin is one’s neighbourhood. When public-spirited individuals engage in the community they help create the notion of a “citizen.” By joining local clubs and social activities, they connect with neighbours. And when neighbours meet, what do they talk about? They discuss the condition of the roads, the schools, garbage collection and so on. Thus, civic life and “citizen” are born.

What inhibits decent people from entering politics in India is black money and political dynasties. A talented, high-minded person will not join a party without inner democracy where merit is not rewarded. Fortunately, a new generation of political leaders has begun to realise that a young India is waking up politically and it will not tolerate the old sycophantic politics of rishwat and sifarish. Political parties will have to learn to value talent the way India’s companies do. A party with inner democracy and meritocracy is bound to gain competitive advantage in the end. Dynasties are thus warned.

All of us struggle to give meaning to our lives. The standard Indian solution is to turn inwards and seek liberation from human bondage through meditation. But there also exists in our tradition the path of action, karma yoga, which means to leave the world a little better than we found it. The answer to our democratic discontent is thus to dive into one’s neighbourhood and assume the duties of a citizen. Just one hour a week in the neighbourhood is the best way to reciprocate the compliment that our founding fathers paid us.

These three elements constitute a new “liberal agenda” for India.

Gurcharan Das is an author and commentator. His latest book is ‘India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State’.

This article was written exclusively for Gateway House’s Independence Day special report, ‘India’s Liberal Agenda. You can read more exclusive content from Gateway House here.

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