India’s Liberal Agenda by Gateway House

This report examines whether traditional liberalism stands a chance in today’s India, where the individual’s role has been nearly subsumed by a dominant state seeking to be benefactor.

By Manjeet Kripalani, Executive Director, Gateway House

India is surely on the most arduous part of its journey to being a truly free and democratic nation, one which accommodates diversity of opinion and person, and achieves growth, equality, and the dignity of the individual. We are currently beset by multiple setbacks in the form of identity politics, crony capitalism, corruption, and ethnic conflict. The role of the individual is nearly subsumed by a dominant and powerful state seeking to be benefactor.

Our Constitution, a generous and liberal document, built in provisions to end traditional discriminations of all kinds. But we have failed to build the sophisticated institutional capacities to deal with the demands of a more complex global economy. Instead, we have fallen back on the old certainties of caste, religion, and gender.

Our large youthful population is struggling to find its pulse in a global environment that is awash with the desire for change. Everywhere, societal, economic, political, and technological transformation is bringing on a collision between an increasingly independent individual and a state determined to control and curtail.

As the world’s largest democracy, India must lead the debate on the new political processes. We are viewed as a model for democratic aspirations; people involved in the continuing upheavals in West Asia, South Asia, the Americas, even Europe, are looking for a re-examination of political systems, unchanged now since the end of the Second World War.

The 67th year of our Independence, when we are still young enough to adapt but also mature enough to understand the need to do so, is the right time to re-examine our socio-economic and political condition. Some voices have begun to question, vigorously, our decrepit current system and to imagine a new one. What can work for an India that is yearning for change and progress, yet is comfortable in its history and tradition?

Among the many ideas for a new India that are finding resonance among respected scholars and citizens alike, is that of a liberal society, polity, and economy. A liberalism that is the opposite of paternalism, which does not prescribe but expands access and availability for the citizen in whom the state places trust and ensures a level playing field. This releases the entrepreneurial spirits of a people.

For years, liberalism has been studied and viewed mostly from the western texts. In fact, India has its own rich liberal traditions, which have not been studied as well. The leaders of a newly-independent country also espoused a liberal agenda for India – Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, Minoo Masani – to name only a few.

It is these views which are recalled in this anthology, and others examined. The eight thoughtful essays within look once more at India through the liberal lens. Pratap Bhanu Mehta examines whether traditional liberalism stands a chance in the new India; Shyam Saran shows how terrorism and the security apparatus curtail liberal values; Kumar Ketkar explains why liberalism is often mistaken for post-modern opportunism; Surjit Bhalla fears the economic illiberalism that has settled in;Gurcharan Das argues for a strong liberal state that works with the dharma of the individual; Rama Bijapurkar writes about how re-thinking the education system can invigorate the liberal agenda; Parth Shah speaks of the importance of liberal principles in the domains of economics, politics and social life; Tony Fernandes weaves Gandhian liberal views with those of economic liberalization.

On this Independence Day, we offer you this rich repast and look forward to your responses.

 1. Liberalism in the large by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

2. A war on terror or an assault on liberal values? by Ambassador Shyam Saran

3. Liberalism is not post modern opportunism by Kumar Ketkar

4. In search of economic liberalism in India by Surjit Bhalla

5. Reformulating the liberal agenda by Gurcharan Das

6. For a liberal India, liberate education by Rama Bijapurkar

7. A new ecosystem of liberal principles by Parth J Shah

8. Liberalism as enlightened capitalism by Tony Fernandes

You can download the full report for no charge.  This compendium of essays was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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