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Indian politics & the thought of Liberty

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By Harshmeet Singh

Of all the words in the English language, ‘Liberty’ is my favorite. After all, Liberty is a prerequisite to enjoy the true essence of human life. It was this desire of liberty that gave rise to the feeling of Nationalism in the country and turned young men into freedom fighters ready to sacrifice their lives. Thousands died to ensure that their motherland, India, achieves liberty from the British Raj. As the history stands today, their sacrifices didn’t go in vain. However, many historians prefer to contest this. According to a number of historians, the great Indian Nationalist movement just brought about a ‘transfer of power’ and not liberty. 68 years down the line, these questions are just as relevant today. Did we really achieve liberty or was it just the transfer of power from one hand to another, with no change at the grassroots.

India_flag_emblem

Most colonialized countries in Asia and Africa had suffered from the ill effects of capitalism when their ruling powers used them for their resources. So when these countries became free, Socialism and Marxism were the obvious choices as the frontline political ideologies. But with growing corruption and nepotism and the ruling Congress party failing to fulfill the big dreams it projected to the nation at the time of independence, the growing unrest in the country called for a change which came out in the form of the ‘Swatantra Party’ in 1956. Founded by C. Rajagopalachari, the Swatantra Party was way ahead of its time. After all, the same Congress party which opposed its demands of an end to ‘License Raj’ had to take that route when the country was at the verge of bankruptcy in 1991. With a number of veteran ex-Congressmen among the ranks of the party, people stood up to listen what the party had to offer. In 1967, the second general election that the party fought, it emerged as the single largest opposition party, winning 44 seats.

After Rajagopalachari died in 1972, the party couldn’t hold on to its supporter base and merged with the Bharatiya Kranti Dal in 1974. Though short lived, it was India’s first brush with a political party that stood on the ideals of liberty.

Classical liberalism demands the state to play a largely restricted role in the market while ensuring that the values of justice and security are upheld. Though a perfectly ‘liberal’ state is impossible to achieve, proponents of liberalism suggest taking up measures that can move a society towards classical liberalism. The liberal policies, if applied in the Indian context, suggest that a large population, if well handled and appropriately educated is never a burden. Similarly, liberal values support freedom of an individual, freedom to make a mistake and learn from it. Rather than handing out subsidies, individuals must be well trained, educated and encouraged to sustain themselves.

With the introduction of LPG reforms in 1991, India looked all set to achieve a global stature and assume the position of a world leader that it always aspired for. And yet, close to 25 years hence, we are still nowhere near the tag of a ‘world power’. Where did it go wrong then? Or maybe, where did it not go wrong? The corruption and nepotism that led to the formation of Swatantra Party in 1956 has assumed humungous proportions. The Congress party (and most others) is in a state of trance, refusing to listen to the opinions of the common man and singing its own tune. And just like déjà vu, we have a party formed on the lines of ‘Liberty’, the Swarna Bharat Party. Formed in 2013, the SBP aims to go one step ahead of the Swatantra Party and make India the envy of the entire world”.

In an email exchange with NewsGram, Swarna Bharat Party’s founder, Sanjeev Sabhlok said that his party is determined to “make India a place without communal or naxalite violence”. The party envisions an India “free of its colonial socialist and corrupt governance system.” When asked if the party intends to fight elections in the near future, he remarked, “No governance reform can be achieved without legislative reform. To deliver that will require political action. The party is beginning to establish its internal systems, and seeks leaders to contest elections in the coming years.” Underlining the lack of political awareness in the country, he further added that “the country is largely ignorant about liberty and good governance, and the educational task must precede any political success.”

Sadly enough our ‘fight for liberty’ was defined as the fight against the British Empire. Little did we know that we would need a much bigger revolution to gain liberty from our own brethren!

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Indian Politics and Polity Shift to the Right and Away from Europe

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism

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Rahul Gandhi becomes president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi steps down
Rahul Gandhi steps in as President of Congress, Wikipedia

By Dr. Richard Benkin, Chicago

  • India is world’s largest democracy
  • Indian politics is always under international coverage
  • India is witnessing political shift due to its leaders and their transformation

The great democracy was electing its national leader.  It was a fight between the party in power with a leftist tinge; and the more conservative opposition with its upstart candidate. The media was rooting openly for the leftist candidate and would stop at almost nothing, even vilifying the conservative upstart as evil, not just wrong.  The candidate on the left seemed to feel entitled, that being head of state was all in the family.  And, as you probably have guessed, that candidate lost.  You might or might not have guessed that, despite the familiarity to American voters, this was not the United States.  It was India.

will also hold a meeting there with the Indian community. Wikimedia Commons
Narendra Modi’ win in 2014 elections stunned the whole nation. Wikimedia Commons

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism.  Its candidate, then 43 year old, Rahul Gandhi, was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Prime Ministers; and though India is the world’s largest democracy, not the world’s largest monarchy, it was “his turn” to take the nation’s top spot.

The similarities between the Indian Congress Party and the US Democrat Party stop, however, with how the two parties and their dynastic candidates reacted to their defeats.  While there is ample evidence that the Democrats are moving further to the left, India’s Congress, and especially its former candidate, seem to have taken the lessons of their defeat to heart.  Moreover, we too often gauge a polity’s position on the left-right spectrum by which major party dominates.  In the Indian case, however, we get a deeper understanding by examining changes in the out of power party.

Also Read: Rahul Gandhi Elected as President of Congress Amidst Celebration of Followers

The Indian National Congress Party was founded in 1885 and, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was the principal leader of the movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947.  It has ruled India for roughly 57.5 of its 70.5 years as a modern nation (81.6 percent of its entire existence).  Congress fashions itself left-center party with “democratic socialism” as one of the party’s guiding principles; and over the years, I have written a number of articles, criticizing what I believe to be weak Congress policies.  It has followed the lead of soft left European parties, in contrast with the Indian nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Amitabh Tripathi is a well-known Indian political commentator.  I caught up with him in New Delhi in February and asked him about how the Congress Party was reacting to its crushing 2014 defeat.

RB:  So, was the 2014 election a strong statement about traditional Indian politics?

AT:  Definitely.  Till 1991, Indian politics was at a status quo with socialist, leftist, and communist stances prevalent.  After 1991, right wing politics emerged as a political force.  Since then, Indian politics has shifted to the right; and from time to time for more than two decades, left and right engaged in direct political confrontations.  Congress led the coalition of leftists; and the BJP emerged as the leader of the right.  The BJP ruled the country for six years (1998-2004) and its policies swung to the right, including a vocal and unapologetic relationship with Israel, moving forward strategically with the United States, and exploring India’s role in the Indian Ocean to contain China and its imperialistic ambitions. When the BJP lost power to a Congress led coalition in 2004, the Indian polity again shifted left; and Congress became a complete replica of its 1960s self—a totally leftist party.

Rahul Gandhi becomes the president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi Steps Down
Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run). It is believed he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.

In 2014, when elections occurred, the Indian polity moved on to the right on issues from economics to culture.  Before the election, Congress did not read the undercurrent of the people and moved even further left on those issues.  This has been widely acknowledged as the reason for its crushing defeat.

RB:  So it was a real shift to the right among Indians, which sounds a lot like our own experience in 2016.  In the US, the losing Democrat party has reacted by moving further left.  Has India’s Congress tried to understand the reasons behind its defeat?

AT:  The latter statement is correct.  Immediately after losing the elections, Congress realized it was not simply an electoral defeat.  Its ideological stagnation led to the historical loss.  And it tried to rectify that and re-invent itself.

RB:  How have they done that?

AT:  I observed it on three fronts, three major decisions.  First, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the former party President and current head of the dynastic family, took an almost “voluntary” retirement.  She had become the face of hard left and anti-Hindu policies.

RB:  Sounds familiar.  Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has become the same here, but she does not seem to be going anywhere.

AT:  Second, in ten years of Congress rule, they openly flaunted themselves as very pro-Muslim, which irritated the majority Hindus in India.  But last year, in prestigious elections in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Gujarat), Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally.  Plus, Congress Party Vice-President (now President) Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run).  We believe he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.  Some people might say it was an opportunistic political move, but I would say it was a well-calculated shift in the party to shed the tags of pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.

Third, since the days of the freedom movement before independence, and during the rule of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi (almost the entire period from independence to 1984); Congress followed the policy of demonizing the wealthy and glorifying the poor.  It seems, however, that Rahul Gandhi wants the population to know that he strongly favors the wealth generating middle class and capitalism; he opposes only crony capitalism.  He says the poor should aspire to become wealthy through greater opportunities and employment.

RB:  What about Rahul Gandhi himself?  Does he have a future in Indian politics?

AT:  Since 2014, we have watched his evolution from entitled politician to serious politician who understands the people’s aspirations and country’s need.  Perhaps most importantly has been his understanding of foreign policy and India’s role and responsibilities at a global level.  He has said that he’s ready to take the responsibility of the office of Prime Minister if elected, and he could make a formidable candidate.

Raul Maino
Rahul Gandhi can potentially cause a shift in Indian politics due to his transformation. Twitter

RB:  I’ve heard a lot of people talking positively about him and his growth in my time here.  I believe you also told me he has spent a lot of this time really listening to people from all classes and communities.  Thank you, Amitabh ji, it’s always a pleasure to hear your thoughts, and always a pleasure to be in India.

In a larger context, we have seen a reaction against decades of leftist overreach worldwide:  Donald Trump’s election; Brexit; and a number of elections in Europe rejecting the European Union and loss of national identity (most recently in Italy).  There has been little focus on Asia perhaps because it has not been in the orbit of traditional left-right equations in the West.  India, however, has become a major player on the world stage under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  It has historical conflicts with both Pakistan and China, and can be a major bulwark against Chinese expansion westward.  India also has strengthened its alliances with both the United States and Israel while maintaining relations with Iran.  The rightward movement there is highly significant in plotting future Indian geopolitical moves.

[Richard Benkin is a human rights activist and author with a strong concentration in South Asia.  Amitabh Tripathi appears often on Indian television and in other media.  He is also a contributor to What is Moderate Islam, edited by Richard Benkin.  This interview was conducted in New Delhi on February 27, 2018, while Benkin was there as part of a recently-concluded human rights mission.]