Since January 2004, a group of liberals (proper liberals, not the left liberals) have been mulling the idea of setting up a liberal political party in India. It even experimented with supporting Sharad Joshi's Swatantra Bharat Party (SBP) in the 2004 elections, but that experiment didn't quite work out the way it was meant to, to everybody's disappointment. But efforts are continuing because people still feel that there is the need for a liberal political party in India to step into the vacant space created by the exit of the Swatantra Party.
There were two drivers behind these initiatives - the need for a party which believes in a free society and economy and the need to restore values in public life which, it was argued, only a new political formation could do. The existing parties had all thoroughly discredited themselves and had contributed to the decline in values as well as generated contempt for politics among the public at large.
But are the assumptions correct? Is India ready for a political party that believes in liberalism?
I am not sure how ideologically inclined the average Indian voter is, barring the committed communist or sangh parivar followers. There is a vague preference among the other voters for either the Congress or the BJP or various regional parties in states, but I doubt whether anyone really understands the ideological issues involved. The growing anti-Congress sentiment stemmed less from discomfort with its ideology and more from what it came to stand for - dynasty, dictatorship, corruption and arrogance of power. That's why from time to time after 1977, people voted in non-Congress governments, only to have them betray their trust. It was the NDA which really proved that a non-Congress political formation could provide a stable and equally good - or bad - government. I am not sure that ideology played a part in bringing the NDA to power. If it had, the BJP would have come to power on its own steam and would have not got thrown out in the elections. Its defeat and the victory of the UPA had little to do with ideology. The NDA was punished for not living up to its promise of providing a better government and the BJP for not being different from the Congress.
Therefore, I don't think the vast majority of the Indians are going to be wowed by a new party that is talking about free markets, primacy of the individual, open society etc. Or indeed any political formation talking about any ideology. Right now, from what one hears and reads, all they want is good governance and clean public life. They are tired of political parties that, when in opposition, block the very policies that they initiated when they were in power and vice versa, even as they come together to unanimously pass legislation giving politicians higher salaries and perks. They are sick of politicians nitpicking about the circumstances under which ministers should resign - chargesheet or arrest warrant or case filed. Newspaper columns and television chat shows are full of fulminations against politicians and despair that such politicians get elected repeatedly because there is no choice. The fact that many people exercised the negative vote in Mumbai during the 2004 general elections shows that people are willing to do what is within their power to do in order to bring about a change.
Does this necessarily lead to the conclusion that India is ready for a new party or political formation which is committed to value-based politics? One that does not believe in using money or muscle power in elections, which will not indulge in double standards. Those working towards a liberal political party believe that India is ready. But I beg to differ.
The problem is that all of us are looking at the crisis in Indian politics purely as a supply side issue - that there are not enough good people in public life whom those desiring a better India and a cleaner politics can vote for. But there is a demand side issue as well - is there sufficient demand for such people?
It would be tempting to answer this question with a resounding yes. I myself in two earlier posts had taken a similar stand. In Why doesn't the urban middle class vote, I had said: 'I think the reason why the urban middle class does not vote or engage with politics more actively is because it faces a crisis of choice. There is no party that represents their voice.' I had argued much the same in another post, Is negative voting a negative idea.
But public dissatisfaction and anger has not reached a critical mass. The demand for a cleaner politics, though it exists, is not sufficient as to make any new political initiative successful. Something I heard on a television debate reinforced this impression. In the Bihar assembly elections, a majority of the sitting legislators who contested lost their seats. All those with a criminal background who contested won. While the BJP and the Congress did not field criminals, their allies all did. In some cases, when the criminal-politicians were denied a party ticket, they quit the party and contested as independent candidates. They won, defeating candidates of various political parties.
Don't just dismiss this as yet another horror story from the badlands. Remember Jayalalthia came back to power through an election. And there are no allegations of booth capturing or rigging. In Goa a politician who keeps switching parties gets elected each time. In Kerala, a minister accused of rape got elected some years back. In Delhi, politicians who every Delhi-ite knows as having led the anti-Sikh rioters in 1984 get party tickets and are elected.
But when an upright Manmohan Singh contests for the Lok Sabha from the South Delhi constituency, peopled by the elite who often bemoan the sorry state of Indian politics, he loses. Both the BJP and the Congress have a large number of people who will bring a certain amount of decency to public life. But they will never be fielded because they are not seen as `winnable' candidates. The party cadres will never work for them. But why should they not win, despite party cadres, if there is sufficient demand for such people?
So why doesn't the constant lament about lack of good people in politics translate into votes for them even when they are fielded by well established parties? Contesting as independents is not an option at all; it is simply pointless. It perhaps has to do with the fact that the majority of the grumblers are actually quite at ease with the existing system and have managed little ways to tweak it to suit their ends - whether it is unauthorised constructions, illegal pumping of ground water, getting false certificates or some other misdemeanour. Voting a person with integrity into politics will mean putting this comfortable little world that we have built for ourselves at risk. Remember that the very people whose drawing room conversations are all about the sorry state of governance were the ones who lobbied against NDA's urban development minister Jagmohan when he set about demolishing unauthorised constructions, not in the slum clusters, but in the areas where the middle class resides.
It is this issue that will have to be addressed and demand generated before going ahead with a liberal political party.