Friday, 29 April 2005

Is a liberal political party feasible?

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.

Why this blog and why this name?

This was my first post and I am posting this again for people who are visiting this blog for the first time.

Well, I've been observing public discourse in general as well as participating in a minor way in the liberal discourse on various issues. I was getting increasingly uneasy with the kind of stridency in public debates/discussions. People have stopped talking to each other, whether in the print or electronic media or, even in private conversations. Instead they are constantly talking at each other. There is no give and take of ideas or thoughts. `I am right and you are wrong and I am not going to agree with you, so don't try to persuade me,' is the unspoken refrain in all conversations. Sometimes it's not unspoken.

What's even more disturbing is the extreme polarisation of views on practically anything. It's my white versus your black. I am always white and the other person is always black. There is no space for greys. The BJP is always wrong and the non-BJP is always right or vice versa depending on your ideological leaning. If you are pro-reforms, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P Chidambaram are always right and a complete free market is the only solution to all ills (even your domestic squabbles). If you are against reforms, Ahluwalia and Chidambaram are always wrong (and that vermin Surjit Bhalla should be exterminated!); Sitaram Yechury and Jean Dreze are always right and the State must continue to manufacture sliced white bread.

And then there are the labels. If you speak in favour of economic reforms, you've sold your soul to the IMF-World Bank-MNC combine and don't care for the poor. If you speak in favour sectoral regulators and social security, you're a statist or, worse, communist. If you say the NDA government did some good or criticise the Haj subsidy, you're a Hindu fundamentalist or a good Hindu (depending on who you are speaking to). If you criticise Narendra Modi and Murli Manohar Joshi, you're a leftist pseudo-secularist or a genuine secularist (again, depending on whom you are addressing). And if you are constantly seeing merits in either point of view, well, tough luck, you're a IMF wallah one day and a jhola wallah the next; you're a Hindu fundamentalist one day and secularist the next. More likely, at the end of it all, you'll just be one confused soul and will find yourself paying the price of not aligning with one or the other ideological camp.

Whatever happened to nuanced stands? Why does questioning why Sonia Gandhi did not take Indian citizenship for 20 years mean that you are a jingoistic nationalist who is against people of foreign origin ruling the country? Why does asking what business the State has to manufacture bread mean that you want poor people to starve to death? Why does crediting Arun Jaitley for his his pro-reforms stand mean that you are also endorsing his staunch support for Narendra Modi? Why does saying that public investment in certain kinds of infrastructure is necessary mean that you are advocating state intervention in the economy?

It's all to do with the tyranny of political correctness. And with ideological groups appropriating various terms. The left has hijacked the pro-poor platform; and the sangh parivar has set itself up as the only group speaking for the Hindus. Nobody is trying to wrest these platforms back from them.

I am personally against any kind of fundamentalism, religious, ideological, fiscal, economic or whatever. That is why this blog and the name.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a freethinker as `a person who rejects accepted opinion, especially those concerning religious belief'. In a world where liberalism, the free market, communism and socialism have become as rigid religions as Hinduism or Islam or Christianity, I find myself constantly at loggerheads with one or the other school of thought as I refuse to subject myself to any form of ideological fundamentalism. Why unrepentant? Because I find I am often forced to be defensive about the views I hold because labels are being thrown at me.

My basic ideological leaning is towards liberalism and an open society and, to that extent, I have a revulsion towards socialism and communism. I not only find them irrelevant and outdated but they also carry within them the seeds of tyranny and dictatorship. But my liberalism is not one which demands an unquestioning obedience and blind genuflection to liberal shibboleths. Nor can I ignore the merits of an argument that those opposed to my beliefs have.

I have one set of liberal comrades who believe that if the communists say something, the opposite must be true. And another set says that if the BJP-sangh parivar combine says something, we must say the opposite. I realise both the loony left and the rabid right can evoke such extreme reactions among the most mild-mannered people but if even liberals abandon the path of sanity, how are we better than either of those fanatical groups?

I have been labelled a Hindutva type as well as a pseudo-secularist. My left leaning acquaintances think I am a economic liberatarian while some of my liberal comrades in arms think I am just a shade lighter than socialist pink.

But I am nothing more than an unapologetic free thinker, who refuses to be tied down to or get straitjacketed within any one dogma. Or accept any label.

What this blog will do

This blog will be my own personal soapbox, if you will, on which I will from time to time sound off on various issues, trying to separate unrelated issues and steer clear of ideological inflexibility. Above all, I will try and explain what liberalism means to me at a personal level. I will not be politically correct and I will not pull any punches.

I will also put up writings that i feel deserve to be read more widely.