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Why India Needs More Freedom

The world’s second-largest nation faces a true culture clash.

December 6, 2015

The world’s second-largest nation faces a true culture clash.

The hot-button word of Indian politics these days is tolerance. For weeks, the controversy about the state of tolerance in the nation has dominated public debates.

There is a clash between two narratives, with few moderating voices. The dispute is highly ideological and also partisan. One camp, call them the apologists, downplays the acts of violence against members of minorities. They are typically found on the side of the government led by the Hindu Nationalist BJP.

More liberally minded groups and individuals have assembled on the opposite side. They make no secret of their dislike for Prime Minister Modi and his government.

The latter group finds broad resonance in published public opinion. Readers of the leading English-language papers could think that liberalism is an opinion-shaping force in this country of 1.2 billion people.

Legions of intellectuals, scientists and others eloquently make the case for tolerance, civil liberties, gender equality and abolition of caste discrimination.

Unlike the opinion pages, it is much harder to identify liberal forces in the real world of India’s parties and parliaments. The weakness of organized liberalism is a structural feature of Indian politics.

The Swatantra (or Freedom) Party has been an exception to this rule. In the second half of the sixties, this party managed to ascend to the biggest opposition force, before sinking into oblivion shortly thereafter.

Challenge to liberal politics

Historians have explained the downfall with the lack of programmatic unity, as the party assembled under its roof, liberally minded Hindu nationalists, free marketers and open-minded cosmopolitans.

When Indian liberals come together these days, the trials and tribulations of the Swatantra Party are often a talking point.

The reason why there exists no space for a liberal party in India’s political order today is that core liberal messages are not compatible with mainstream thinking.

Assessments of Prime Minister Narendra Modi throw this into sharp relief. Some regard Modi as the bearer of hope and celebrate him for his liberalizing economic reform agenda, while others perceive him in the opposite direction — as a gravedigger to the values and traditions of India’s tolerant, secular and democratic constitution.

Arguably the biggest challenge to liberal politics in India is the allegation of social coldness: “Adam Smith’s invisible hand is invisible to the voter. Unless we make that hand visible, liberals don’t have a chance,” said author Gucharan Das.

Looking back over the past quarter century, one wonders why advocates of liberal thinking in India don’t do more to highlight the massive impact of poverty alleviation due to the opening of the economy in 1991.

Looking ahead, India needs more economic freedom – and less regulation in order to get anywhere close to the “economic miracle” of China. However, India’s liberals have failed to bring this crucial message into the mindset of the masses.

Resistance to reforms

Modi’s plans to reform the economy are encountering growing resistance. Some of this resistance is coming from circles one would not have expected.

It is not only the poor classes who have been indoctrinated to rely on welfare programs and reservations that oppose liberalization and deregulation, but also the affluent class.

Resistance to liberal economic reforms is strong among the affluent and aspiring middle class. Why? “The social origin of the middle class is the public sector. This creates an eternal attachment to the state,” explains Subir Gokar, Director of Research at the Brookings Institution in New Delhi.

There is no other society, including China, that is transforming as rapidly as India. The new generation, which is pushing ahead with force today, tends to be better educated than their parents and is exposed to international trends via the powers of globalization.

Digital media play a decisive role in this process of intellectual transformation. As a result, many young Indians no longer perceive the state as the gate to material desires but rather as an obstacle to a more open society.

Members of this generation are open-minded, cosmopolitan, tolerant and often also secular. These are liberal attributes. While there is no indication that this generation would form the basis of a new liberal Indian party anytime soon, it has contributed to improving the quality of the public political discourse.

The opposition and protests against acts of intolerance and hatred are a sign of hope and also strength of India’s democracy.


Legions of intellectuals, scientists and others eloquently make the case for tolerance.

Some praise Modi for his economic reform agenda while some perceive him as anti-secular.

Resistance to liberal economic reforms is strong among the affluent and aspiring middle class.

Many young Indians perceive the state as an obstacle to a more open society.