Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Minoo Masani's Swatantra thoughts

Wandering through the bylanes of Kalbadevi on Monday, I stopped by the New & Secondhand Bookshop and found on the shelves just outside the shop, where any book is for twenty rupees, a little volume, quite ragged and termite-eaten, but unwilling to give up the ghost just yet. The book's title was Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative, and it was written in 1966 by the feisty Member of Parliament from the Swatantra Party, Minoo Masani (1904-1998). Reading it yesterday, I thought it full of the most salutary wisdom, for many of the ills which Masani excoriates the Congress government for having made a feature of our national life in the first two decades of its rule are still prevalent today, and many of the positive, constructive suggestions that Masani makes are ones the value of which we recognise today but which we have taken up, as my co-blogger Amit Varma argues in this post, in only a half-baked manner.

Formed in 1959, and now all but defunct, the Swatantra Party was the closest that any Indian political party has come post-Independence to espousing the virtues of classical liberalism. It held liberty, or human rights and freedoms, to be a greater and more realistic good than equality; advocated free enterprise, low levels of taxation, and the breaking down of the 'license-permit-quota raj' that was (and continues to be) a bane of our economic life; and stood for a much more limited role for government in national life than the socialist-inspired Congress model of central planning and massive investment of taxpayer's money in public sector units. Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative, a collection of Masani's essays and his speeches to the Lok Sabha in the early sixties, was put together as a manifesto, a call for change, before the general elections of 1967, in which the Swatantra Party emerged as the single largest party in the opposition. Masani explains:

What is liberalism? Liberalism, according to Hobhouse, the great British liberal… is "a belief that society can safely be founded on the self-directing power of personality, that it is only on this foundation that the true community can be built. Liberty then becomes not so much a right of the individual, as a necessity of society." Professor Parkinson said in an article recently published in England: "The word Liberal means generous or open-handed. Be generous with what? With freedom and political responsibility."
This view of human affairs must have been exceedingly unusual in the political climate of mid-sixties India. In fact it is still heard very rarely in our public discourse - as the unfailingly perceptive Gaurav Sabnis argues in one of his posts, Freedom vs Sovereignty, we Indians often interpret freedom as political sovereignty, not liberty; we think of freedom as the struggle for independence from the Raj, and do not really protest if the government cracks down on smoking in films or people holding hands in public. There is a great deal of truth then in Sabnis's provocative formulation: "Our freedom struggle is yet to start." Were he alive today Masani would certainly have agreed with that.

But Masani did not just quote Hobhouse to Parliament in his speeches - his liberalism was not just a matter of a Western political idea projected as a desired end onto Indian public life. Rather, he showed the ability to mesh the idiom of classical liberalism, which by itself might have sounded remote from Indian concerns, to certain aspects of Gandhian thought, thereby creating what might be called a liberal idiom with a specifically Indian cast. He writes:
The starting point of Swatantra philosophy is based on Western liberalism and on Gandhiji's thinking. The two point in the same direction. What they have in common is hat the individual comes first, the individual is in the centre of the picture. If this is so, then a Party like this has faith in the people. It believes that, on balance, people are worthwhile. This, in turn, means that Government is for the people, that Government is a limited instrument for good. This idea is common to Liberalism and to Gandhi. Abraham Lincoln…said a century ago: "Don't try to do for the people what they can do better for themselves," and Gandhiji…said: "That Government is best which governs the least." ... Gandhiji taught us that the State in the 20th century is no longer a great friend of freedom and progress, that perhaps the biggest threat to human freedom comes from the State.
In this way Masani argued that it was the Swatantra Party, more than the Congress, that was faithful to Gandhi's conception of the role and the proper ends of government.

In Congress Misrule... Masani makes a point-by-point critique of the misplaced priorities of the government's economic policy (especially the investment in heavy industries at the expense of agriculture in the decades immediately after independence) and the colossal wastage of taxpayer's money in unprofitable state enterprises. He attacks the controls that the Indian state had arrogated to itself ("What is a control? A control is giving an official, even a small one, the power of life and death over a peasant, a shopkeeper, or a businessman.") and questions the government's suspicion of private business and industry. He was also, in the heyday of the Soviet Union and well before communism had been widely discredited, a scathing and frequently witty critic of that philosophy. He points out not only how it subjugated the interests of the individual to that of the collective and was more concerned with ends than the means used to achieve them, but also how all its claims for the material betterment of man and greater equality in society were betrayed by actual facts and figures. He writes:
[Lenin] imagined that, after a short period of dictatorship, liberty would be restored by the benign Communist Party to the people. The State would "wither away". After forty long years, it is Man that has withered, not the State.... Gandhi taught us that ends and means are interlinked, that you cannot produce a better society by methods that are not clean and decent, that the end does not justify the means. By the time your means, which are dubious, are practised, your end gets vitiated. In other words, to cite the Soviet Union, by liquidations and butchery, by distortion and lying, you cannot produce a more fraternal society. You have only to look at the kind of men who have ruled the Soviet Union to realize that this is not a more fraternal society: Stalin, Molotov, Vishinsky, Khrushchev. These are not the embodiments of a more brotherly, free and equal society.
Unfortunately the Swatantra Party fell away badly after its promising start in Indian politics, and successive Indian governments continued to neglect reforms and practice what Masani so tellingly calls 'statism'. But twenty-first century India seems a great deal more in tune with his thought, and Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative deserves to be reprinted, for history has proved many of Masani's judgements to be correct, and there is much in his book that is still relevant and valuable. One wishes that every MP in the current Lok Sabha would take it out of the Parliament library and read it.

It also strikes me that the work of many other prominent Indian intellectuals and thinkers must have lapsed into obscurity, as Masani's has. What if one of our leading publishers were to bring out something like a 'Library of India' series, collecting the best essays and speeches of men like Dadabhai Naoroji, Lokmanya Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Vallabhbhai Patel, Vinoba Bhave, C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, and many others, with one volume for every writer. (The works of Gandhi and Nehru are of course widely available.) Each volume, no more than 100 or 120 pages long, would have an introductory essay by a scholar of repute, giving us the historical context of the writer's work and a brief analysis of his thought. As a whole the series would give the general reader a sense of the diverse strands of our country's intellectual heritage over the last hundred and fifty years or so, something which takes a great deal of effort to piece together right now.

Here are 'I Believe' and 'Leadership', two essays by Masani, and two more essays on his ideas and his legacy, one by SV Raju, published last year on the occasional of Masani's birth centenary, and the other by the Indian Express columnist Jaithirth Rao. And here is the whole text of Masani's utterly charming book Our India, written in 1940. My grandfather says it was read very widely by the youth while he was at university, and in this interview Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was probably a student at about the same time as my grandfather, says it was Our India that sparked off his interest in economics.


S.V.Raju said...

Delighted that Congress Misrule & Swatantra Alternative which I edited when I was the Executive Secretary of the Swatantra Party's National Headquarters has madet to to the web. Have you visited ?

v s mani said...

Mr Raju's article is interesting.
Minoo Masani's book "Our India" was and still is an excellent book. This was a prescribed text in Bombay [now Mumbai] for schools during my time in 1940s. Mr Raju perhaps is most suited to bring out a SEQUEL with similar or better illustrations so as to galvanis present-day school children and fire their imagination. This will be a great tribute to Mr Minoo Masani.