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Indian economy is like a man with aggravated hydrocele

September 19, 2019 19:58 IST

'The Indian economy has become like a car that has the appropriate wheels on one side -- political liberalism -- and scooter wheels -- economic illiberalism -- on the other,' points out T C A Srinivasa Raghavan.

Photograph: Ajay Verma/Reuters

A few days ago, in a Chennai newspaper, which is also one of India's leading newspapers, there was an article full of gloom and doom for India's future.

The predictions were dire.

The author, Harsh Mander Singh, who was once in the IAS, is now a full-time social activist.

He has always been a severe critic of governments, regardless of which political parties are in power.

More often than not, he is in the right, morally as well as in a practical sense.

The article, however, is a perfect example of the disarray in which, for want of a better name, the Nehruvian liberals find themselves after the overwhelming victory of the BJP in the 2019 election.

Their world has come to an end.


By a strange coincidence, there was another article, this time in Dawn, which is published from Karachi, by a well-regarded Pakistani economist called Anjum Altaf.

Like the Indian writer, he also summed up the Indian liberal anguish.

He says that the Nehruvian project was always an elite one in which a small group of brown Englishmen sought to impose British political values upon India.

He quotes Sunil Khilnani, author of the bestselling book Idea of India.

Khilnani had written that, in 1947, the majority of Indians had no idea of what they had been handed.

So Nehru and his descendants had fought hard to tell them what it was, namely, religious tolerance, liberal values, and, overall, a very upper class but liberal English way of conducting national affairs -- only for the English, of course.

Altaf says all that is now history because underneath the veneer of secularism and other democratic values, Indians are basically intolerant and undemocratic.

In short, India has reverted to type.

The hidden message to Indians is 'We went before you, that's the only difference'.

Politics, yes; economics, no?

Such views have been expressed by a whole range of scholars, activists and laypersons, among whom we must also count Amartya Sen, whose scholarship is not in doubt but, increasingly, his interpretations and fears are.

That said, an opinion doesn't become good or bad depending on who holds it.

So it is a pity that that's exactly how many liberals think.

To all these people, I want to ask the question: How is political liberalism consistent with economic illiberalism?

How do we explain the brutal suppression of Article 19(G) of the Constitution since 1950 -- I should add -- which guarantees the right to every citizen to freely carry on any business in any way he wants?

The Left liberal answer has always been that if by economic illiberalism is meant direct State participation and persistent intervention in economic activity, it is necessary to achieve egalitarian economic outcomes, such as the mitigation of poverty. Really?

But should we then not also ask why the opposite, namely, political illiberalism, should be inconsistent with economically egalitarian outcomes.

After all, China's political illiberalism -- and before that of all of South East Asia -- has delivered highly egalitarian economic outcomes that the Left liberals admire.

Thus, those who rightly extol the virtues of Nehruvian political liberalism wrongly ignore Nehruvian economic illiberalism.

Take any piece of Nehru-era economic legislation and you will find illiberalism is writ large on it.

As a result, the Indian economy has become like a car that has the appropriate wheels on one side -- political liberalism -- and scooter wheels -- economic illiberalism -- on the other.

It moves like a man with aggravated hydrocele.

The irony is that the very liberals who are now lamenting the passing of Nehruvian political values and ideals are also demanding the dismantling of his rare economic liberalism.

For instance, even Dr Manmohan Singh has, from time to time, said that Indian labour laws need to be made more 'flexible', meaning less liberal.

Likewise, the same set of people who brought in the MGNREGA in 2006 have thought nothing of asking for abolishing subsidies for the poor.

These were the cornerstone of Indira Gandhi's economic policies.

Thus, we have confusion at every stage in the Left liberal minds.

They are well-meaning people, no doubt.

But they still need to stop cherry picking from the Nehruvian bush.

I can offer them one model from which to copy: The British Labour party of the late 1990s, namely, New Labour.

Nehruvian liberals can, likewise, can become the New Liberals.

They need to strike a balance between political liberalism and economic illiberalism by abridging the former and expanding the latter.

It is such a pity that Rahul Gandhi didn't ask me because I would have told him that the BJP is trying to do exactly this -- and once again stealing the liberal thunder.

T C A Srinivasa Raghavan