Liberal Position Paper -8
Basic Liberal Values and their Relevance to India
Part I : Critique
In pre-independent India, politics meant service and self- sacrifice. While the primary aim was to overthrow foreign rule, those who led the freedom struggle did not ignore the fact that they had simultaneously to wage a struggle against social and economic backwardness and the evils of caste, superstition and ignorance. And their motivation was not prospects of self- advancement but selfless public service.
The freedom movement thus threw up a leadership which put the country before everything else. Participation in politics which meant participation in the freedom movement inevitably meant long periods in prison and undergoing hardships. These were the men and women who, when the British left, took over the task of governance. When Independence was attained, India therefore had leadership of high quality in terms of idealism, commitment and organising ability.
With freedom attained, politics entered a new phase. It got closely linked to power. Political power gave control over the vast resources of the country. The use of these resources for development or for the distribution of favours and patronage was now in the hands of those who wielded authority. The government's policy of controlling the "commanding heights of the economy" through the National Planning Commission and the Five Year Plans resulted in the concentration of enormous political and economic power in the hands of the politician in power.
Inevitably this led to what came to be known as the 'licence- permit-quota raj' and to corruption on a scale that permeated every level of administration. In the absence of ideological or moral constraints, power became the instrument to secure control over resources which were used for the benefit of those in power and their relations, friends and supporters. Acquisition of money by any means available became the legitimate function of politicians. Obliging unsocial elements like smugglers, black- marketeers, and gangsters in return for the use of their money and muscle power in elections became the accepted modus operandi in electoral politics. It was not long before criminal elements openly entered politics and many even got elected to the legislatures as candidates of national and state parties.
The situation was summed up accurately by Achyut Patwardhan an eminent participant in the freedom struggle who, disgusted with the turn of politics after independence gave up public life and turned to education and matters of the spirit. He said: "Today the State has lost all moral authority. It is viewed as the creation of crooks, by crooks, for crooks. Nothing seems to work without the use of money, muscle power or influence. So even if we have achieved a little prosperity, people think it is 'inspite' and not 'because' of the State. Back in 1947, you could distinguish between bandits and politicians, not now. That is a measure of how far we have fallen."
Public office, a ministerial berth or simply being an elected legislator whether at the municipal, state or national level has become a passport to undreamed power, wealth and pleasures for those who are not troubled by scruples (and a majority are obviously not so troubled). This being the case, getting into power, anyhow, has become the all important consideration. Ideology has taken a back seat; dynastic loyalties have become an important factor - many hitching their loyalties to this or that rising family. Two other favoured paths to power are caste and religion. If , before independence, the emphasis was on abolishing caste divisions, after independence, it was on perpetuating caste by linking it to reservations. This gave caste a fresh lease of life and the aspiring seeker of public office an issue to exploit. Religion, always exploited by politicians, albeit subtly by those who spoke of their belief in secularism, has become a major force to such an extent that today it is openly flaunted even while their champions speak of secularism as their credo.
And not surprisingly these elements who are in positions of authority show scant respect for parliament, legislative assemblies and other elective bodies. In fact some of them have openly declared their contempt for such bodies. This is what happens when law-breakers usurp the seats of law-makers. Disorderly behaviour, screaming and shouting when not ripping out microphones and using anything else that is handy to throw against one another to settle differences (as if the legislature is one big boxing or wrestling ring); showing scant respect for the presiding officer, sometimes even threatening him with physical violence, have become the rule rather than the exception. And all this in front of television cameras for all of India to see.
This has led to a complete loss of faith in the political class and the democratic process itself. People have come to regard parliamentary institutions with contempt, as being hotbeds of criminals, the corrupt, and the dishonest. There is a general feeling among the people that corruption is inevitable in the governance of the country; that laws exist only for the common people and not for those in power. The mood among the people is one of widespread frustration, cynicism, and helpless anger. They have come to believe that elections only result in one set of rulers being thrown out to be replaced by another set of rulers who are equally
unscrupulous, uncaring and incompetent.
Not surprisingly this has led to a steep decline in character and values. Venality is the order of the day. Despite the surfeit of laws, rules and procedures that prescribe our affairs from the cradle to the grave, ask any 'fixer' and he will tell you that anything and everything can be done - for a price.
When people find that to be honest, sincere and disciplined is a liability then most give in. And most of us discover that it does not pay to be honest when we are still in school and college. We apply for jobs after we graduate and find that only he who has ‚influence' gets in and discover that the interview was a sham. We get desperate and look around for 'influence peddlers', Then there is the growing cynical disregard of the law. A recent example of how laws are flouted with impunity is the law relating to the control of exhaust fumes emitted by automobiles. Under pressure from environmentalists, government made it mandatory for all vehicles to undergo a quarterly PUC (Pollution Under Control) check. A certificate is issued only if the fumes emitted are within permissible limits. Most automobile owners display the PUC sticker on their windshields but few have actually put their cars through the test. They pay the nominal fee plus a bakshish and get the certificate without actually putting their vehicle to the test. Everybody knows this but nobody cares. It does not bother the vehicle owner that running a car that emits poisonous fumes endangers not only his health but those of others. Such examples can be multiplied a hundred times.
If the rot is not halted and if we do not, as a people, return to an ordered society we may end up like Somalia, to take an extreme case, where the nation itself has disappeared.
We should not allow this to happen. We need to go back to basics, remind ourselves of basic liberal values (many of which are enshrined in our Constitution) and repair, to the extent we can the damage, done to the political, social and economic fabric of our society.
Part II : The Liberal Position
Forty years of socialist planning has failed to solve the twin problems of poverty and unemployment. Instead of equality, the system in India has accentuated inequalities and corruption on such a massive scale that the future of civil society is itself in peril. It is true that towards the end of the eighties economic reforms were introduced and the economy freed from some government controls but limited economic liberalisation by itself does not ensure a liberal or free society. In a liberal society, individual liberty and a free economy go hand in hand.
Freedom, responsibility, tolerance, social justice, equality of opportunity and the autonomy of the individual are the central values of Liberalism. On these rest an open society. Over the years, Liberals have stressed one value over another depending on changing conditions; but the moral basis of Liberalism has stood the test of time.
The central aim of Liberalism is to seek the prosperity of the human race in and through human freedom. The Liberal position is that people should be given the greatest possible freedom of choice. The Liberal striving for freedom logically means that one person™s freedom does not encroach on the freedom of another.
The notion of responsibility is inseparably linked with the notion of freedom. Responsibility means taking care of one's own welfare, bearing the consequences of one's own actions, not ignoring the larger interest, involving oneself and participating in public affairs. In other words, people should not evade their responsibility as members of a civil society by shifting what is expected of them to the State or by so doing, passing on the problem to future generations.
Tolerance is an integral part of Liberalism. No one has the monopoly of wisdom or is the sole repository of truth. To a Liberal intolerance in any form is abhorrent. In our country, this relates, in particular, to religious intolerance. The Liberal is tolerant towards all dissenting views other than those that militate against human dignity and freedom. This implies that violence to a Liberal is unacceptable as a mode of political action.
The Liberal's belief in social justice is based on the notion that we all belong to a society where those in need of help should be able to rely on the support of others, of individuals, groups and government. This belief, in association with Liberalism's belief in individual responsibility, means that the State will be expected to undertake such activities as are beyond the means of individuals.
Liberalism recognises the fact that no two persons are alike. People differ in their physical and intellectual abilities, in their likes and dislikes, in their attitude to life itself. These are the differences that make division of labour possible and necessary. But liberals believe in the principle of equality of opportunity. This implies that, in principle, no group or individual should be given preferential treatment in the pursuit of their goals. Every human being has equal rights in society irrespective of the person. Logically, Liberalism is against discrimination of any kind. Where there are people who have been denied equal opportunity, the Liberal believes that society should lend a helping hand through voluntary organised effort where possible and through the State where required.
We conclude by expressing our agreement with the following affirmations from the Liberal Agenda for the 21'st Century adopted by the Liberal International in November 1997 :
Karl R. Popper
Liberalism and Democracy
The Liberal Agenda for the 21st Century
A Liberal International
The Rule of Law
The Evolution of the Liberal Idea
Otto Von Lambsdorff
Liberalism in India
D. V. Gundappa
Basic Liberal Values and their Relevance to India in the Current Context
An ILG document
The Social Market Economy
An ILG document
The Requirements of Social Justice
An ILG document
Freedom of Expression and the Right to Know
An ILG document
Technology and Human Development
An ILG document
An ILG document
Liberal Priorities for India in the 21st Century
An ILG document
The Essence of Democracy - Not Majority Rule