Niccolo explained the difficulty

But India needs to renew its love for rights and freedoms

Jerry Rao’s op-ed in today’s Mint is a must read.

That is why we are forced to ask ourselves: should we not have a political party that is a khullam-khulla defender of markets and an opponent of an intrusive state?

S.V. Raju of the Indian Liberal Group has been trying to register a political party that is expressly opposed to socialism. He is making very little headway. The broader question is whether, even if he did, would such a party have electoral success? The general view is that without the benefits of caste permutations, religious zeal, regional passions or dynastic PR, no political party can succeed in contemporary India. Does this mean that we concede the intellectual forum to leftists and obscurantists? Once we do this, as citizens of the republic we lose the right to complain as they perpetuate our poverty and ensure that we will never catch up with the Koreas and the Chinas. Whatever our decision, in the practical realm we must take heart from the Swatantra experience. The Party members did not become ministers—but by their very existence and by their bold articulation, they did influence the polity for the better. Herein lies an opportunity.

Even if it is not a formal party, only a society, it is important that the argument for economic and political freedoms (which are intertwined) must be made loudly, clearly and cogently. In this area, we can learn from the Fabian Society, not their ill-conceived ideas but their organizational methods. They kept talking, writing, communicating—and over time, their ideas became fashionable among politicians who may have never heard of the Fabians. The revived Swatantra should, at a minimum, aim to fulfil this role. [Mint]

While we await the free market Mahatma, defenders of rights and freedoms must organise themselves and add their voices, and their votes, to the national discourse.

It’s not hard to find people who have benefited from the whiff of economic freedom unleashed by P V Narasimha Rao’s government fifteen years ago. But, as Niccolo Machiavelli explained five centuries ago, they remain diffident.

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Because the (reformer) has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly… [Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI]

The need for a new voice, however, has never been more urgent. What Jerry Rao proposes merits greater attention, and yes, greater support.

12 thoughts on “Niccolo explained the difficulty”

  1. Nothing is more seductive than the idea that poverty is the result of others’ machinations, and not one’s own failings. It appeals to the basest human emotion of envy. Personal responsibility, on the other hand, is hard to sell even in the United States. Years ago, an instant poll was conducted in a class full of grad students – I think it was at the Harvard Business School. What would you prefer: (a) a free market where the U.S. grew @5% a year, and Japan grew @8% a year, or (b) a managed economy where the U.S. grew @2% a year, and Japan in a permanent recession? The result, of course, was overwhelmingly in favor of scenario (b)! With that kind of a result, even Ronald Reagan couldn’t resist the temptation of managed trade, and imposed voluntary export restraints on the Japanese auto-makers.

    With more than half of its populace mired in poverty, most of them for centuries in succession, Indira Gandhi didn’t need to study Machiavelli to nationalize banks, impose salary caps on the private sector, and incorporate socialism into India’s Constitution – a revolution of sorts in those days. Reviving the Swatantra Party as an influential clone, however, requires much more than paying heed to Machiavelli. It’d be a long haul indeed, and few of us, if any, I am afraid, would live to see an India where the individual would be unfettered by the State.

    In the meanwhile, I believe that an organized effort to start free, private schools for poor children, that are committed to a socialist-drug-free education, would go an extra mile than a yet another political party.

  2. Leaders have to make tough, sometimes radical and unpopular decisions. It is in these moments that they become true leaders. Unfortunately, in India today we have the opposite. The so-called political leaders keep running from making tough decisions. Only once in the past decade have I seen true Indian leadership: Vajpayee’s Buddha smile again effort. That’s it. On free market reforms none of the current political crop is worth anything. Jerry Rao is absolutely right. Congress can never deliver on any of its promises. The BJP cannot get out of its leadership vacuum. Time has come in the life of our nation that we said – enough is enough. The 21st century has to belong to India. And none of the political parties of the 20th century are ready for it. Nitin – you talk about a “free market Mahatma” and we desperately need one. The Mahatma has to come from India Inc. Someone with Jerry Rao’s stature, someone who is willing to give up his/her mahogany offices – roll up his/her sleeves and dive into the world of politics. There’s an army of followers waiting. We just need a leader.

  3. Rational Fool: I completely disagree with you. You have to ask yourself why was half of the population mired in poverty? Let me answer that question for you. Because the economic policies of the previous governments had utterly failed. So instead of trying to learn from those mistakes – Indira Gandhi went all out to implement those failed policies at a much more vigorous pace. Is this what you call leadership? I beg to differ. We cannot be stuck in the past. As a a nation we need to learn from it, let go of it and move on. The future is very bright for Indian kids. Lets not ruin that by giving them a socialist education. Let’s not repeat mistakes of the previous generation.

  4. The reason we won’t have a free market party is that people like Jerry are too busy creating value by building businesses than wasting their time on trying to turn around politics.

  5. A must-read indeed.

    For a country as historically capitalist as India is (the majority of the population – the farmers – are still largely self-employed) the socialism of Nehru was a bitter pill. It’s a wonder small-time free enterprise wasn’t destroyed between the crony capitalists and the socialist governments. A glance at India’s richest 40 (most fortunes made in the last 20 years) is a telling case for India having broken those stifling twin shackles. So the economic story is reasonably clear-cut – the nexus of big business and government can no longer keep the little guy down (or prevent him/her from attempting to get big).

    The political story is still – as Jerry Rao indicates – one of wandering in the wilderness of big and oppressive government. It seems that the time for a party solely devoted to the rights of the individual may not be here yet. The caste and religion demons will need s few years to run their course.

  6. I will give you some important practical advice. Listen with attention.

    You cannot gain political platform in India by talking about economic freedoms. This doesn’t make sense for the vast “majority” of the Indian population.

    Instead, you should capitalize on the basic instinct of fear. We should create awareness about the lost opportunities and continuing poverty in India. The real threat that needs to be mentioned is China.

    This tactic always works for right-wing parties. It can be abused (as in USA where republicans keep creating one imaginary threat after the other, right now, Islamic fundamentalism) or put correctly to use (as we should do in India with respect to the competition from China)

    What I propse is this. Unleash a major video campaign about the growing prosperity of China. About the vast military superiority and potential belligerent attitude of China. Spread a lot of videos about how development is happening in China with eradication of poverty and employment opportunities. Then contrast this with the plight of people in India. Tell them how this is spread by stupid communist policies, and tell them how actually the communists supported China during the Indo chinese war !!

    Compare India with China, Korea and Malaysia. Tell them about the urgency of competition, or otherwise perennial poverty and slavery.

    Only fear will work for the minds of the uneducated population in India right now, not reason.

  7. Kiran

    Yes, I agree that economic freedom is an abstraction as much as political freedom was 100 years ago. See my post on the free market Mahatma.

    Exploiting fear is a tactic that can be used for mobilisation: but only if that fear is important and immediate. But there is a difference between a political ideology, a political manifesto and political tactics. Tactics themselves can’t substitute for the other two (which is the whole problem with Congress, BJP and many others).

    In a sense, the comparison with China is already happening, thanks to globalisation. As more Indians travel out to countries in South East Asia, and China, eyes are opening. Its on TV too. Cinema used to portray “phoren” as a fairy tale; I guess that’s changing too (but I can’t tell, for I’ve not watched a movie in years) [See this post by Neelakantan]

  8. I have no doubts about the efforts going into building up a theory and ideology for libertarians. The problem is practical. This is where you will lose out to parties like BJP, congress etc.

    Everybody says politics is murky waters. But in reality, politics is just a huge marketing campaign. Even the communists believe in the same. But strangely, the people who talk for free markets ignore this simple fact !!!

    When the masses are uneducated, the quality of the product usually doesn’t matter (I am not doubting the quality of libertarianism), but it is always better marketing that wins.

    I am just talking about how to market the product of libertarianism to the people. You cannot rely on time and wait until everybody gets engineering degrees, knows about globalization and watches youtube. This is the kind of people you are talking to.

    If you want to capture the political platform, you need to go and spread the message in the masses (people who live in villages, slums) They need to understand the urgency of competition with China. That is the fear that needs to be spread. This will work – this fear is highly important and the threat is immediate. It is not even based on a lie.

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