Thoughts on economics and liberty

Review of 'Breaking Free of Nehru' by S.V. Raju

This was published in Freedom First, Mumbai on 1 October 2009.

BREAKING FREE OF NEHRU: LET’S UNLEASH INDIA! By Sanjeev Sabhlok.  Publisher: Anthem South Asian Studies, C-49, Kalkaji, New Delhi 110019. Pages: 290(including the preface)  Price: Rs. 495

Reviewed by S.V.Raju, formerly Executive Secretary Swatantra Party. Currently editor Freedom First.

The title is explicit, leaving little to the reader’s imagination. That’s typical of the author of this book. I have had the pleasure of knowing Sanjeev Sabhlok. Met him first at a conference he had convened at the Habitat House in New Delhi in January 2004 (to discuss the potential for the emergence of a liberal party) and to which he had invited me; subsequently through the occasional email; and since March 2008 as a regular contributor to Freedom First with his column “Come on Liberals: Let’s Change India”.

The book is well organised and the narrative style absorbing and quite passionate. You get the feeling that he is talking to the reader one to one. The preface explains who he is, why he resigned the IAS, how he got to write this book which in draft form had the benefit of critical comments from those who were broadly in agreement with the general tenor of his views.

The preface is also quite exhaustive, some 22 pages; so impatient is he to unburden himself, that the preface tells it all – almost! “The real choice before us today” he writes “is between two western models of governance – socialism and capitalism; between the life-denying concept of equality and the life-sustaining concept of freedom.” Freedom, to the author of this book is the flip side of capitalism and vice-versa. He does anticipate that this perspective might not be acceptable to everyone who upholds the sanctity of the liberty of the individual vis a vis the State and society.

There are six chapters in all, two appendices, a copious 5 pages of printed notes and a reasonably informative index.

Chapter 1 begins with what he describes as a “stylized overview of the history of our freedom and divided into three phases: First phase: pre-battle of Plassey 1757; second phase: 1757-1947; third phase: post independence.

Taking a critical look at India in Phase 1, Sanjeev Sabhlok concedes that India had “cultural unity based on Hinduism”. Citing from historian Vincent Smith’s Oxford History of India (1958) , ‘Indian unity rests upon the fact that…India primarily is a Hindu country’ the author accepts the fact that “Hinduism has therefore had a significant influence on the concepts associated with freedom, ” but the “individual still did not count for much being merged into collective identities such as caste.” For instance “very rarely do we find an individual artist’s name acknowledged in an Indian painting or sculpture…. even today beautiful paintings are sold without individual signature.” Or, unlike the Magna Carta, “no argument to advance justice or freedom was articulated in ancient India.” Yet another marker to indicate the absence of individuality was the “uniquely Indian trait of obsequiousness” particularly “towards ‘seniors’ in India.” Indians despite the foreign invasions by sea from the West were insular, perhaps because of difficulties of travel that prevented Indians from travel to the lands of the colonisers or perhaps it was due to the “great haughtiness among the Indian elites who believed they needed to learn nothing from others …” Frogs in the well – that is what our ancestors were for most of our history prior to 1757.”

Phase 2 the period between 1757-1947; Indians were quick to learn English as it helped Indians secure jobs as clerks which it did, but also opened the “Pandora’s Box of knowledge.” Indians were “quick to become aware of the enormous leaps made by Western political thought over the centuries with men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta “catching up with the liberal ideas and start demanding self-governance.” Along with this also rose the “competing theory of socialism (or communism). Both rejected feudalism but, unlike the freedomwallahs, the socialists/ communists wanted to revert to the tribal state. The two distinct philosophers of these competing “Western ideologies” were Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

But only a few Indians like, Tagore and Gandhi raised the “broader issues in relation to freedom” even if these were “incidental to the focus on self-rule and opposing racism”. Sabhlok gives full marks to Gandhiji’s philosophy of non-violence: “the most awe inspiring independence movement the world has ever seen…far ahead of its time in its principle-based standards of political protest….His exposition of the equality among peoples and of non-violence protest were significant contributions to the freedom of mankind as a whole.”

In the 3rd phase: Independence and Freedom are not quite the same points out Sanjeev Sabhlok. “Independence is at best a minimum condition. It is very poorly related to the level of freedom prevailing in a society,” The author, clearly an incurable romantic, writes: “freedom needs constant attention, even fawning and at times ferocious battle to protect it against the enemies of freedom. Very reclusive, reluctant, but the most beautiful and graceful lady of all, is freedom.”! He cites with enthusiasm Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem in Gitanjali “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…” pointing out that nowhere in this poem (written in 1912) does Tagore talk about independence. “Tagore’s poem is truly embarrassing to socialists. Each of Tagore’s lines resists socialism.” He interprets the poem as Tagore “asking …each individual to achieve this ‘heaven of freedom’. The Tagore poem points to an enabling role for government.” And has a dig at Nehru “Nehru never reminded us of this embarrassing poem.” Ah! But his daughter’s censors did! In 1976 when Minoo Masani then editor of Freedom First decided to reprint this poem to protest the infamous emergency and submitted the issue to the government’s censor under the censorship rule then in force, the poem was censored and its publication disallowed on the ground that it endangered national security and encouraged disaffection!

It is essential to understand the philosophical framework of what the author means by “freedom” to appreciate the rationale for his all out attack on Nehruvian socialism which did reach “dizzying heights of incompetence.” As someone who not only lived through those years of avoidable scarcity, misery and misgovernance but had the added opportunity, as the executive secretary of the Swatantra Party, to fight for “freedom” there is little that this reviewer finds wrong in his high voltage criticism of the Nehruvian era. This reviewer recalls an article by Rajaji in Swarajya (March 4, 1961): “The egalitarian socialism of the Congress is a fallacy and a fraud, a mere election-carrot for the donkey the Congress takes the electorate to be. We must kick the rider from our back, rider and carrot. The mechanism of wealth production is something quite different from the socialism of the Congress, which ignores the incentive, the capital, the frugal management and the output of work needed for increase of wealth.” This quote full justifies the grief expressed by the author for missing out on “the opportunities we have had in the past 60 years to bequeath to our children the greatest possible country on earth.”

In a passage headed “Rediscovering Rajaji” Sabhlok observes: “Rajaji, however, was no match for Nehru. Nehru was far more charismatic and popular. He also had populist policies.” True. Also true is his observation “Rajaji was als
o just too far ahead of his times.” But his next statement is only partially true: “People simply didn’t understand what he was saying, and he did not have sufficient time left to explain to them what he wanted to stay.” Oh they did. Rajaji’s big success was his denouement of socialism, even if he did not live long enough to strengthen the foundations of the party he started, and this, it must be underlined, he managed in Nehru’s lifetime; his daughter Indira Gandhi who ruled longer than her father ‘managed’ by corrupting and destroying the character of the people. After imprisoning a veritable phalanx of opposition leaders during the emergency she disfigured the preamble to the constitution by adding the words “socialist’ and “secular” to describe the Indian Republic.

The author is also an incurable optimist. Quoting with approval a statement by S.P.Aiyar, a political scientist that the challenge lay in finding “solutions appropriate to given situations but only those compatible with freedom” the author observes: “The
good thing is that while the Indian government is not the best protector of freedom in the world, it does not censor books of this sort. It does not prevent people from talking about their views. Its laws almost fully protect our freedoms. We are almost there! Just a nudge to our system of governance – including making our government get out of things where it has no business to be in, and rebuilding our political and bureaucratic institutions to make them compatible with transparency and accountability that are the hallmarks of freedom; and we could soon have the freest country in the world – and thus ultimately the greatest”.

So far this review has covered only the preface and the first chapter. There are five more chapters. Merely mentioning their titles gives an indication of the range of his endeavour – From the macro observations in Chapters 1; Overview of a Free Society Chapter 2 ;Problems with our Constitution (3) ; to micro diagnoses and offering cures in Chapters 4: Causes of Political Corruption in India; 5: Why is our Bureaucracy so Inept? 6: Unleashing India.

In the little space left for this review I shall refer, briefly, to just one of them: Chapter 3: “Problems with our Constitution”. This reviewer does not claim any special qualification to comment on the Constitution. Nevertheless he finds it difficult to understand the obvious ambivalence of the author on its merits. For instance even while agreeing that the Constitution has “served us reasonably well” and “has done us far more good than harm” he says elsewhere it is an “abstruse and distant document not easily understood, not of much interest to most of us….Evaluating its merits I find our Constitution a mediocre product.” compared for instance to its US counterpart. Describing the Constitution as a “social contract” and drawing attention to the fact that it has been amended 94 times, Sanjeev Sabhlok considers “the time has come to completely review and remake our social contract. A statement that he makes which this reviewer finds patently unfair: “The Constitution that we got was a hotchpotch compromise between the whims of the 299 people on our Constituent Assembly not the resonantly clear voice of freedom.” Maybe, but then should we make the best the enemy of the good? There are numerous troublesome matters that need attention, as the author himself details in his book. Surely the Constitution has not come in the way. Liberal critics of the numerous amendments to the Constitution have pointed out that every time the Indian Constitution was amended it resulted in the contraction of the freedom of citizens, whereas the few times the American constitution was amended it was to expand freedoms. In other words blame the carpenter not his tools.

As for the whims of the 299 people, let us be grateful that our leadership including Nehru had the wisdom to nominate men and women of calibre to add to the elected members of the Indian Legislative Assembly which included quite a number of liberals. It might also be recalled that the socialists boycotted the Constituent Assembly because it was not an elected one. Frankly your reviewer shudders to think of the kind of Constitution we would have had if its members had been elected on the basis of adult franchise. Not a liberal statement to make, but an honest one that many secretly felt but did not articulate! Remember Nehru’s Congress swept the polls in 1952 and 1957

Be that as it may, this book offers valuable inputs not only of problems arising from Nehruvian socialism but also point the way out even if some of them could be of the extreme kind that need further discussion – as for example the suggestion to dump the Constitution!

Regular readers of Freedom First have been reading issues raised in the various chapters from his book which are not referred to in this review but feature in his column “Come on Liberals, let’s Change India”.

The author deserves to be thanked for the massive effort he has put into presenting his case for what amounts to be nothing less than revolutionary changes( not “reforms” as he suggests in the Preface) to ‘unleash India’. Well worth the buy and acquire fresh insights.

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