India: still pledging socialism

India: still pledging socialism

Those who complain about politics getting too ideological, as US commentators do these days, are the ones who have the luxury of a politics that pivots around ideas. India, on that count, is deprived. Our politics look so much more venal: of vote banks and posturing, of bread and circuses.

Still, before India gets a political system where parties compete over differing ideas and ideologies, it has to at least legally allow competing ideologies. It doesn’t. And, for now, the Supreme Court is keeping it that way.

On Monday, the court dismissed a petition filed by the Good Governance India Foundation that challenged two legal facets of our political life. One, that the Constitution’s preamble has since 1976 declared us “socialist" and, two, that a 1989 law forces every party to pledge allegiance to this socialism.

In reality, perhaps this doesn’t matter. Indian politicians are practical (or, if you prefer, cynical) enough to declare their allegiance to socialism and then proceed to push private investment. Few are foolish to practise socialism—state control over all means of production—when liberalization is helping India become one of the fastest growing kids on the block.

Yet it’s such duplicity that now gives our politics its insincere sheen. This insincerity wasn’t always there: The republic’s founders were proudly both men of action and men of ideas. Only under this system of ideas could the Swatantra Party have been founded in 1959—on an explicit ideological platform to challenge Congress socialism. Such an ideological challenge is, by law, impossible today.

So these legal facets must change. S.V. Raju, a Swatantra Party member, has been waiting for this since 1994, when he similarly petitioned the Bombay high court. But whenever this change does arrive, it will be a cosmetic one if our politicians don’t change too.

Unless the political class embraces a system of ideas and sheds its duplicity, it’s only encouraging apathy. Given that India’s left and right joined hands in a bandh this month solely to posture against the Congress, perhaps that day is still distant.

Who can blame the middle class, then, for staying distant too? As far as it’s concerned, there are no accessible candidates who speak the language of ideas, especially the ideas that it’s starting to understand— those of free markets and free people.

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