India’s intellectual and political landscape, long the preserve of a powerful left-liberal cartel, faces a singularity. The collapse of the left—as evidenced by not just the ignominious defeat of the left-liberal Congress party, but also the decimation of the doctrinaire Communist parties—has only followed their intellectual implosion. Let us examine the positions and ideas advocated by the cartel.

The first and so far only proactively reformist and economically liberal government India had was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). In his first speech to an industry chamber as Prime Minister on 28 April, 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee unequivocally said, “We must grow faster. We can grow faster. We simply have no other alternative," and that his government would “broaden, deepen and speed up" liberalisation.

“I come from a political tradition that does not look upon commerce and industry with suspicion. When it was conventional political expediency to decry entrepreneurship, we championed their cause...the government shall radically simplify rules and procedures that cause delays...we aim to enable Indian entrepreneurs—small, medium or big—to create more wealth for themselves and for the nation....Draw up big plans," he had said. “When the big become bigger, the small and medium players would grow up to occupy their places."

Vajpayee cemented his strong pro-market message by saying that “many industrialists want competition—but in other industries. In their own industry, they want protection." As Prime Minister over the next six years, he delivered on what he outlined, widening and deepening reforms across the board, and pushing the economic growth rate above 8% in 2004, shortly before losing the general election.

The left-liberal cartel jumped to interpret the result as the defeat of reforms. There were voices that rejected this interpretation. The Columbia University’s Arvind Panagariya wrote in The Economic Times in July 2004 that “the demonisation of reforms not only distorts facts, it also endangers growth that is essential for poverty alleviation". Presciently, Panagariya observed, “the real danger lurking behind the rhetoric that the reforms ignored the poor or agriculture is that the government may simply end up substituting higher expenditures for the reforms" and that a reversion to a 5% growth rate would happen.

This is exactly where India finds itself a decade later. India’s Communist parties won a record number of seats in the 2004 elections and gave support to the Congress party, which formed the United Progressive Alliance government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A bacchanalia of spending ensued, as the cartel egged on the government to disregard all evidence in favour of reforms and take high growth for granted. In his first term, Singh rode the growth wave seeded by Vajpayee. Just a few years into his second term, the abdication of liberalisation came home to roost, with persistent inflation, plummeting growth and widespread joblessness.

An anecdote from the telecom sector bears out each Prime Minister’s commitment towards liberalisation. Vajpayee did not give in to a strike by over 400,000 department of telecom (DoT) employees in 1999, who were protesting against the creation of a corporate entity to take care of telephone service provision, which until then was being handled by the department. He stuck to his guns, defied the labour unions and pushed through the creation of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL).

With competition in the telecom sector, BSNL’s fortunes began dwindling fast. In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government announced that the telecom behemoth would go for an initial public offering, but faced the usual protests from labour unions. The government failed to stand up to the unions and the proposal was buried. BSNL continues to bleed thousands of crores every year, and is on the road to financial insolvency.

But this should not come as a surprise. Why would one expect the ideological left to support free markets and liberalisation anyway? It is not just their endorsement of failed economic ideas, but their duplicity on secularism that is a searing indictment of the left intelligentsia. The 2004 elections results, besides being bandied about as a rejection of reforms, were also proffered as a defeat of communal forces and the victory of secular forces.

Even as the Congress president created an extra-constitutional parallel cabinet to advise the government of India on policy matters, there was scarcely a whimper of protest. Instead, left-liberal activists and intellectuals made a beeline to be a part of this group that, as we now know, only served to undermine the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office. Meanwhile, the public was fed with allegations of how authoritarian, fascist and undemocratic India’s major opposition party was.

Congress governments in New Delhi and the states proceeded to create social welfare policies that differentiated between citizens based on their identity. Education, housing and poverty alleviation schemes were tied to a citizen’s religion. A religion census was attempted in the country’s armed forces. The most bizarre manifestation of this identity-focused approach was the creation of a women’s only bank after the ghastly incident of violence against the young woman in Delhi, as if such puerile tokenism would make Indian women secure and empowered.

The cartel lapped up all of this and there was no protest. Those opposing these ideas were, ironically, from the sectarian and communal right-wing, and faced opprobrium for taking this position. In 2010, historian Ramachandra Guha said the alternative to Congress party’s idea of India “is either Naxalism or balkanisation". In 2013, journalist Hartosh Singh Bal, writing in The New York Times, castigated the Gujarat government for not accepting a scholarship scheme created for the benefit of religious minorities only, when in fact it is accepting religion-based welfare that would be blatantly communal.

Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot upbraided this same position, with another criticism being that Muslim candidates were not being put up by the BJP. It didn’t seem to strike Jaffrelot that the position that only Muslims could represent Muslims in a democratic republic was no different from Jinnah’s—and there are many more such intellectuals who have unconsciously internalised and accepted Jinnah’s two-nation theory that was the basis of Partition.

As Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Ajay Gudavarthy observed in an op-ed for The Hindu, “the Hindutva brand of politics seems to be a step ahead in articulating the idea of justice for all, which should have ideally come from those championing secularism and more so from the religious minorities themselves."

The left-liberal cartel used the pretext of secularism to fend off the argument in favour of free markets. Economic development cannot come at the cost of social cohesion, we were told. But the left-liberals delivered a governance paradigm that was neither secular, nor economically liberal. In fact, if anything, the combination of spurious secularism and socialist economics only exacerbated social divisions. The two are beasts that feed off each other, with the latter creating the basis for consociationalism (involving a form of power sharing and guaranteed group representation ) in India’s aspirational context.

The left-liberals confront an intellectual singularity because they have little moral and intellectual space to manoeuvre to a space that’s not occupied already—the right is taking ownership of the idea of justice for all, and India’s rising tide of aspiration will write the epitaph for inefficient doles. It is this aspirational class that helped elect a Prime Minister who campaigned on the issue of economic development.

Citizens of all backgrounds are seeing through the pernicious effects of spurious secularism for they too have economic aspirations beyond wanting government jobs or welfare. For the time being at least, the left-liberals are stuck with advocating an agenda which has few takers. On the cultural side, India’s left and center-left intellectuals need to reconsider their views on a uniform civil code and Article 370, both of which they have falsely painted as communal positions. On the economic side, while being true to an egalitarian ethos, they need to accept the benefits of choice in welfare and competition in the economy.

Singularities exert insurmountable inward forces that are crushing and inescapable. Conceited dismissals such as this won’t work. Narendra Modi, by advocating for a secularism grounded in individual rights, has shown that there is a better alternative. And this alternative has won the support of millions of Indians. Without deep introspection, the left-liberal intellectual cartel and its political manifestations will not be able emerge from the singularity they find themselves in.

Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta are co-founders of the India Enterprise Council.

Close