Review of Aditya Balasubramanian’s Toward A Free Economy: Call of the liberals

A comprehensive account of opposition politics post-Independence ruled by diverse personalities like Swatantra Party’s C. Rajagopalachari and the Lotvalas of Bombay

November 03, 2023 09:01 am | Updated 09:01 am IST

Aditya Balasubramanian’s new book Toward A Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India explores the role of opposition politics in India’s early post-independent development journey. This is one of the most comprehensive accounts of opposition politics as carried by key individuals and organisations, their initiatives, and its impact.

Among others, the book delves into a wide range of opposition personalities like the Swatantra Party’s C. Rajagopalachari from Madras, Minoo Masani from Bombay, N.G. Ranga from Andhra Pradesh, Bhailalbhai Patel from Gujarat; institutions like the Libertarian Social Institute of the Lotvalas, Forum of Free Enterprise by A.D. Shroff; academics like B.R. Shenoy; publications like ‘The Indian Libertarian’, ‘Freedom First’, etc.

(From right) Rajaji, N.G. Ranga and Minoo Masani.

(From right) Rajaji, N.G. Ranga and Minoo Masani. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

These fellow travellers with unique origin stories may have occasionally crossed paths and collaborated even with differing motivations, but each were part of the larger opposition politics that tried to present an alternative to Indian voters, readers, and thinkers alike. It is by painting this big picture without missing the smaller details that Balasubramanian’s work adds value to the available research.

C. Rajagopalachari, founder-leader of the Swatantra Party, and K. Kamaraj, Organisation Congress leader, at an election meeting on Marina beach in Chennai, February 25, 1971.

C. Rajagopalachari, founder-leader of the Swatantra Party, and K. Kamaraj, Organisation Congress leader, at an election meeting on Marina beach in Chennai, February 25, 1971. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

Rajaji and Swatantra Party supporters at Cuddapah railway station.

Rajaji and Swatantra Party supporters at Cuddapah railway station. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

Swatantra’s ideas

Historians in the past have documented the history of the Swatantra Party and some notable opposition to a central planning model, but what has so far been missing is the debate surrounding the economic ideas, policies, and systems of the time.

There are three popular conceptions about Swatantra: that it was a party of Rajas and Maharajas, that it was supported by big businesses in their fight against state occupation of the commanding heights of the economy, and that this was the Indian counterpart of Western neoliberalism. As Balasubramanian presents in the book, while there is an element of truth in all three images of Swatantra, it was also a lot more than that.

Among other things, Swatantra invoked issues of inflation, taxation, and property rights to convey its message. The Swatantra opposition to ideas on economy, policy, and society stood in stark contrast with that of the Congress. An assessment is also made of the communication and mobilisation strategy employed by Swatantra and other opposition actors. It is also to Balasubramanian’s credit that most actors get a fair treatment, even though the author himself does not particularly favour these opposition ideas.

The story of Lotvalas

Readers will find many individuals, episodes, and endeavours outlined in this book new, not the least of which is the fascinating story of the Lotvalas from Bombay. Started by industrialist father Ranchhoddas Bhuvan Lotvala and carried forward by his daughter Kusum Lotvala, the Libertarian Social Institute and their bi-monthly magazine The Indian Libertarian, gave the call for a ‘free economy’, the term used by the author in the title of the book.

The term is vague in its coinage and tries to communicate a variety of ideas which are about opposing ideas to the prevailing mainstream views of the time, embodied in the Congress Party’s and the Indian government’s pursuit of a ‘socialist pattern of society’.

The magazine called to ‘Make English the Lingua Franca of India’, it tried to make Indian readers familiar with libertarianism by syndicating writings of American libertarian magazine ‘The Freeman’ and republishing works of economists trained in the Austrian school of thought like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, among others.

Balasubramanian reminds us of a time when efforts towards a deeper understanding of society, culture, and economy were made by patient people. Small as they may be, they tried to punch above their weight. The story of the Lotvalas and their endeavours reminds us of a time when investment was made in ideas, and efforts were made to persuade people. The battle of ideas among the Communists and the Left to gain supremacy for the state, the Congress’ grand vision of establishing a ‘socialist pattern of society’, Swatantra’s push for decentralisation and free economy, a smaller endeavour by the Lotvalas in support of libertarianism, and much more. By comparison, today no such deeper inquiry into ideas exists, at least certainly not as rich.

Fertile ground for research

Within economics, economic history and history of economic thought are two separate disciplines. This book traverses both and goes beyond in its effort to tell the story of India’s opposition in its early days. The book lays down a fertile ground for future researchers to further explore many themes outlined in the book. Does India have an indigenous liberal tradition? Why do some ideas succeed, and others don’t? Why was this opposition project largely limited to southern and western India?

This book may not be most accessible and a page-turner for an average person, but it does have more than enough for any interested person and researcher to pick up the threads and dig deeper into projects of their own. Balasubramanian’s scholarship underlines India’s diversity and pluralism in its younger days as a democracy.

Moreover, ideas presented in the book upon further explorations can help us in a better understanding of the Indian project of development. This is sure to help us in answering where we have been, where we are coming from, and where we are headed. Balasubramanian deserves our gratitude for paving the way by this decade-long exploration.

Toward A Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India; Aditya Balasubramanian, Princeton University Press, ₹799.

The reviewer is a New Delhi-based economist and a public policy researcher.

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