The need for a ‘Conservative Party’ voiced by C. Rajagopalachari — popularly known as Rajaji and one of the top five Independent era Congress leaders who later turned a bitter critic of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru since the mid-1950s’ — eventually became a reality with the launch of the ‘Swatantra’ party in June 1959 in Madras, now Chennai. “His clash with Nehru was now formalised,” writes Rajaji’s biographer and well known historian Rajmohan Gandhi in Rajaji: A Life. At 80, Rajaji had “decided to challenge Jawaharlal”, along with like-minded leaders like N.G. Ranga and Minoo Masani. The stinging phrase, “permit-license-quota raj” coined by Rajaji, often alluded to by him as the first proposition of a sustained critique of Congress party’s socialistic policies, “would become central to Indian political debate for the rest of the century,” writes Rajmohan Gandhi.
Three years prior to that, in 1956, Rajaji had already blessed the launch of the Swarajya magazine by the hand of veteran journalist Khasa Subba Rao. The English weekly was Rajaji’s main vehicle of communication, leading from the front with his own popular ‘Dear Reader’ column. While the weekly folded up in 1980, Swarajya , over three decades later, is now all set for a re-launch, aiming to give the voice of Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘conscience keeper’ a younger, robustly liberal, right-of-centre tone. Writer-author Sandipan Deb , an IIT-IIM graduate who has shifted to journalism since 1990, now Editorial Director of this new Swarajya makeover venture, in an hour-long interview given to M.R. Venkatesh of The Hindu in New Delhi recently, spoke on a wide range of issues that binds their hope of being a “big tent for liberal right-of-centre discourse” in India’s new millennium.
Sandipan, you are on the verge of re-launching a magazine that was known to be Right-of-Centre and Conservative, but in a totally different era from the mid-1950s. How do you see this at a time when Hindu nationalist forces are on the rise, rather, ‘Right’ in the age of ‘Hindutva’?
First of all, you used the term ‘Conservative’. That term has many meanings. When you use the term conservative, there are all sorts of connotations about social issues, gender equality, etc. So I would rather use the word ‘classical liberal’ than ‘conservative’; because we are for — and also Rajaji stood for — individual freedom, human rights, gender equality, freedom of expression, etc., which are not usually associated with the term ‘conservative’; we are in fact Right-wing liberals. We will support gay rights for example. In all walks of life, we will support gender equality. We are against mixing of religion with politics. We are for secularism, but a certain sort of secularism which is not aimed at creating only vote-banks.
Yes, in Delhi, for the first time, there is a so-called Right-wing party in power, with a majority of its own, rather than a coalition. And as far as ‘Hindutva’ goes, we are not in any way embarrassed about being ‘Hindu’. But we are against lumpen Hinduism; we also wish to promote the scientific temper in a rational and balanced manner. So, we at Swarajya find it funny when people make statements like the spaceship was invented in India or that our rishis cracked the spin of the electron 3,500 years ago. We believe that people who make these claims without enough knowledge — and little knowledge is a dangerous thing — do a disservice to the Indian civilisation and its contributions to real advances in Mathematics, Physics, etc. We may not have invented the spaceship, but it is now acknowledged across the world that our mathematicians, whether Arya Bhatta, Madhava or Brahma Gupta, did make huge advances in Mathematical Theory; from figuring out the Pythagoras theorem to inventing a sort of what can today be recognised as Calculus in the Kerala school of Mathematics , they invented Calculus possibly 400 years before Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz. So, we also have enough texts which give evidence that we knew a lot about medical science. So, let us have a scientific temper. Let us not throw the baby away with the bathwater. In fact, I think, it is quite regrettable that ancient Indian knowledge can be studied more easily in universities in the United States than in Indian varsities. So, this is what our stand on ‘Hindutva’ is. We are secular, but not vote-bank secular.
Do you think the Indian Right can reinvent itself in the tradition of Rajaji, as this magazine has been largely inspired by his ideals?
Absolutely. I don’t know whether the Right can reinvent itself, but I definitely think it needs to reinvent itself. See, our civilisation has always been marked by openness to scepticism, to questioning. I think the Right needs to reinvent itself based on that spirit of openness and scepticism. And the ‘Creation’ myth in the Rig Veda says: What was there before we came? What was there before the void? What was there before the Gods? Did He know or maybe He did not know? That epitomises, very poetically, the spirit of openness, scepticism and questioning, because only scepticism and questioning can lead to progress. Just as the ‘Left’ should not think that what only they believe is right, the ‘Right’ also should not think that only what they believe is right.
But when Rajaji launched this magazine, he was basically fighting the ‘permit-license-quota raj’. Today, we have moved far away from that. How do you think you can take forward that legacy, if at all it is possible now?
There are still a number of ways in which the Indian economy is fettered. I think, for instance, that it is still extremely difficult to set up a new company. It is almost impossible to shut down a company. Our labour laws certainly need to be looked at and it will certainly help our unorganised labour far more than our current labour laws do; 93 per cent of our labour is unorganised and not covered under the present labour laws. In fact, the laws are biased against them. I think we can do a lot more to encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship and use our national assets far better. Of course, we have the perennial problems of corruption, bureaucracy and all that. We can be far less bureaucratic in our procedures, be a far more open government, have less of a government and trust more in the ability of people to better themselves. And in Delhi, the roads are still filled with cars with red beacons, moving around with politicians, of powerful people not going through security checks, etc. All these things should stop. We should have equal rights for every citizen.
Yet, how do you rescue the ‘Right’ from the ‘Hindutva’ forces today?
See, Hinduism is fundamentally a tolerant religion — I don’t know when I last went to a Temple. The true philosophy of Hinduism, which in a way even quantum physics also agrees with today, is found in the belief that God exists in everything; so, even though I am not a very practising Hindu, it is ingrained in me is that if my foot touches a piece of paper or anybody else, I automatically touch my forehead, because one of the basic tenets of Hinduism is that you respect every living or non-living object as embodying God in a certain way. What does quantum physics tell us, finally? That all of us, this table we are sitting at, the jasmine tea we are drinking, our bodies and everything else are constituted by energy that atoms and molecules are creating. I think that is the true meaning of Hinduism.
And to some extent, the discourse in India for the last two decades has been very, very extreme. While there has been the Right-wing, the Right-of-Centre part of the debate has been hijacked by all sorts of rabid people; as for the Left-of-Centre part of the debate or the debators, some of them still live in the past. In both cases, I think, both sides to some extent live in the past. It is 25 years since the Berlin wall fell and in the last 23 years of reforms India has raised more people from below the poverty line than perhaps the population of the U.S. Certainly, government has a strong role to play in a country like ours, in healthcare services, in providing education that is low-cost, good and accessible, and in providing infrastructure. But government needs to do the things it must and let others perform their actions. Economic policy cannot be guided by cultural or religious politics. Economic policy should be divorced from ‘Hindutva’ or any other external circumstances. My religion is my personal faith, what has that [economic policy] got to do with religion?
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen at the Jaipur Literature Festival last year said India needs a Right-of-Centre party that is secular and non-communal and he even mentioned the Swatantra, though he would not vote for it. Do you think there is space for such a party that reflects the visions of Rajaji and at the same time keeps away from the polluting religious extremism associated with the Right?
I do not think India can be ruled for very long on the basis of what you call ‘polluting religious extremism’. India is a huge country of great diversity — culturally and in other forms; a politics based on religious extremism cannot rule India. You may win one election, maybe a second one too, but they cannot have communalism as a basis for governance. The Indian voter will simply never accept that. The Indian voter, as we have seen, is always a pretty smart fellow.
So, do you feel that a correlate of the ‘Swatantra’ is still possible in terms of a political organisation?
I am not going to start a political party. None of us involved (in this project) is a member of any political party nor, as far as I know, have donated money to any political party or worked for one in any capacity. So, we are here to add a liberal, rational, progressive, forward-looking angle to the Indian public discourse. I think there is a Right-of-Centre voice that is possible in India; and if nothing else, at least a debate is possible — and if somebody gets influenced, fine. But we have no political ambitions at all. We just thought that the time had come and the time was opportune for a certain socially, culturally, economically Right-of-Centre Liberal voice. After all, almost 50 per cent of India is under the age of around 25. So, patriotic Indians would want the world’s youngest nation to really grow and act according to its weight, economically, culturally and politically.
To what extent do you think the historical Right in India can be resurrected in this fashion?
I think there are millions of Indians who believe in a certain Right-of-Centre perspective. The fact that Mr. Narendra Modi could get some 281 seats was not — significantly, at any rate — based on extreme ‘Hindutva’. The BJP could not have won more than 180 seats if it had banked only on ‘Hindutva’. People wanted change, wanted better governance and I don’t think in any of his speeches — he made some 500 speeches across the country during the campaign — Mr. Modi ever brought up the Hindu-Muslim divide issue. So, I believe, there are a number of Indians who believe in certain ideas. A lot of India’s energy is trapped and has to be changed from potential energy to kinetic energy. And we hope to give at least some of them — if not millions —a voice. And we are not against carrying counter-points to the debate. In fact, we believe in freedom of expression. As Voltaire said, I may not agree with what you write, but I will defend your right to write that stuff.
Has the possibility of tapping into this ‘trapped energy’ — as you say — with a Right-of-Centre view for a new aspirational generation it coincided with the decline of the Nehruvian perspective?
Certainly. The Nehruvian consensus or Nehruvian socialism has, I think, been slowly losing the battle of Ideas in India; the ‘glamour’ associated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has really diminished in the eyes of Indians. And secondly, at least under UPA-II, it got completely paralysed. Economic growth fell — and it is very easy to blame the global economic meltdown of 2008; it contributed perhaps 10-15 per cent but the rest was our fault for not doing anything. There is an impatient India out there which wants to see things moving. Today, Indians — they are connected and networked globally — are much better informed than you and I were at that age. We did not have access to so much information. They know what is going on and they have new role models; so certainly, it (the decline) has to do with Nehruvian dynastic politics.
The Congress says they are the ‘original reformers’. The Right and anti-Congressism have, over the last 40 years, gone hand-in-hand. Have the economic reforms initiated by Dr. Manmohan Singh under P.V. Narasimha Rao’s leadership, taken away the sting from the Economic Right, which earlier grew on the premise that the socialistic pattern did not give entrepreneurship its due amid changing trends worldwide?
The first reformers would naturally have been the Swatantra party, but unfortunately they never came to power. It is also important to recognise that in 1991, when we started the liberalisation process, we did it under duress. We had a Balance of Payments (BoP) crisis. If we didn’t have that crisis, there would be no disinvestment, no scrapping of some controls, allowing direct foreign investments, etc. In fact, as I have been saying, in their second innings, the UPA did everything which would be anti-Right, in the sense that economic policy was built on entitlement, and a lot of doles, freebies, etc.
So, under Sonia Gandhi, the UPA-II went back very clearly to its Leftist roots. In fact, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s reputation as a reformer is rather inflated. The real economic reforms were when Dr. Singh was the Finance Minister for five years (1991-96). But, I think the reform process was for actually only three years even then. When Congress lost some four or five State elections, all reforms immediately stopped and money supply was squeezed just as Indian industry was about to take off, which could lead to a recession; fortunately, it did not. It was the turning point, tripping up the Indian economy just as it was turning around the corner. All these things have a lag effect. You need the political will to wait for the lag effect and also communicate to the people very well what you are trying to do and give them some time. For example, this Modi government has been in power for seven months. There are voices already saying, ‘why aren’t you moving faster?’ I don’t agree with those voices. I think people should have little bit of patience, because economic policy has a lag effect in manifesting as effects on the ground. And today, you cannot deny that the Golden Quadrilateral project and the Vajpayee government’s huge investments highways, etc., have had a positive impact on the Indian economy because of the multiplier effect of such infrastructure projects. But our reforms policy has always been two-and-a-half steps forward then one step backward, because of certain political (factors) or fear of instability in coalition politics. Obviously so; yes, the Congress began the reforms, but it has gone back on its promises many times and — certainly — completely under UPA-II. I think Mrs. Sonia Gandhi felt that that with these things you can’t win elections. But what we saw was that not doing these things can’t win elections either.
What is your stand on social issues related to LGBT and decriminalising Section 377 of the IPC?
We are for decriminalisation of Sec. 377. It will certainly be part of the liberal framework of our magazine, including taking up of gay rights.
But ‘Swarajya’ of Rajaji vintage had a spiritual quality about it?
As you said, times have changed a lot and society has changed a lot; thankfully so. Obviously, we are not going to be having an article on gay rights in every issue or something like that. There are many subjects to write about, but we would certainly support decriminalisation of Sec. 377.
Spiritual aspects of culture will also be reflected in your magazine?
What do you mean by spiritual aspects? You see, there are dozens of books on ‘Management and Bhagavad Gita’ and stuff like that. If it is relevant to the reader and he is interested, I don’t have any problem carrying it, just as I don’t have any problem carrying the translations of Mirza Ghalib or other Sufi poets. But our focus would be purely on political, economic and cultural issues.
How do you think the Right-of-Centre view can be sold to a new generation? Are there any impediments to it, as there is also the danger of the Right slipping into the far-Right?
Yes, there is that danger. But like I said, you can’t rule India for long with a far-whatsoever philosophical policy. I think there are no impediments at all in conversing with a new generation. This generation is completely for it. They have aspirations and there is a huge raging trend of entrepreneurship. People from IITs and IIMs are beginning to set up companies while they are still studying there, not even trying for a job. In my time, when I graduated, it was considered somewhat dubious for a middle-class person to get into business. We would not marry our daughters to businessmen. That is completely gone now. There is no impediment. The communication just has to reach them.
For the sake of clarity, what would you say is the Liberal-Centre point of view?
[Mr. Deb shows the text of the paragraph reproduced from the old Swarajya issue in its new-look pre-launch sample issue. Rajaji had then written about how to secure welfare without surrendering the Individual to be swallowed up by the State, how to get the best return for taxes and how to preserve spiritual values while working for better material standards of life] We believe in what Rajaji has written, long years ago when the magazine was launched. These are our articles of faith. These are Swarajya’s articles of faith. It would be presumptuous of me to say what is Liberal, but we are the Liberal-Centre-Right. For example, we do believe there is a very important role the government should play in certain sectors; what we need is less government, less bureaucracy, easier rules and better respect for citizens when we go to a government office [Mr. Deb here recalls a personal anecdote of a common man’s plight at an East Delhi police station]… There is no difference between Right and Left in basic human issues.
Is there room for a Right-wing party in India like the Republicans in the U.S. or Conservatives in the U.K., who are opposed to religious bigotry?
In the U.S., the Republican Party gets a huge number of votes from what is termed the Bible belt. So, whether George W. Bush says it or not, there is a religious angle to it. I think India is still a young democracy. Politics will evolve and I am an optimist. So, I certainly hope that politics evolves in a Liberal-Right direction without any religious bigotry attached to it. The 2014 general election has been a watershed election. How this government handles its bigoted supporters while giving India good governance is the biggest test for them. But I am certainly optimistic.
There seems to be more space for the Economic Right now. But when it comes to social and political issues, they seem to be illiberal.
We would certainly not be socially, politically and culturally illiberal. Finally, if we can make a convincing case for ourselves to the reader, we will certainly avoid, as much as possible, being seen as illiberal in any way, without also pandering. As I was saying, in this ancient Indian science issue, there are some claims being made that are rubbish; but there is a lot out there which is a treasure, which has not been explored, which we don’t know about. I think it is a great failure of our education system and our government that our students learn much more about western science and other things than about our actual accomplishments in this area.
Today liberalisation and globalisation go together. Is Swarajya for reforms per se or is there a nationalism streak to constrict it?
The nationalistic element is only to the extent that we should be proud patriotic Indians. We should celebrate our civilisation and take what is good in it, whether it is the Gita or Mogul architecture. I remember during the first days of liberalisation, when Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds were coming in, people were out on the streets saying your food habits will get changed; nothing of that sort has happened and the ‘Saravana Bhavans’ and the ‘Swagaths’ are doing perhaps much better because the market has become bigger. And if a KFC or a McDonalds can come in and change our national food habits, then those food habits are not worth maintaining. In fact, we should not be scared of Americans coming in and ruining our culture and food habits and stuff like that. We have absorbed many cultures, many food habits for thousands of years. Nobody has a problem; if they are to sell to us, they have to adjust themselves to our market.
Is there any significance to the timing of Swarajya ’s re-launch and are you aiming to be like a think-tank to assist the government in policy formation or reach ordinary readers like a popular magazine?
The timing of the re-launch is a bit of an accident. My co-promoters, Prasanna and Amar, have been running this site called ‘centreright.in’ since 2009. In early 2014, much before the election, they contacted me and we met up to discuss what next. The website had a certain number of loyal audience and they were happy, but wanted to decide whether we stay this way or take a quantum leap, which means using venture capital finance, etc. After a daylong conference, we thought we could try a quantum leap and look for financing. Then, one of us came up with the idea of subsuming ‘centreright.in’ under ‘Swarajya’ if the title is available for sale. So, we went to the publishers of Swarajya (The popular Tamil weekly Kalki group) and bought the brand ‘Swarajya’ and 40,000 pages of its archives. We are in the process of putting that entire thing on the web. These decisions were taken months before the election, but certainly we felt that this could be a good time to do it, because we could see some trends among the youth and a certain impatience that India should move faster.
We do not want to assist the government, but like all media — first it will be almost entirely built largely as a commentary, opinion and essay magazine and will naturally be a magazine of ideas. If somebody in the government sees it as a good idea, they are free to do so. But our primary purpose is not that; it is to engage with young, intelligent Indians. How would you term a magazine like the Economist ? I would say it is like that. It is absolutely essential we have a digital platform and a monthly print magazine. The amount of work involved in digital is far higher as it is a 24/7 business. You have to put up at least four to five pieces every day. But the revenue will obviously be from print.
Would it be correct to say that a bunch of young Right-wingers, India’s new Right, want to be heard?
Well, I can’t call myself young (laughs). We have an editorial board of advisors who I think are all above 50 years of age. But yes, we are aiming at a young readership — a lot of young people are writing for us, and we are trying to build a new young, liberal, Right-of-Centre voice.