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Book Review: Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Oppositional Politics in Democratic India

24 Aug 2023
Reviewed by Sanjeet Kashyap

Given the continued relevance of neoliberal economic policy in India, it becomes imperative to investigate the domestic roots of such ideas. Aditya Balasubramanian’s new book is a well-researched account of the early Indian proponents of an open economy.

The death of neoliberalism and the return of the big state might be de rigueur in the West due to the triple whammy of the COVID crisis, climate change, and geopolitical competition. In the world’s largest democracy, however, neoliberal ideas still retain their allure, as evident in the sporadic undertaking of structural reform measures like corporate tax reduction, privatisation of Air India, openings to foreign investment in sensitive sectors, and the aborted attempt to liberalise the farm sector. Given the continued relevance of free market policies in India, the importance of uncovering the underlying ideological constituency that promotes such policies becomes apparent. Much of the existing literature attributes India’s embrace of neoliberal ideas to the 1991 turn away from the planned economy. However, the political economy discourse of pro-market policy and liberalisation in India goes way back to the early postcolonial years. Long neglected and only sporadically eulogised in the newspaper commentaries of the Indian free market thinkers, the intellectual history of Indian neoliberalism finally finds its storyteller in Aditya Balasubramanian.

Centred on the now-defunct Swatantra party, Balasubramanian’s Toward a Free Economy unearths the protagonist actors and their associational as well as oppositional politics of tutoring the newly independent nation in ideas of the free economy. The free economy discourse in the Indian context borrowed selectively from the Western neoliberal free market idioms, differing from them in seeing some role for the state. The main cast of characters included a diverse array of ideologues and thinkers united in their anti-communism and opposition to the Nehruvian state’s intrusion in daily economic lives. While Ranchodas Lotvala of the Libertarian Institute and Minoo Masani of Swatantra were lapsed leftists, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (also known as Rajaji) and N.G. Ranga were provincially-rooted conservatives invested in the defence of peasant proprietor-based agrarian order in southern India. Haunted by the spectre of socialism, these thinkers sought to defend their regionally-situated community’s shared economic interests. The Nehruvian state’s ambitious attempts at remaking the Indian economy by way of planning and heavy regulation caused consternation to their mercantile or landowning communities transitioning towards capital accumulation and industrial enterprises. The idioms of Western neoliberalism, as well as the post-World War II American rural decentralism, provided a vocabulary to defend the regional economic interests and express displeasure at the growing state encroachment.

A vigorously active web of associational politics and a vibrant print culture served as the vehicle for the circulation of these ideas, albeit in a limited fashion due to the inability to translate them into vernacular idioms. Often steeped in the dual debates on decolonisation, nation-building, and the Cold War ideological rivalry, the interactive and mutually supportive network of magazines (Swarajya, the Indian Libertarian, Freedom First, Kalki) and clubs (the Forum of Free Enterprise, Democratic Research Service, the Libertarian Social Institute, the All India Agricultural Federation, and the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom) played a pivotal but underappreciated role in shaping the postcolonial trajectory of India’s democratic experiment. Further, the electoral dominance of the Indian National Congress under the first party system came to be seen as a threat to the viability of Indian democracy. The dual imperative of providing an electoral and ideological alternative to the Nehruvian system culminated in the Swatantra experiment.

Founded in 1959 in response to the ruling Congress party’s Nagpur session resolution on cooperative farming, the Swantantra party took the mantle of promoting free market capitalism and critiquing the pitfalls of central planning. Embedded in the global network of anti-communist and pro-market activists, economist and advisor B.R. Shenoy and the liberal General Secretary Minoo Masani came closest to the Western neoliberals in their policy advocacy. The party president Ranga is characterised as a mofussil intellectual elite with a global vision of an international coalition of peasants. Patiently tutored by Shenoy, conservative autodidact Rajaji increasingly adopted the neoliberal economic positions as well as the classic liberal defence of individualism in the late 1950s. Not unlike other founding fathers, the Swatantra leaders, who too were a part of the anti-colonial movement, also took upon themselves the mantle of the pedagogical project of communicating the merits of the free market to the masses.

While the proponents of the free economy railed against the Nehruvian state’s remaking of the national economy, Balasubramanian’s singular achievement lies in highlighting their regionally-grounded economic interests and the transnational linkages with the global civil society network of free traders and anti-communists. Through their interaction with the Mont Pelerin Society, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Indian interlocutors not only came to couch their class interests in sophisticated ideological terms but also provided a robust criticism of the failings of the Nehruvian developmental project. Methodologically speaking, it is also interesting to see the uses of fictional literary and cinematic sources to unearth the history of economic thought, as Balasubramanian consults Rajaji’s short stories, Krishan Chander’s “Ek Gadhe ki atmakatha,” and Shrilal Shukla’s “Raag darbari.”

In focusing on unearthing the regional political economy context and circulation of the ideas, however, the author foregoes an evaluative assessment of the policy prescriptions laid out by the Swatantra leaders. Given the later Indian neoliberals’ claim of posthumous vindication of the Swatantra ideas after the 1991 liberalisation, such an exercise becomes important to test the veracity of claims based on hindsight. Likewise, placing the free economy policy prescriptions in conversation with the developmentalist discourse in the East Asian states would also have allowed us to better understand India’s development trajectory in a comparative context.

Although Balasubramanian’s work does an admirable job of sketching the convergence and differences between the Western neoliberals and the Indian pro-market thinkers, a comparative analysis of the foreign policy stances of the Western libertarian thinkers and their Indian counterparts begs further research. And so does the utopian world-ordering visions of Swatantra leaders like Ranga, Masani, and Rajaji. Nevertheless, Toward a Free Economy remains essential work for anyone interested in the histories of economic life, postcolonial India, neoliberalism, the cultural Cold War, and capitalist development debates. The combination of a formidable grasp of secondary literature and diligent archival research makes it an instant classic account in the field.

This is a review of Aditya Balasubramanian’s “Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Oppositional Politics in Democratic India.” (Princeton University Press, 2023). ISBN: 9780691205243 (hardcover).

Sanjeet Kashyap is a Ph.D candidate in international politics at New Delhi-based School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is also the Vice-President of the JNU IR Society and tweets at @sanjeet38.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.