[30 May 2024] The Hindu Op-ed: India, liberalism and its crisis of legitimacy

PYQ Relevance:


Q. Explain how the foundations of the modern world were laid by the American and French revolutions. (UPSC IAS/2016)

Q. “Refugees should not be turned back to the country where they would face persecution or human rights violation”. Examine the statement concerning the ethical dimension being violated by the nation claiming to be democratic with an open society. (UPSC IAS/2021)

Which one of the following objectives is not embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution of India?  (UPSC IAS/2017)
(a) Liberty of thought
(b) Economic liberty
(c) Liberty of expression
(d) Liberty of belief


Prelims: Liberalism; Constitutional Values;

Mains: Liberalism; Democratic System;

Mentor comment: Since all of us are the form of Nature, we all are equal in a moral sense. Thus Liberalism started as a progressive idea. It aimed at giving liberty and protecting people from coercion. Once the capitalist class could establish themselves in power, their revolutionary fervor had gone. From a progressive philosophy, it was limited to the economic doctrine. It came to be dominated by utilitarians. Liberalism came to be criticized as ‘a pig’s philosophy’ because of utilitarians. Liberalism/utilitarianism became the basis of justification for the extreme exploitation of workers. There were protests against such policies. It has led to the growth of left movements. It forced liberals to change. Liberalism has been the longest-surviving ideology because of its flexible nature. Every ideology represents the interest of a particular class. Liberalism is an ideology of the middle classes. (emerging capitalist class). Liberalism is a philosophy of modern times. Liberalism is a by-product of the Renaissance, reformation, and scientific revolution. 

Let’s learn.

Why in the News?

Indian liberalism faces challenges from both left and right, with criticisms of elitism, individualism, and Western colonialism.

  • India’s tryst with liberalism began in the 1990s, but it has faced criticism and a decline in support.
  • The rise of populist and authoritarian leaders has led to a decline in liberal democracy, with only 34 countries maintaining it in 2022.

Attacks by the left and the right

  • Left Criticisms
    • Elitism: Liberalism is seen as prioritizing individual interests over collective needs, promoting inequality and corporate interests.
    • Individualism: The left views individualism as a dangerous doctrine that widens the gap between the haves and have-nots, marginalizes the disadvantaged, and prioritizes corporate interests over social justice.
    • Contradiction with Egalitarian Democracy: The left argues that the commitment to egalitarian democracy is incompatible with the individualistic market capitalism promoted by liberalism.
  • Right Criticisms
    • Emphasis on Individual Freedom: The right sees individual freedom as a Western colonial import that has no connection with traditional Indian values and way of living.
    • Disconnection from Tradition and Identity: The right argues that liberalism is disconnected from Indian traditions and identity, prioritizing individual freedom over community and social values.
Liberalism is deeply ingrained in Indian society:

Amartya Sen has pointed out, the key values of liberalism like an emphasis on individual liberty, freedom, social justice, and societal harmony, have been deeply ingrained in Indian society since ancient times. 

Liberal values can be found in our civilizational traditions and cultural beliefs, with giants such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, M.G. Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gurudev Tagore, and B.R. Ambedkar situating their critique of colonial rule within a liberal framework. 

Radical liberal thinkers such as Jyotirao Phule and Ambedkar argued that progress could be achieved through better (and more representative) political instruments rooted in liberal ideals. 

What are the proposed solutions for making liberalism more inclusive in India?

Indian liberalism needs to evolve to address the challenges it faces, and the time to start this process is now.

  • Syncretic Liberalism: Engage with tradition and identity in a more comprehensive and sustained manner to address the feelings of marginalization and overlook that have driven populist success.
    • This involves recognizing the importance of community and tradition in Indian society and incorporating these values into liberal thought.
  • Economic Reforms: Adopt a more inclusive and socially just approach to markets, balancing free enterprise with social justice through welfare.
    • This includes ensuring that economic growth benefits all sections of society, not just the privileged few.
  • Political Reforms: Revive representative institutions to restore public trust in democracy.
    • This involves decentralizing power, improving representation, and addressing issues of government overreach and surveillance.
  • Consensus: Develop a basic consensus among liberals to address criticisms and work together effectively.
    • This involves recognizing the vast areas of agreement among liberals and focusing on these rather than contesting each other’s political commitments
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