Aditya Balasubramanian, "Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India" (Princeton UP, 2023)


In Toward a Free Economy: Swantantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India (Princeton University Press, 2023), Aditya Balasubramanian charts the birth and rise of a political ideology rooted in the tenets of ‘free market’ economics, and the loosely associated ideas of neoliberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism. Balasubramanian offers an altogether fresh origin story for this movement that is often framed as a Cold War North Atlantic export to the rest of the poorer, developing world championed by the International Monetary Fund backed Washington consensus.

In his compellingly told and richly layered account, we are not only given one of the few comprehensive histories of the Swantantra (“Freedom”) Party and its tryst with democratic electoral politics in newly independent India, but we are also shown how the most important facets of this moment in history cannot simply rely on a narrative woven around party politics. This results in a focus on what Balasubramanian calls “economic consciousness,” and exposes us to a vast, multifarious archival base that spans print, visual, and urban cultures, economists’ papers, government films, and much more that palpably reconstructs how economic ideals floated in the political arena also circulated in and were propped up by the wider public sphere in southern and western India.

The Swantantra Party emerged in the late 1950s, as a response to the Indian National Congress Party’s (INC) purported hegemony in independent India’s constitutional democratic structure. The party encouraged Indians to break with the INC, which spearheaded the anticolonial nationalist movement and now dominated Indian democracy. Rejecting heavy-industrial developmental state and the accompanying rhetoric of socialism that was seen as emblematic of INC, Swatantra promised “free economy” through its project of opposition politics.

As the “free economy” idea was disseminated across various genres and cultures, it took on meanings that varied by region and language, caste, and class, and won diverse advocates. These articulations, informed by but distinct from neoliberalism, came chiefly from relatively wealthy communities who felt threatened by the INC’s economic policies as they embraced new forms of entrepreneurial activity. At their core, they connoted anticommunism, unfettered private economic activity, decentralized development, and the defense of private property.

Opposition politics encompassed ideas and practice. Swatantra’s leaders imagined a conservative alternative to a progressive dominant party in a two-party system. They communicated ideas and mobilized people around such issues as inflation, taxation, and property. And they made creative use of India’s institutions to bring checks and balances to the political system.

Democracy’s persistence in India is uncommon among postcolonial societies. By excavating a perspective of how Indians made and understood their own democracy and economy, Aditya Balasubramanian broadens our picture of the free market, neoliberalism, democracy, and the postcolonial world. In the process, he helps us understand why geographically specific and culturally rooted histories from the Global South are necessary in qualifying and nuancing these ostensibly universal concepts.

Archit Guha is a PhD researcher in the Duke University History Department.

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Archit Guha

Archit Guha is a PhD researcher in the Duke University History Department.
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