Growing up in a land famous for a rural collectivist (Mohandas Gandhi) and a Fabian socialist (Jawaharlal Nehru), I rarely encountered disagreement with the "obvious" notion that government was the answer to our nation's problems. The prospect of a classical liberal movement gaining popularity in India any time soon seemed dim. Then, this summer I joined an email list of Indians who discuss public policy and discovered myself in the company of more than 70 individuals with classical liberal convictions. Which begged the question: In this country of 1.1. billion, how many more such liberals are there?
The burgeoning classical liberal movement is feeding off India's economic growth. The Big Bang liberalization of the 1990s has already helped realign the middle class toward the idea of limited government. Thanks to these 350 million Indians, "the chances of success of a classical liberal movement are good," says Gurcharan Das, who has been advocating liberal ideas in his Times of India column for 15 years. More people are coming to disfavor big government thanks to their own experiences.
Leading the charge are writers and activists such as Mr. Das who believe India needs more freedom, and have set out to persuade others. The country has already seen two winners of the Frederic Bastiat Prize, awarded annually since 2002 for commentary in vein of the eponymous 19th-century French thinker.
These new-age commentators are riding the wave of another effect of India's liberalization, a boom in technology and communications. More media outlets, eager to outdo competitors, are listening to diverse opinions. The Internet is often the delivery system. Amit Varma, a former columnist for the daily Mint and the 2007 Bastiat winner, runs a blog that is visited daily by 10,000 people. Many are likely India's largest demographic, the youth. Thanks to the Internet, "the generation growing up today is far more open and broad-minded," he says.
The leaders of the movement are already capitalizing on this generation. The Center for Civil Society, a libertarian-leaning think tank in New Delhi, actively recruits college-age youth. Through heavy advertising at 3,000 colleges across the country, CCS attracts 250 applicants for each of its bi-monthly seminars. In programs modeled after the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies in Washington, D.C., students are exposed -- most for the first time ever -- to the writings of stalwarts like Bastiat and Friedrich Hayek, as well as a fresh approach to public policy.
"It was a paradigm shift in thought," says Dhanu Raj, who hails from southern Cochin city and attended a CCS seminar in 2003. "We had all found something new and different," he says. In 2004, he founded a libertarian institute in Cochin that conducts national- and local-level research. In November, Mr. Raj will help host the Liberal Youth South Asia network, a 100-person youth conference dedicated to libertarian policy.
In 10 years, CCS has already racked up an impressive outreach record. Its alumni have founded, among other organizations, a non-profit in Mumbai in 2003 to tackle local governance issues and a national forum in December to conduct outreach seminars in six mid-level cities. "Our student seminars help in recruiting and training for grassroots campaigns," says CCS President Parth Shah. This domino effect is even trickling down to rural India.
CCS alumni and staff have led rural campaigns on issues like education choice in states as far flung as Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Their efforts have started bearing fruit; this year, state governments in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh approved school voucher initiatives. Another classical liberal group, the Gujarat-based Action Research in Community Health and Development which publishes a bi-monthly magazine called Khoj, has been at the forefront of property rights disputes, most notably at a hydroelectric project in Gujarat. Thanks to its lobbying efforts, New Delhi in January awarded property rights to tribal groups across the country.
India's appetite for industrialization has generated many land disputes in recent months, most recently at the Tata Motors factory in Singur,