Liberalism is the most desired popular ideology for governance. Yet, the task of achieving it is not easy. The experience is that states enjoying democratic credentials often pursue illiberal policies and behave in an undemocratic manner. Thus, the difficulty lies not only in developing and enforcing liberalism but also sustaining the liberal democratic state structure. In South Asia, both the so-called established and transitional democracies have exhibited strong illiberal tendencies while, at the same time, maintaining a liberal outlook. The book reflects the decline of liberalism and prescribes the same principle for governance in the region. In this context the editor considers the volume as a manual that provides ‘food for thought and ideas’ for liberal programmes. According to him, liberal ideology has its ‘basis in the philosophies that arose in the subcontinent long ago; and though this region too has had its share of authoritarianism and nationalism, the re-emergence of liberalism should cause no surprise’.
He hopes that political ‘parties throughout the subcontinent will make use of this book to develop a coherent ideological framework within which they can work towards equipping us for the future, free of the dogma and doctrines that held us back over the last fifty years’ (p. xvi). It is hard to expect political parties to follow the lofty objectives of the book for a simple reason that in adhering and articulating an ideology and undertaking a political programme, they are guided or influenced more by the political exigencies of capturing state power than the political aspirations, needs and preferences of the society. Here again, one can make a distinction between parties in power and in opposition. It is often found that opposition parties become avowedly liberals by questioning the ruling party’s illiberal decisions. When the latter becomes an opposition party, it tends to reverse its adverse position on liberalism. The point is that the political traditions and state ideology matter more in nurturing liberalism than party programmes and preferences.
This book is a tribute to Chanaka Amaratunga, an intellectual and founder leader of Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, who articulated a liberal ideology for Sri Lanka. His untimely tragic death has robed the country of a liberal visionary who had strongly believed in equality and justice. Three of his chapters included in the volume testify to his intellectual clarity and deep understanding of the ideology of liberalism and its relevance to the South Asian states. In moulding his ideas and perspectives, he was deeply influenced by a large number of liberal political thinkers and philosophers. Thus, his ideas were grounded in the modern liberal intellectual tradition. For Amaratunga, a ‘free society’ is one in which not only ‘representative institutions’ and ‘constitutionally protected opportunities for political choice’ exist but also ‘a precise and particular commitment to a distinctive conception of the place of the individual relation both to the state and to society’ is maintained (p. 201). In other words, a free society requires a ‘limited state’, one that recognizes and protects individual rights and interests. Thus, he found recognizably a distinctive place for individuals in a liberal system.