Thoughts on economics and liberty

The conceptualisation of Swatantra Party

I’m sharing a short extract from Rajmohan Gandhi’s book, Rajaji – a Life, since it shows the courage and organisational ability of one of the greatest men India has produced: Rajaji


In 1959, … Ignoring ailments and shaking off inhibitions, Rajaji, 80, decided to challenge Jawaharlal, who seemed to embody power, fame and vitality, with a new political party.

Events and his own analysis propelled C.R. Congress, he felt, was steadily corrupting. Though committing themselves, in 1955, to ‘a socialistic pattern’ and, later, to plain ‘socialism,’ its members seemed to be getting richer rather than more caring. In 1956 C.R. had publicly asked: ‘Congressmen look so well off. Have they taken up new avocations and earned money? Then how have they made money?’ (Indian Express, 28.5.56)

‘Anyhow, somehow,’ was his answer at the time. Now, three years later, he replaced it with a phrase that would become central to Indian political debate for the rest of the century. It was the ‘permit-licence-quota’ raj, he said, that was fattening Congressmen. The socialistic pattern, where the state controlled, ‘permitted’ and farmed out business, was enriching Congressmen, officials and favoured businessmen — and harassing the rest.

A realization began to stir in him that if he wished to oppose state control of business he would have to oppose Congress itself. While he was thus cogitating, Congress came out with a new agricultural policy. It had three prongs: government takeover of the grain trade; ceilings on land holdings; and cooperative cultivation of land. Aired in 1958, the guidelines were confirmed by Congress at its Nagpur session in January 1959.

To C.R. this policy represented a wolf that needed immediate chaining, and he barked at once and loudly. Violent Socialism,’ ‘Retreat from Gandhism’ and ‘Why I Show the Red Flag were some of his articles assailing the new policy in Swarajya, the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express.

Bureaucrats, he argued, would make incompetent traders. Land ceilings would be unconstitutional and would dry up the flow of grain into towns. And rural industrialization, the soundest route to more jobs, would suffer if the bigger farmers were squeezed out.

In the ceiling proposal C.R. saw greed for votes and exploitation of jealousy, not sympathy for the landless. Calling it ‘a child of sadism’ (The Hindu, 6.1.59), he warned: ‘The egalitarians are hovering over the land like eagles’ (Swarajya, 27.12.58).

He was scathing about the joint ownership and farming that Jawaharlal and some of his advisers were presenting as an answer to the fragmentation of India’s cropland. Common cultivation, he said, was ‘not an idea born of experience or thought’ and had only been tried in countries ‘where personal liberty is absent and forced labour is commandeered’ (The Hindu, 6.1.59). In advocating it, Congress was ‘borrowing from the Communist his brush and paint’ (Indian Express, 19.1.59).

Peasants were most efficient when they farmed their own land; ‘an unwilling people yoked to the law’ would grow the minimum. In sum, joint cultivation would be ‘as bad for the farm as polygamy is for the family’ (Swarajya, 17.12.58 & 14.2.59).

In the middle of 1958, referring to ‘the gradual collapse of independent thinking’ in Congress, he had asked: ‘Has socialism been adopted only as parrots learn to speak’ (Swarajya, 10.5.58). The manner in which Congress accepted the new agricultural policy seemed to confirm his worst fears. After a sharp rebuke from Nehru, critics of joint farming and ceilings had meekly voted for the new policy — only six hands were raised in opposition.

Calling Nehru, for the first time, ‘the Congress dictator,’ C.R. also said: ‘The single brain-activity of the people who meet in Congress is to find out what is in Jawaharlal’s mind and to anticipate it. The slightest attempt at dissent meets with stern disapproval and is nipped in the bud’ (Swarajya, 17.1. & 28.2.59).

Suddenly, at this juncture, Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal’s daughter, was named party president. Her talents were yet a secret, and she had had no experience of party work. Several of Nehru’s colleagues were offended by the choice but said nothing. C.R. felt outraged.

Two years earlier, he had spoken somewhat academically of the role a Right party could perform. Now, perceiving a threat of joint farming and the collapse of independence in Congress, he called for a Conservative Party of India:

Men do not feel any inclination to become wage-slaves, and peasants are least inclined . . . A wide public is waiting to give support to an opposition formed on a sound basis, because the people have realised that one-footed democracy is no good and is not distinguishable from coercion and totalitarianism (The Hindu, 6.1.59).

For a year or so, he had been urged to lead an initiative against Congress socialism by men like Minoo Masani, the former socialist and now an independent MP, P.K. Deo, the Maharaja of Kalahandi in Orissa, Murarji Vaidya of the Forum of Free Enterprise and Janakinandan Singh, leader of a group of breakaway Congressmen in Bihar. So far C.R.’s reply was that he was ‘too old, too long a Congressman and too close to Nehru personally to consider an active re-entry into politics.’1

After Nagpur, the pressure was stronger. C.R. deflected it, first, towards Jayaprakash Narayan. Though a socialist himself, J.P. had spoken of the need for a conservative party and for opposing Congress. Inscribing his best wishes, J.P. tossed the ball back to C.R. This time C.R. threw it towards Chintaman Deshmukh, who had resigned a few years earlier from Nehru’s Cabinet, and whose talent and integrity C.R. esteemed:

You are aware that for a considerable time now I have been convinced of the need for an opposition party and that it should be a conservative party whatever name it may adopt.

Everyone who agreed with me, looking for a good leader, could find none and ended with asking me to do it, which I have been saying is impossible. [Then] there was a flash and I saw at once who it must be. ‘Here is the man,’ I said to myself. ‘Deshmukh fits it to a tee . . .’

If you agree to place yourself at the head of this movement, it will be my duty to get young and do all in my power to make it a success. (15.4.59)2

Though touched, Deshmukh pleaded inability. Simultaneously, with Deshmukh’s reply came Nehru’s first comment on C.R.’s criticisms. At a public meeting in Madras, Jawharlal referred to his ‘affection and respect’ for Rajaji, and then said, ‘May I perhaps venture to say one word to him with great respect; and that is, a little charity in his thinking may sometimes not be out of place.’3

In the middle of May 1959, Monica Felton said to C.R.:

I have been thinking that if I were the mother of you and the Prime Minister, I would bang your two heads together and tell you to stop arguing and run things together. Each of you has qualities that the other has not. You would make a superb combination.

C.R.: It is too late. Our Prime Minister has arrived at a point at which it is impossible for him to change his views. And I have reached a detachment which makes it out of the question that I should ever return to public affairs.4

Two weeks after uttering these categorical words, C.R. addressed a Bangalore meeting convened by M.A. Sreenivasan of the Forum of Free Enterprise, where, speaking just before him, Masani had assailed Congress in scathing terms.

‘Mr Masani is a parliamentarian,’ C.R. began, ‘and he cannot use strong words. I am free to do so.’ He went on to accuse Nehru of megalomania, and the hall exploded with applause. Next morning, on 30 May, Rajaji told Masani that the time had come to start the new party.

On 4 June, the day’s engagements listed in the Madras papers included a meeting of the All India Agriculturists’ Federation (AIAF) to be addressed by Masani in the evening. When Monica Felton met C.R. in the forenoon, he told her that though Masani was ‘the real speaker,’ he too would be saying something, and that she would be welcome ‘if you have nothing better to do.’ ‘Nothing in his manner or tone [suggested] that the occasion was of the slightest importance.’

After the conversation with Felton, C.R. went to Woodlands Hotel to confer with Masani, N.G. Ranga, the Andhra MP and AIAF leader (he had protested against Congress’s land policy by resigning his post of secretary of the Congress parliamentary party), V.P. Menon, who had been a close aide of Vallabhbhai Patel, and several others.

At this get-together twenty-one principles for a new party were agreed upon, including equal opportunity for all Indians, anti-statism and encouragement of thrift and individual initiative — but a suitable name seemed to elude the ‘midwives.’ Rajaji suggested the Conservative party, but Ranga preferred an Agrarian party and Masani a Liberal, Centre or Democratic one.

J.P. was in Madras on that day, and C.R. made another attempt to enlist him as the new party’s first president. Though declining the offer, J.P. expressed his goodwill.

In the evening, those gathered at Vivekananda College to hear Masani were happily surprised to see Rajaji and J.P. too step on to the dais. What Rajaji said was a greater surprise.

‘This morning,’ he said, ‘a new political party was formed.’ Stunned for a moment, the audience then gave a terrific round of applause. Continued C.R., ‘And the name of the party is’ — and it was the turn of Masani, Ranga and the other midwives to be surprised — ‘Swatantra Party!’ He had settled on the name while being driven to the meeting! This time the loud applause was instantaneous.

‘I had never seen Rajaji more radiant,’ wrote Monica Felton. Following the declaration, she added,

He was no longer the frail old man I had met when I first came to Madras. His eyes were brilliant. His skin was like gold, and the fringe of hair around the back of his head was not silky, like the hair of an old man, but wiry and strong, with the dense gleam of aluminium.

Half-disconcerted (thinking of the biography she hoped to write) and half-delighted, Monica asked C.R.: ‘Do you think you are going to succeed in your enterprise?’ Rajaji laughed and said, ‘It will be all right if I can live to be a hundred.’5   [He was prophetic. He lived till 94. Had he reached 100, six more years, that would have been the time when Indira Gandhi’s Emergency would have been over. He might have succeeded where Janata Party couldn’t]


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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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One thought on “The conceptualisation of Swatantra Party
  1. raghav

    Politics can never be perfect because it has to balance diverse people’s aspirations and balance diverse social cleavages. It has to find common theme or to build a common theme that is acceptable to maximum number of people.

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