By Nimit Goyal:
If there was one Opposition leader in India who truly believed that there should not be opposition for opposition’s sake but constructive issue-based criticism then it was Minocher Rustom Masani, or Minoo Masani as he was better known. Author, freedom fighter, Parliamentarian and a member of the Constituent Assembly, and in short, free India’s most eminent Liberal.
Although initially a socialist and a founder of the Socialist faction within the Indian National Congress, he was soon disillusioned with Socialist ideals due to Stalinist excesses in the USSR.
In 1947, he articulated the idea of a mixed economy, with three sectors : a small sector of nationalised industries (which would be decided by an independent commission), a larger sector of new public enterprises in areas where what he called ‘free enterprise’ was unable to venture into, and a third, largest sector of free enterprises. “Such a programme of state plus free enterprise is, in fact, the only practicable programme that the government in India can possibly adopt in the coming years…it is important that it is done, not sullenly for lack of anything better, but with enthusiasm and drive,” he wrote in a paper detailing the idea.
After Independence, his nuanced approach would bring him in direct conflict with Nehru and what he called the latter’s zeal to foist the Soviet pattern of state capitalism. His election to the Lok Sabha as an Independent from Ranchi in Bihar in 1957 signalled the beginning of his efforts to implement his thesis of a mixed economy and to combat the statist policies which went under the name of the socialist pattern of society. Since the only non-socialist alternative to the Congress in the 1950’s was the Jan Sangh, with a strong Hindu bias, Masani teamed up with Rajaji and farmers’ leader, NG Ranga, to form India’s first conservative-liberal party called Swatantra Party in 1959.
Throughout the party’s short life and even after its demise, Masani never stopped pointing out that state involvement in industry, trade and commerce would result in the neglect of its primary responsibilities of maintaining law and order and the provision of drinking water facilities, primary healthcare, primary education and physical infrastructure.
Its tone being liberal as well as conservative, the new party reached out to moderate Hindus and non-Hindus in ways not available to the Jan Sangh. Masani was that rare combination of party ideologue and organisation man. He knew precisely what his political outfit’s goals were, and set about organising the Party to achieve them. This meant, as he wrote in his autobiography, “good housekeeping and efficient field organisation.”
For the first twenty years or more after Independence, the Congress was in a majority not only in Delhi but also in most of the states barring Kerala and West Bengal. This influenced Masani to run a highly centralised party. His objective was Delhi and not the states as the centre of power was in Delhi, which Rajaji had described as “glorified municipalities.”
Masani was that rare combination: an intellectual with tremendous organising competence. During his tenure as general secretary, the Swatantra Party grew rapidly and in less than ten years emerged, in the 1967 general elections, as the single largest party in the Opposition in the Lok Sabha with a strength of 44 members. It led a principled coalition government in Orissa. It was also the officially recognised opposition in the Rajasthan and Gujarat Assemblies and had significant representation in the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu legislative assemblies.
As the party’s ideologue, he was clear that the Swatantra Party should eschew non-parliamentary forms of protest like satyagrahas, morchas, bandhs and walkouts in the legislatures. He was largely influential in ensuring that the party did not form fronts in the trade union and student movements. Perhaps it was his insistence on discipline and doing the right thing that led to the party’s exit from electoral politics. In 1971, the so-called ‘Indira wave’ swept all parties aside including the Swatantra Party. He accepted responsibility for the party’s miserable performance (he himself failed to retain his seat in the Lok Sabha, for a third term, from Rajkot), and resigned from the post of president and party politics as well, even though he had opposed the alliance with anti-Indira parties in the first place. He wanted to fight an issue-based campaign but agreed to the alliance at the insistence of C. Rajagopalochari.
His was an outstanding performance as a member of the Lok Sabha between 1957 and 1971. He was the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. As leader of the single largest party in the Opposition, he invariably opened the debate on the Finance Bill that follows the introduction of the Union Budget. Many of his speeches in parliament were later published under the title ‘Congress Misrule and Swatantra Alternative’.
Masani kept a close watch on the attendance of members of his group and their behaviour. On several occasions, he supported the ruling party but did not hesitate in going against all other groups in the house if any issue warranted such an action. Two instances that come to mind are the ‘liberation’ of Goa when he opposed India’s action on the ground that it was unnecessary and that the whole affair was an effort to ensure the communist Krishna Menon’s return to Parliament. The other was the abolition of Privy Purses. The Swatantra Party in Parliament was alone in opposing the move. The Party held that the abolition of privy purses went against the solemn assurances given by Sardar Patel as the Home Minister and recorded in ‘Instruments of Accession’.
Masani would often quote this verse to encourage his colleagues to treat issues on their merit without being worried about being isolated or being in a hopeless minority:
“They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.”
One would expect that some of our MPs, especially those in Opposition would one day take out the book containing his speeches and views from the Parliamentary library and read it, for history has proved Masani’s statements and views true.
Minoo Masani, we need someone like you, a combination of an idealist and pragmatist. Minoo Masani, India misses you.