“I know they won’t listen to me. But when the history of India is written, no future historian should pity us that in a country where great saints have lived, there was not a single Indian to point out the absurdity of the ‘permit license quota raj’.”
These are the words of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the last governor general of India and the founder of Swatantra Party, India’s first liberal party. December 25, 2017 marks his 45th death anniversary. While political parties from across the spectrum are busy appropriating leaders from Gandhi to Ambedkar and Patel to Bose, Rajaji remains consigned to oblivion in the mainstream politics of India.
Like it is with most politicians, Rajaji’s political views matured with time and experience. A lawyer by training, he gave up his practice to join the freedom movement at the call of Mahatma Gandhi. He devoted himself to Gandhiji’s constructive programme.
He was elected the premier of the Madras Presidency in British India but resigned from the Congress due to his opposition to the ‘Quit India’ Movement. He was invited to rejoin the Congress and was a part of Nehru’s interim government. Upon independence, he was made the governor of West Bengal and after Mountbatten left, he became India’s last governor general.
After the death of Sardar Patel, he took over the role of Minister for Home Affairs on Nehru’s request. He eventually retired from active politics but despite his refusal, the Congress legislators elected him as the Chief Minister of Madras in 1952 and he was persuaded to come back.
When Rajaji became the Chief Minister, a World War II era food-grain rationing law had created a black market in the same. One fine evening, he went on All India Radio (AIR) and announced its abolition with immediate effect. Many economists and officers predicted starvation and deaths, but on the contrary, prices of food-grains declined and poor people were benefited.
He came up with an idea for education reform limiting school to three days and leaving the rest of the four days for children to learn a trade. His signature education reform was something revolutionary at the time and had the potential of ensuring higher enrollment rates. But his opponents, like Periyar and Annadurai, ran misinformation campaigns against it, giving it a caste colour and calling it ‘Brahminical’. It ended up costing Rajaji his political popularity and as a result, Rajaji resigned.
Rajaji could see that after Patel’s death, there was no one to question Nehru and dissent was discouraged and silenced within the Congress party. He thought that Nehru’s admiration for the USSR and communism blinded his reason and there was overwhelming public support with virtually no opposition at the time.
It was in this situation that Rajaji, at the age of 81, went against the tide and took on the mantle of forging the Swatantra Party along with luminaries like NG Ranga and Minoo Masani. Swatantra went on to become the single-largest opposition party in the fourth Lok Sabha and in legislative assemblies of many states like Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Orissa.
While remaining committed to social justice, Swatantra advocated market—based economy where welfare and happiness of the people could be achieved by giving maximum freedom to individuals with the state minimizing its intervention. Rajaji was a bitter critic of what he saw as unnecessary state intervention on part of the Nehruvian state in the lives of individuals. It remains the first and only party till date which gave its members the freedom to vote according to their own convictions and conscience on most of the issues. On the question of “Why Swatantra?”, Rajaji wrote, “The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival.”
The party could not find a charismatic leader after the death of Rajaji in 1972 and the party declined eventually. The Swatantra experiment failed in the sense that the party was not able to form a government in any state but Rajaji’s stand was vindicated nearly two decades after his death when the self-proclaimed Nehruvian PV Narasimha Rao sounded the death knell of the license-permit-quota raj.
Rajaji remains relevant today as India lacks a mainstream liberal party. Vajpayee’s BJP, at the dusk of his government, can be said to have come the closest but its roots remained antithetical to liberalism. On the economic front, the BJP still has a chunk of people who are socialist at heart and the reformist agenda is often hijacked by majoritarian voices which are a threat to the democracy.
Congress’s policy of appeasement of both minority and majority communities, lack of an inner party democracy and a perpetual tendency of leftist populism shows that it’s anything but liberal. There have been attempts to forge a truly liberal party in recent years. But these parties have remained at fringes when it comes to electoral politics.
Agriculturist Sharad Joshi’s Swatantra Bharat Paksh party was one. Two other examples would be Jayaprakash Narayan’s Loksatta Party in Andhra Pradesh and Sanjeev Sabhlok’s Swarna Bharat Party. The latter remains unrecognized, four years into its existence. Today, as India marches towards development, it needs the values that Swatantra stood for more than it ever did.