The Rise And Fall Of The Swatantra Party

Book ExcerptsThursday, February 11, 2016 4:30 am IST
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Today is the day the Swatantra Party died. On this day, 41 years ago, the party president, Piloo Mody, dissolved the party and merged into the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, bringing to an end the country’s only experiment with centre-right politics.

Some state units, like the one in Maharashtra soldiered on. S. V. Raju, the Swatantra Party’s executive secretary for many years, kept the flame alive through the Maharashtra unit till his death in May this year.

We carry below extracts from a speech Raju gave in August 2009 at a function to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Swatantra Party. He spoke about the party, its principles and the reasons for its rise and fall. This has been published in a volume, The Swatantra Party: Commemorating the 50th Year.

What led to its rapid rise and its equally rapid crash? First the Rapid Rise.

This involves an enquiry into the party strategy that enabled it to emerge as the second biggest Party in the country after the 3rd General Elections in 1962 (though still well behind the ruling Congress). The party won 207 (of around 1000 seats contested in the state assemblies) as against 153 won by the CPI [Communist Party of India], 149 by the PSP [Praja Socialist Party] and 115 by the Jan Sangh. Of the 192 seats contested for the Lok Sabha the party won 22, securing a little over 8.5% of the votes polled.

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The Swatantra Party Flag

Five years later, the Party’s performance in the 1967 General Elections was even more impressive. Of the 175 candidates to Parliament, 44 were elected. Securing almost 9.6% of the votes polled, the Swatantra Party emerged as the single largest party in the opposition in the Lok Sabha. Of the 973 candidates who contested in the state assemblies elections, 256 were elected. Though [C. Rajagopalachari] Rajaji and [Minoo] Masani publicly expressed their disappointment at not being declared as the official opposition in the Lok Sabha (short by 7 seats) and not getting 100 seats, it was by no means a mean achievement.

A number of reasons can be advanced for this rapid growth. Among them:

– The novelty of a party that refused to subscribe to socialism of the Nehruvian kind.

– The national leadership consisted of outstanding public personalities with impeccable credentials, each one of them distinguished in their own fields of activity. In fact, by current reckoning, offering not one but a number of potential prime ministers!

– In the 1960s there were a number of state level parties, some of them led by former princes who had a strong following in their former princedoms. Two of them were the Bihar Rajya Janata Party in south Bihar, and the Ganatantra Parishad in Orissa. Both merged into the Swatantra Party. In both states the Swatantra Party emerged as the official opposition in 1967. In Rajasthan, Maharawal Laxman Singh of Dungarpur was among the first to join the party, leading to a few more princes joining, the most prominent among them being Maharani Gayatri Devi.

In Gujarat, Bhailalbhai Patel, a trusted lieutenant of Sardar Patel, was able to weave a formidable coalition of the patidars (the Patels) and the Kashtriyas (Rajputs) with a number of princes of smaller principalities in Saurashtra coming in. In Tamil Nadu, two parties, one the CRC (Congress Reforms Committee – a breakaway group from the Kamaraj Nadar-led Indian National Congress) and the Tamil Nadu Toilers Party led by Saw Ganesan provided Rajaji both organizational sinews and leadership to develop the Party in the State. In Mysore (now Karnataka), the party received considerable impetus from Coorg (now known as Kodugu) with the planters led by N. K. Ganapaiah providing the muscle. In Andhra [Pradesh], Prof. [N.G.] Ranga’s charisma was responsible for the party’s creditable performance.

– In other words, the founding members were able to form a coalition of interests ranging from landowners and tenant farmers whose lands the government was trying to usurp; the difficulties of traders and manufacturers – small and big – trying to do business but stymied by the unholy trinity of the corrupt politician, the corrupt bureaucrat and the corrupt businessman; the apprehensions of the growing clout of the Communist Party of India over the ruling -party; and continuing high levels of poverty and illiteracy even after 20 years of freedom.

For the first time India’s voters were offered a choice not between parties of the same kind but one that was radically different – one that offered less government interference in the lives of citizens and a much larger role for them in the country’s governance.

There was an all-out effort to reduce to the minimum the splitting of the vote, through electoral adjustments. One of the main reasons for Congress winning overall majorities in all elections despite receiving far less than 50% of the votes was due to multi-cornered contests. The Swatantra Party entered into electoral adjustments particularly with the Jan Sangh and with state parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu. This did not involve an alliance or campaigning on a common platform. Parties in the opposition benefited from such adjustments as proved by the results of the 1967 elections.

… and the Equally Rapid Crash ?

It was indeed a crash not a fall.

A principal reason for the Swatantra Party’s early successes was the tremendous rapport between Rajaji and Masani. Nine times out of ten their interpretation of events coincided and the policies and strategies they fashioned generally found support in the highest organs of the party.

The Congress split in 1969 changed power equations not only within the Congress but in many other parties, including the Swatantra Party.   . . .  [It led to] Rajaji and [K.] Kamaraj [being] on the same side of the fence. The Congress (O) was determined to prove that it was the real Indian National Congress by dethroning Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the 1971 elections.

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Rajaji no longer had any issue with the Congress (O). He too wanted to defeat Mrs. Gandhi at the polls. Rajaji easily accepted Kamaraj’s assurance that one final assault on the Indira Congress would mark the eclipse of the Indira Congress. What was needed was an alliance of all parties in the opposition. This united front of parties came to be known as the “Grand Alliance” – a coalition of opposition parties across the political spectrum, barring the communists, who preferred to ally with Mrs. Gandhi.

The Swatantra Party’s National Executive shared Rajaji’s optimism that such an alliance would be able to defeat the Indira Congress provided such a national alliance was programmatic i.e. based on an agreed common minimum programme. Minoo Masani and Narayan Dandeker were authorized to negotiate such a programme on behalf of the Party and also seat adjustments based on the Party’s performance in the 1967 elections.

The negotiations got under way, and though it was tough going – hammering out a common programme – progress was being made. Suddenly some leaders of the other negotiating parties including Atal Behari Vajpayee (Jan Sangh), Ram Subhag Singh (Congress O), George Fernandes and Madhu Limaye (Samyukta Socialist Party also known as Lohia Socialists) sprang a surprise by saying that that there was no need to work out an agreed programme; all that was needed was a one line slogan: Indira Hatao (Remove Indira). Both Masani and Dandeker were quite upset. They were unable to convince the Congress (O) not to abandon the common minimum programme that was being worked out. They argued that an alliance based on a negative demand of Indira Hatao without a common programme would not find favour with the voters.

Masani took the next flight to Madras to report to Rajaji and get him to reiterate the National Executive’s acceptance of a programme-based alliance. But Kamaraj got to Rajaji before Masani did and persuaded him not to insist on a common minimum programme but to support the one-point formula of Indira Hatao. Rajaji was taken in by Kamaraj’s assurance and rejected Masani’s suggestion that in the light of the new situation, the Swatantra Party should go it alone and do the best it could. Masani refused to be part of the negotiating team and returned to Mumbai. He had already issued a statement in Delhi before leaving for Chennai that the Grand Alliance had handed over victory to Mrs. Gandhi on a silver platter.

Rajaji then asked Narayan Dandeker and Dr. R. C. Cooper, then the Party’s General Secretary, to convey the party’s acceptance and to negotiate seat adjustments. The Party got a raw deal because it was allotted a mere 59 seats (as against 175 it contested in 1967). Both Dandeker and Cooper reported to the Party’s Central Parliamentary Board the extent to which the other partners of the ‘Grand Alliance’ had ridiculed and humiliated the Swatantra Party in the distribution of seats.

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Rajaji at an election campaign

As Minoo Masani had correctly predicted, Mrs. Indira Gandhi swept the polls even if the votes the Indira Congress polled were less than 45% securing 70% of the seats (contested 441 seats won 352). The Grand Alliance suffered an ignominious defeat and the Swatantra Party’s strength went down from 44 to 8 with 3.1% of the votes polled, down from 9% in 1967.

Soon after the results were announced Masani resigned from the presidentship of the Swatantra Party taking responsibility for the Party’s defeat. He also lost his election from Rajkot. More than the defeat, his own and the Party’s, Masani felt let down by Rajaji and what he considered as Rajaji abandoning the party’s mission to be a “party with a difference”. The deep bond between the two men which enabled the Swatantra Party to become an important player on the national political scene, snapped.

Publicly and privately, Rajaji sought to persuade Masani to withdraw his resignation. Masani refused to oblige. In a desperate bid to persuade Masani to carry on as Party president Rajaji wrote even to me: “Dear Raju, nothing would please me more than if Masani could change his mind and agree to be President again at least for one year.” Dutifully I showed the letter to Masani and, on behalf of Rajaji, tried to persuade him to heed his request to continue as president for one more year. What I got was a typical Masani riposte “What’s going to happen after one year Nothing.”

Prof. N. G. Ranga, Swatantra Party’s president for almost ten years, was also defeated in the election. He chose to defect to the Congress on the ground that he was obeying the people’s mandate! Mr. Masani announced his retirement from active party politics. With both his lieutenants gone, and deeply traumatized by the resounding defeat suffered by Swatantra, Rajaji went into a shell. The Swatantra Party did not survive Rajaji too long. Small men who took charge of the Party lacked the vision of the party’s mission. The Swatantra Party had to be ‘A Party with a Difference’ or not at all.

All through the Swatantra years – from 23 June 1959, when he publicly announced the formation of the Swatantra Party to 26 June 1972 when he addressed the Party’s General Council for the last time, Rajaji was the Swatantra Party’s mentor, constantly reminding members that power was not the end but only the means to an end – the welfare and wellbeing of the Indian people. The means had to be ethical as much as the goal. Sadly, and ironically, he ignored this code just once when he allowed Kamaraj to persuade him to take a stand that was expedient and not in accordance with his own prescription. It was a gamble that he was prepared to take at his age. He was 93. A momentary lapse which ultimately led to the collapse of the Swatantra Party.

What happened thereafter to Swatantra which saw three presidents between 1972 and 1974, does not really matter. The Swatantra Party died with Rajaji on Christmas Day December 25, 1972. Ironically it ended where it all began – Madras. The Party’s Founder and the two other founding members are equally responsible for the end of an outstanding experiment in principled politics.

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SV Raju

In this context I wish to take this opportunity to confess that I was unfair in blaming Piloo Mody and his two colleagues for dissolving the Party, for the simple reason that there was no Party to dissolve! In retrospect I feel that all that happened after Rajaji died were of no consequence. On the other hand, the seventh and last national convention of the Party held in Delhi in 1974 in Sapru House proved that the Party had indeed lost its raison d’etre when the then office bearers ensured a contrived majority made up of bogus delegates to authorize the then president to snuff out the Party at will.

Be that as it may, what Rajaji achieved in the last decade of his life was without parallel. At the age of 80 when most men retire, he embarked on the Himalayan task of building a political movement to revolutionize Indian politics and put it on the path of Dharma – a feat that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. History will however record that for a brief period of 14 years Indian democracy saw the green shoots of a credible democratic alternative emerging. The soil as we the survivors recall was, to our disappointment, not yet ready. .

This brings me to the last question:

Setting Traditions in Party Politics

Can the Swatantra Party serve as a role model? Yes, it can. But it is a tough model to follow. Here are some benchmarks that Rajaji and the national leadership of the Party had set for the Party.

The Swatantra Party:

– Will seek power by educating the people. “We should not chase power, power should chase us.” Rajaji kept repeating this at numerous of the National Executive and at Party workers meetings.

– Will not seek to run trade unions as fronts nor interfere in student unions. Why? Because trade unions are created to look after the workers’ interests and should not be exploited by political parties; and students have to first complete their studies before getting involved in politics.

– Will not permit the Party’s elected legislators in parliament and in state assemblies and councils to stage walk-outs. Through its 15 years of existence, only once did the Party’s MPs stage a walkout in the Lok Sabha and that was when a patently unfair ruling was given by the Speaker when the debate on the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which sought to take away the property rights of the farmer was being discussed.

On one occasion when the Party’s legislators walked out of the Andhra Legislative Assembly, and reports of Swatantra legislators demonstrating outside the Assembly were reported in the press, the Central Parliamentary Board took a serious view of this report. The leader of the group who was also a member of the National Executive, was admonished and told not to do it again. In fact the following decision was recorded: When the Assembly is in session, all Swatantra legislators should be inside the Assembly and not outside. They have not been elected to stand outside and protest. They have been elected to be in the House and record their opposition if that is the party’s position on the issue under discussion.

– Does not believe in opposing for opposition’s sake. There are times when the party may have to support a government proposal if it was in the national interest even if it meant breaking ranks with other parties in the opposition.

On one occasion the Congress Party led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi sought the support of the opposition parties to devalue the rupee. The economy was in dire straits and the rupee being overvalued foreign trade was taking a massive beating. The Party decided to support the Congress even though the other parties in the opposition opposed devaluation and were furious with us, but we stood our ground.

This also happened on several occasions between 1962 and 1971 when the Party declined to participate in no-confidence motions. The Party made it clear that no-confidence motions were serious parliamentary weapons to be used sparingly and not trivialized. Masani would often justify this stand by saying “You cannot replace something with nothing; you must replace it with something better.

– Innovated perhaps the most path-breaking principle to provide inner party democracy and provide space for its members from being held down by the dead hand of uniformity. This is what made the Swatantra Party a Party with a difference. This came to be known as the 21st principle which recognized the fact that members of the Party need not agree on everything and demanding unanimity could be undemocratic.

The 21st principle said that on all issues falling outside the scope of the preceding 20 principles, party members were free to act according to their conscience – be it prohibition, birth control, consumption of tobacco or the question of the national language; and this freedom extended to the party’s legislators and members of parliament. The party whip would be used only to ensure attendance and attention to legislative duties and to issues relating to the economy and foreign policy and not be so oppressive that the party’s legislators became mere voting machines. This innovative approach was then criticized even by the press as being ‘escapist’!

These were in brief some of the guidelines to be followed by members. It wasn’t meant to be just another political party. It was a party that would one day be called on by the electorate to rule and it should therefore possess credentials of the highest order.

Clearly Rajaji had fashioned an instrument and was fine tuning it all the time. His intention was to change the face of party politics in India. He never held office in the Swatantra Party. Though he was a member of the National Executive, and of the General Council, he was not even a life member. He was an annual Rs.10/- dues paying member. Though the National Executive of the Swatantra Party was literally a who’s who of well known and highly qualified personalities, the lessons he gave them could well become a manual of ethics and etiquette for politicians of all political parties.

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