S.V. Raju: the last Swatantrite

It takes immense moral courage to fight a battle you know you are almost destined to lose


A file photo of S.V. Raju. Photo: Bloomberg
A file photo of S.V. Raju. Photo: Bloomberg

S.V. Raju, who died on Tuesday at the age of 81, was an exceptional man. His long and often lonely campaign against Indian socialism may have appeared quixotic to some of his critics, especially in the decades when socialism seemed to be the only alternative for the country, but what he did could best be described by these paraphrased lines of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that dark night

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

The dying light that Raju tirelessly raged against marked the dark period when Indira Gandhi used the attractive slogans of socialism to consolidate her personal power. It takes immense moral courage to fight a battle you know you are almost destined to lose.

Raju was executive secretary of the Swatantra Party at a time when it posed a potent challenge to the Nehruvian consensus. The party was a blend of the Gandhian liberalism of C. Rajagopalachari, the Western liberalism of Minoo Masani, and the peasant liberalism of N.G. Ranga. Its growing popularity meant that it was attacked by the Congress as a party of rich industrialists and feudal landlords, but anybody who takes the trouble to read its 21 founding principles will realize that it was a liberal party that was way ahead of its time.

The Swatantra Party was the second largest party in Parliament after the 1967 elections. It then collapsed in a sorry heap after Indira Gandhi was swept to power in 1971 with the promise of abolishing poverty with socialism, and acrimonious internal battles hastened its end. One part of the party combined with Charan Singh. Another part eventually ended up in the Janata Party.

Raju did not give up. He kept a whole range of institutions going: the Indian Liberal Group, Freedom First magazine, the Forum of Free Enterprise, the Project for Economic Education; that wonderful journal from the culture wars of the 1950s, Quest, unfortunately folded up. He filed a writ petition in the Bombay high court in 1996 that challenged the law that no group can get registered as a political party unless it swears by socialism. He sometimes wistfully wondered whether the Swatantra Party could be revived.

I would often meet Raju in his dingy office in South Mumbai. His energy even in his last years was astonishing. He would speak with great enthusiasm about new things to be done. My last few discussions with him were about an event to mark the death centenary of the great liberal Gopal Krishna Gokhale, some new correspondence he had found between the leaders of the Swatantra Party before the party was established, the papers of the British communist-turned-Royist Philip Spratt, the digitization of various important documents, why he backed Narendra Modi in 2014, and of course his writ petition.

Raju was also a wonderful raconteur. His respect for Rajaji was evident in his conversations, even though I always got the sense that the man who he most identified with was Masani, and his respect for Masani is evident in the biography he wrote a few years ago for the National Book Trust.

Raju often told me how Rajaji and Nehru continued to share a very warm personal relationship despite their sharp political exchanges. And of how Rajaji once sternly reprimanded a colleague who made some derogatory personal remarks about Nehru in a party meeting: “It is one thing for me to criticize Jawaharlal and another thing for you to make such remarks about him. He is way above your league.”

Raju also told me about his last few meetings with Rajaji, even as the Swatantra Party was imploding. An ailing Rajaji, who died in 1972, would summon Raju to Chennai to understand what was happening in the party. Raju told me how the man who was the last governor general of India lived a Spartan existence in a small house, with his books, armchair and bed roll. He lived to serve his country rather than for personal gain.

The first great wave of Indian liberalism had stalwarts from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Dadabhai Naoroji to M.G. Ranade to B.R. Ambedkar to V.S. Srinivasa Sastri. The Swatantra Party led by Rajaji was the second wave that tried to keep the liberal idea alive in the epoch of socialism. India today perhaps has the preconditions for a third wave of liberalism. What the Swatantra Party broadly stood for may have a new resonance in contemporary India, though Raju would say that leaders of stature are missing.

Raju had a sharp mind till the very end. His memory rarely failed him. I asked him a couple of times whether he would sit down for a few hours with me and my friend Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution, so that we could do a detailed interview about his times and all that he saw from his unique perch. Raju—who could be caustic when he wanted to—dismissed the idea as silly. He claimed he was a bit actor on a large stage.

I wish I had been more persistent.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor of Mint.

Comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com. To read Niranjan Rajadhyaksha’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cafeeconomics

Follow Mint Opinion on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mint_Opinion

More From Livemint