To prosperity through freedom. That was the title to the statement of policy and constitution adopted by the newly founded Swatantra Party at its first convention held in Patna in 1960. The party had been launched a year earlier by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), N.G. Ranga, Minoo Masani and others. Rajaji enunciated its 21 principles in simple but powerful prose.

The basic thrust was to lay faith in individual initiative, equality of opportunity and provide maximum freedom for the individual and minimum interference from the state. The political backdrop was to oppose just announced policies of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Indian National Congress (INC)—the Nagpur Resolution—on joint cooperative farming and a ceiling on land holding. Rajaji had offered the presidentship of the party to Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Despite his agreement with the 21 principles, JP demurred stating disinterest in party politics.

Subsequently, many leading lights joined the party, including V.P. Menon, K.M. Munshi, Homi Mody, Mariadas Ruthnaswamy and Dahyabhai Patel (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s only son). By the time of the fourth Lok Sabha (1967-71), the Swatantra Party had become the largest opposition party in Parliament with 44 seats. The party and its ideology declined and vanished from the Indian political scene after Rajaji’s death in 1972, leaving a centre-right gap in Indian politics to this day.

Another time, another place. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) surprisingly surged to a creditable second place in the recent assembly elections for Delhi. The party’s core principles are anti-corruption, women’s security, access to utilities and participative democracy. The party is so new that it has not yet laid out its economic policies clearly, though indications are that it will drift to the left.

The only precedent to its fast rise is that of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founded by thespian N.T. Rama Rao in 1982. The TDP stormed to power in the 1983 Andhra Pradesh assembly. It was set up as a regional party based on the pride and identity of Telugu language speakers. The AAP, in contrast, pegs itself on a national issue and cuts across language, religion and caste identities.

In that sense, the AAP is a manifestation of a gradual but quiet transformation from caste to class politics in India. If the first 30 or so years of politics after independence was dominated by the Congress and the educated elite, the next 30 years have been progressively more about the democratization of politics (positively speaking) and the pervasive divisions based on caste (pejoratively).

The mass political awakenings led by JP in Bihar in the 1970s and subsequently by Kanshi Ramin Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s allowed large swathes of until then disadvantaged people—other backward castes (OBC), scheduled caste and tribes (SC and ST)—to mainstream themselves into politics. The Mandal Commission set in motion access to education and job opportunities through affirmative action.

In the south, this political democratization movement had begun much earlier under Annadurai’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949 in Tamil Nadu, and under E.M.S. Namboodiripad and C. Achutha Menon of the Communist Party (CPI) in Kerala in the 1960s and 1970s. The internecine caste warfare that dominated Tamil Nadu for over 30 years and that has become common fare in recent years in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will gradually give way to a new politics.

The Allahabad high court’s ruling earlier this year to ban caste rallies is one manifestation of this shift from identity politics to the politics of class and opportunity. The rise of the AAP on a single (national) issue is another sign. I doubt that this shift from caste to issues and caste to class will be a clear straight line. Even if caste slowly fades in politics, it may for some time be replaced by a majoritarian versus minoritarian distinction. The politics of a Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, and by consequence a cornered Congress, are already headed in this direction.

Whether the AAP survives and expands its footprint or not, the writing is clear. In much the same way that JP and Kanshi Ram ushered in the last regime in Indian politics, the anti-corruption movement and the AAP are ushering in the next. In a country where we have labels such as most backward castes (MBCs) and Mahadalits, this seems improbable.

Caste politics will not disappear overnight, but recede it will, as it has already done in several states. As we make our way through a majoritarian phase, a politics of class that has marked the maturation of most western democracies will likely manifest itself. In political terms, this means that we will have parties that focus on social justice and the state’s role on the left and on individual freedom and enterprise on the right.

We will know that we are well and truly in this new regime when the Swatantra Party is reborn and the full political spectrum becomes available in India. And we will have the AAP to thank for it.

P.S. “The Swatantra Party stands for the creation of opportunities for full and lasting employment in all sectors of life," said Rajaji.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand-

Close