It will soon be 60 years since a group of political leaders unfurled the flag of dissent against the Nehruvian consensus of their age. The decision to establish the Swatantra Party was announced at a public meeting in Chennai on 7 June 1959, to provide a liberal alternative to the ruling Congress. Its first national convention was held in Mumbai a few weeks later. The Swatantra Party had emerged as the biggest opposition party in India by 1967. It flamed out soon after.

The 60th anniversary of the liberal political party is likely to be forgotten in a country that is still agog with the results of the recent national election. The most immediate reason for setting up the party was the Congress resolution at Nagpur in January 1959 to push for cooperative farming. Many of the leaders who got together to set it up believed the resolution was the first step toward the collectivization of agriculture.

Minoo Masani described Swatantra as a peasants’ party and said that the closest international example was the Smallholders’ Party in Hungary. A report in the Birmingham Post dated 16 February 1961 described Swatantra as a peasants’ party. The report added that Masani said in a speech in the city that the Planning Commission was usurping the democratic powers of the cabinet and that the party sought to abolish the Five-Year Plans and return to planning by the annual budget.

Four of the tallest leaders in the new party—C. Rajagopalachari, Masani, N.G. Ranga and K.M. Munshi—explained in a series of essays published in 1960 why Swatantra was formed. Rajaji was one of the tallest leaders of the freedom movement. Masani was steeped in Western classical liberalism. Ranga worked with small farmers. Munshi was a cultural conservative. They represented the different strains of liberalism in India at the time, while others such as B.R. Shenoy, Piloo Mody and V.P. Menon were also with the Swatantra Party.

Rajaji succinctly explained the philosophy of the liberal party in his 1960 essay: “The Swatantra Party is founded on the claim that individual citizens should be free to hold their property, and carry on their professions freely, and through binding mutual agreements among themselves, and that the State should assist and encourage in every possible way the individual in this freedom, but not seek to replace him." One of the innovations of the Swatantra Party was that there was no official party line. Its legislators were free to vote depending on their individual views on the subject under discussion. They were only expected to agree on certain core principles.

The Swatantra Party was not a libertarian group. Masani wrote in his 1960 essay that some measure of state enterprise and regulation was inevitable in the 20th century. The 21 founding principles of the party, a remarkable document, includes this sentence: “The party stands for the restriction of state enterprise to heavy industries such as are necessary to supplement private enterprise in that field, such national services as Railways and the starting of new enterprises which are difficult for private initiative."

The Swatantra Party was deeply critical of the web of controls that was suffocating individual enterprise, the excess focus on capital goods rather than consumer goods in the Five-Year Plans, the moves to collectivize farming, excess taxation and deficit financing. Some of these themes are evident in Shenoy’s powerful dissent note on the second Five-Year Plan, which revolved around the threat to economic stability from excess deficit financing, as well as the threat to political freedom from state dominance of the economy. My own view is that Swatantra’s goal was some variant of the German social market economy rather than a Austrian laissez faire. It could be described as “Indian Ordoliberalism".

The Swatantra Party was the third wave of Indian liberalism. The first was during the early years of the Congress under liberals such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and Surendranath Banerjee. The second was when their disciples such as Tej Bahadur Sapru walked out of the Congress after the Gandhian takeover to set up the National Liberal Federation. The third was the Swatantra Party. In a typically sharp speech in 1943, B.R. Ambedkar said that liberals fail to make an impact in India because of their obsession with pure ideas, their inability to build political machines and their devotion to past masters rather than current circumstances.

The Swatantra Party did overcome some of these challenges, as its early electoral impact shows. It also had the moral authority of Rajaji. But it did not leave behind a lasting political legacy. Its liberalism inevitably struck shallow roots in a society that was predominantly rural and agricultural despite the centrality it gave rural property rights. Much has changed since then. India is more urban and less dependent on farming. There is an emerging middle class that has found its political voice. These changes make the Swatantra’s message relevant in contemporary India; maybe not the specifics, but its broad classical liberal outlook.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is a member of the academic board of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics

Close