Remember that classic image of a thundering helicopter hovering ever so briefly and then settling in a village field, a bewildered crowd of onlookers rushing to gawk at the whirring machine with fear and awe? This is a vivid flashback to the Swatantra Party’s 1962 election campaign in Bihar.
While helicopters are a routine sight during elections nowadays, back in 1962 and 1967, the Raja of Ramgarh, Kamakhya Narain Singh, was the only politician in Bihar who owned and used a chopper during election campaigns.
And herein lay the irony of a political party, which for a brief period in India’s history, seized the spotlight and held it for a decade before curtains were suddenly called.
The Swatantra Party was founded by one of India’s most respected statesmen, C Rajagopalachari in 1959. Popularly known as ‘Rajaji’, he was a veteran Congress politician, he had held many senior positions in government, and was also the only Indian Governor-General of India.
What followed is the remarkable tale of the dramatic rise and fall of the Swatantra Party.
The Raja of Ramgarh, the only politician in Bihar to own a helicopter and a charismatic leader to boot, was the first among dozens of former royals who joined the Swatantra Party. R N Singh Deo, the Raja of Patna, who later became Chief Minister of Odisha, also signed up. Other royals too came on board. Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, known for her iconic beauty and charm, was a prize catch. Maharwal Laxman Singh of Dungarpur, Rajasthan, followed suit and so did many other royals and landlords or zamindars.
Nehru attacked the Swatantra Party and called it a party of the “middle ages of lords, castles and zamindars”.
He was right, but not entirely. Rajaji’s genius had also attracted some of the brightest leaders and minds of the time. Minoo R Masani, Piloo Mody, K M Munshi, N G Ranga, V P Menon and H M Patel were among them. They represented a cross-section of views and interests.
If Masani, Member of Parliament from Rajkot in Gujarat, was a former socialist and a liberal, Munshi was a conservative. Suave and popular for his wit and repartee in Parliament, Piloo Mody, Member of Parliament from Godhra in Gujarat, came from a business family. Ranga was a leader of peasants. Menon and Patel were outstanding bureaucrats. Homi Mody and A D Shroff were leading businessmen.
A Counter-Balance to Nehru
Was Rajaji a conservative or a liberal? Perhaps a mix of both but he veered more towards conservatism, according to historian Ramchandra Guha. He held strong conservative economic views and was rooted in traditional Hindu culture and values. At the same time, he was a strong votary of individual liberty and freedom.
What brought together Rajaji and front-ranking Swatantra Party leaders was their shared view that with his socialist agenda, Nehru was taking the Congress in a direction that would prove disastrous for India.
Rajaji rejected Nehru’s tilt towards centralised planning, his statist inclinations and growing proximity to the communist Soviet Union. A major turning point came after the 1955 Congress Session of Avadi (a town near Chennai) passed a resolution to establish a socialistic pattern of society as the party’s goal.
Following this, Parliament passed the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956, declaring that the state would “assume a predominant and direct responsibility for setting up new industrial undertakings”. Barring cottage and village industries, all other industrial activity was to be vested in the control of the state. Procuring a licence for any industrial enterprise was made mandatory.
The new Industrial Policy, according to Rajaji, was the death knell for individual enterprise and entrepreneurship. It was Rajaji who coined the phrase “licence-permit raj”, which defined India’s economic policies until the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo dismantled the system in 1991.
Four years later, at the Nagpur Session in 1959, the Congress adopted a resolution on agriculture policy, calling for land ceilings, a takeover of foodgrains trade and joint cooperative farming.
The resolution, especially on cooperative farming, created a storm. Conservative Congress leaders were upset but, barring Charan Singh, then a minister in Uttar Pradesh and a leader of farmers, none opposed it strongly. Communists and socialists welcomed it. The Jan Sangh was the only national party that opposed the policy.
Cooperative farming envisaged pooling of land and joint ownership of landholdings in village cooperatives. A section of liberal voices, who valued the Constitutional guarantee of the right to property and individual freedom, were also unhappy. Joseph Stalin had died in 1952 but horror stories of forced collective farming in the Soviet Union were fresh in people’s memory. Millions of peasants had been forcibly sent to work on collective farms and had perished.
Was the Nehru government moving in that same direction? Would farmers lose ownership of their land? Nehru tried to explain that farmers would hold joint ownership of land in cooperative farming as opposed to the Soviet and Chinese model of collective cultivation, in which the state becomes the owner. In a country with a literacy rate of less than 30 per cent, the distinction was hard to understand.
Rajaji Takes the Plunge
Rajaji was convinced that no mainstream party was ideologically orientated to present a strong counter-narrative to Nehru’s leftward turn. He had been dropping hints on the need for a Conservative Party to provide an ideological challenge to the Congress for a long time. But when he was approached by Masani and others to lead a new party, Rajaji said he was too old. He tried to persuade Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) to lead the fight against Nehru. But JP refused.
Initially, Rajaji counselled his followers to form a Conservative bloc within the Congress, to act as a pressure group. That didn’t work. Getting increasingly disillusioned with Nehru’s push for socialist agendas and Nehru’s autocratic style of functioning, Rajaji called him a “dictator”. “The slightest attempt at dissent is met with stern disapproval and is nipped in the bud” by Nehru, he fumed.
So, despite his misgivings due to his advancing age and ill-health, Rajaji decided to take the plunge. On the evening of 4th June 1959, a meeting of the All India Agriculturists’ Federation was scheduled to be held in Madras, where Masani was the chief speaker. Rajaji met Masani, Ranga and Menon before the meeting and a 21-point manifesto for a new party was agreed upon.
There was still no consensus on the name of the party. Rajaji suggested ‘Conservative Party of India’ but it wasn’t approved. He met JP, who happened to be in Madras, at the time. JP attended the meeting along with Rajaji.
In the words of historian Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Rajaji and also of Mahatma Gandhi, “In the evening, those gathered to hear Masani were happily surprised to see Rajaji and JP too step onto the dais. What Rajaji said was a greater surprise.”
Of that historic occasion, Gandhi adds, “This morning, a new political party was formed. Stunned for a moment, the audience then gave a terrific round of applause. And the name of the party is – and it was the turn of Masani, Ranga and the other midwives to be surprised – ‘Swatantra Party’! He had settled on the name while being driven to the meeting!” Ranga was appointed the party’s President.
The first battle took place in the 1962 general election. Making its debut, the Swatantra Party surprised everybody by winning 18 Lok Sabha seats and 8 per cent of the vote. Its best performance was in Bihar, where it bagged 7 Lok Sabha and 50 Assembly seats. The Raja of Ramgarh had merged his Janata Party with the Swatantra party. The helicopter-hopping Raja’s charisma had paid off.
The Ganatantra Parishad, a party in Odisha founded by former royals, too merged with the Swatantra Party. The Parishad had 37 seats in the Assembly and 3 in the Lok Sabha. Raja R N Singh Deo, the Raja of Kalahandi, and other royals formed the backbone of the Swatantra Party.
In Rajasthan, the Land of Princes, the Swatantra Party won 36 Assembly seats. Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur won the Lok Sabha seat. In Gujarat, the party won 4 Lok Sabha and 26 Assembly seats. In four states – Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan and Gujarat – the Swatantra Party emerged as the largest opposition to the Congress. It secured a total of 207 seats in the different state Assemblies, against 153 for the Communists, 149 for the Socialists, and 115 for the Jan Sangh.
In the 1967 general election, the Swatantra Party emerged as the second-largest party in the Lok Sabha after the Congress, with 44 seats. In the different Assemblies, the party won a total of 256 seats, against 207 in 1962.
Decline and Fall
When the Congress split in 1969, political equations rapidly changed in the country. Indira Gandhi gave a populist call for ‘Garibi Hatao’ to garner votes. Congress conservatives, who had rebelled against Indira Gandhi, pressed for a grand alliance of all Opposition parties to challenge her. They raised the “Indira Hatao” slogan. Congress (O) leader K Kamraj persuaded Rajaji to join the Grand Alliance although Minoo Masani opposed it.
The Grand Alliance was routed in the 1971 general election and the Swatantra Party suffered a setback. Its Lok Sabha strength went down from 44 to 8 seats, its vote share from 9 per cent to 3.1 per cent. Minoo Masani resigned from the party; N G Ranga defected to the Congress.
Rajaji was 93. He tried to persuade Masani to withdraw his resignation but failed. A year later, on 25th December 1972, Rajaji died, aged 94.
On 4th August 1974, 15 years after its formation, party President Piloo Modi decided the Swatantra Party had no future. He dissolved the party and merged it with the Charan Singh-led Bharatiya Lok Dal.
It is true that the Swatantra Party had been dominated by a coalition of princes and landlords. The princes had been given privy purses after they had merged their territories with the Indian Union at Independence. They feared they would lose even that (Indira Gandhi abolished their privy purses in 1971) and the vast wealth they still owned, under the Congress’s push for socialism. They had a very good reason to throw in their lot with the Swatantra Party.
The Zamindari System had been abolished in the 1950s but big landlords feared they would lose ownership of their land under a socialist regime. Businessmen were already feeling suffocated under the licence-permit-raj. Rajaji attributed the rising cases of corruption to the licence raj and blamed Nehru directly for it.
The Swatantra Party’s stupendous rise can partly be attributed to the support of royals and landlords in rural areas, conservatives as well as liberals.
But the momentum wasn’t sustainable. The party lacked mass support.
In Rajaji’s opinion, “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.”
A freedom fighter, free India’s only Indian Governor-General, Home Minister in Nehru’s very first Cabinet and Chief Minister of Madras, Rajaji was a multifaceted personality. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajaji formed a powerful quartet in the Congress. Gandhi called him the “keeper of my conscience”.
After resigning as Chief Minister of Madras in 1954, Rajaji had taken a break from active politics. He spent his leisure time in literary pursuits – retelling the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Tamil. He won a Sahitya Academy award in 1958. In 1955, he received the Bharat Ratna. In 1959, Rajaji returned to active politics with a bang.
The Swatantra Party’s flag was a white shining star against a blue background. The party rose like a star, it crashed like a shooting star.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.
Underrated and ignored for their caste, the Namasudras have emerged as a powerful vote bank in Bengal’s politics. Their quest for social legitimacy led the community into a political quagmire and now to the frontlines of the Assembly elections.
Chilling parallels can be seen in the Covid19 pandemic and India's war on smallpox. A gripping account of how a WHO team broke down doors, tailed devotees of the Smallpox Goddess, and used a novel technique to ‘break the chain’ in the 1970s. In 2 years, India was smallpox-free.
In 1959, C Rajagopalachari came out of retirement to reclaim the nation’s narrative from Jawaharlal Nehru, whose socialist approach had begun to ring alarm bells. Catch the story of the Swatantra Party, why it clicked so spectacularly and how it was fatally flawed
Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.