45 years after its dissolution, here's what opposition parties must learn from Swatantra Party
'Indira Hatao' made Indira Gandhi stronger. 'Modi Hatao' made Modi look invincible. The opposition can refuse to ignore this at its own peril.
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August 2019 would mark 45 years of the end of Swatantra Party. Formed by C Rajagopalachari in 1959, 15 eventful years of Swatantra Party have a lot to tell, particularly to anti-Narendra Modi opposition.
Swantantra Party was formed by liberal Congress leaders who were opposed to Jawaharlal Nehru’s obsession with what they described as ‘foible socialism’. Rajaji was considered a towering leader, informally the fourth member of the influential quartet after Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Gandhi had once described Rajaji as his conscience keeper. Nehru wanted him to be the first President of the Republic. Rajaji served as governor of Bengal, governor general of India, Union Home Minister and chief minister of the erstwhile state of Madras.
Like Sardar Patel, Rajaji was in favour of private business enterprise. He was disillusioned when the All India Congress Committee’s Avadi session resolved to usher in socialistic pattern of society. The Nagpur resolution of the Congress favoured cooperative farming, a euphemism for Soviet-style collective farming.
Swatantra Party members were opposed to Jawaharlal Nehru’s obsession with socialism. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Rajiji left the Congress and teamed up with Minoo Masani, a westernised, beef-eating Parsi liberal-atheist, who had won Lok Sabha as an independent candidate from Rajkot in 1957, to challenge the dominance of a single party rule. Jaiprakash Narayan was invited to head the Swatantra Party but he declined on grounds that he believed in party-less democracy.
There was rapid rise of the Swatantra Party. In 1962, it won 18 Lok Sabha seats and five years later, it touched the 44-seat mark. Like the Congress in 2014 general elections, Swatantra Party was denied the official opposition position in the Lok Sabha. Swatantra Party had several outstanding personalities on its rank who had impeccable credentials such as Maharani Gayatri Devi, Prof NG Ranga, Sardar Lal Singh, Dr RC Cooper, AD Shroff and others.
C Rajagopalachari, the founder of Swatantra Party, pictured with Dr BR Ambedkar. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Congress split in 1969 gave Rajaji and Masani renewed hope that Indira Gandhi could be defeated. The 1971 general elections, therefore, provided a great window of opportunity. Masani and Narayan Dandekar began negotiating with other opposition leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, George Fernandes, Ram Subhag Singh and Madhu Limaye. A ‘grand alliance’ was worked out. However, Limaye and others argued that instead of working on an agreed programme, the opposition should focus on a slogan — Indira Hatao. Much like the informal ‘Modi Hatao’ campaign of 2019 general elections, the negative campaign against Indira boomeranged. Masani had bitterly opposed the Indira Hatao campaign but he was overruled by Rajaji. Swatantra Party got a share to contest 59 Lok Sabha seats and it fell from 44 to eight in the 1971 general elections. The grand alliance suffered an ignominious defeat even as Indira walked away with 352 parliamentary seats.
The resemblance is uncanny: Much like Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi became the target of a slogan ‘Indira Hatao’ which backfired on the Swatantra Party. (Source: India Today)
Interestingly, the fall of Swatantra Party pleased not only the Congress but Lohaite Socialists and some elements in Bharatiya Jana Sangh. There was a feeling that Swatantra Party was emerging as an alternative to the Congress therefore, it was required to be ‘cut down to size'. This position is relevant in present day politics too where anti-BJP parties secretly rejoice the fall of the Congress on grounds that it will provide bigger opportunities to the non-NDA regional parties. Privately, some Congress leaders are reportedly happy at the collapse of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal is claiming that their downfall may help revive the Congress in these two politically significant states.
Masani resigned in a huff as president of Swatantra Party. Rajaji wrote a letter to SV Raju, secretary of the Swatantra Party saying he would be happy to see Masani continue as head of the party for another year. When Raju reportedly showed the letter to Masani, he replied, “what will happen after one year? Nothing.”
Rajaji died as disillusioned man on Christmas in 1972. On August 4, 1974, the last national convention of Swatantra Party was held announcing that it will cease to exist as a national level party amid protests and disquiet. In 1977, Jaiprakash Narayan gave a call to all democratic parties to merge with the Janata party and form a single party.
C Rajagopalachari pictured with his rival Pt Jawaharlal Nehru. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Apart from electoral politics and throwing challenge to Nehru and Indira, Swatantra Party and its leaders played a pivotal role in national life.
One such feat was achieved by general-secretary of the Swatantra Party Dr RC Cooper in 1970 when the Supreme Court gave a 10-1 majority verdict in Dr Cooper’s favour and declared Indira’s 1969 Bank Nationalisation Act to be ‘invalid and unconstitutional'. On July 19, 1969, Indira had nationalised 14 leading Indian banks by a special Presidential Ordinance, without consulting the Cabinet or the Planning Commission. Due to Cooper’s legal intervention, Indira regime was compelled to pay Rs 87.40 crore as compensation to the banks and their shareholders.
Cooper, in a first person account published in the February 1970 issue of Himmat weekly, Why I Moved The Supreme Court, wrote, "It was only about eight months before the actual step of bank nationalisation was taken that we had the social control legislation. Those of us who have taken pains to study the measure of social control in great detail came to the conclusion that there is nothing more in bank nationalisation which would promote social objectives better than would be done under the social control legislation. Therefore, it would be incorrect for a socialist or anyone else to suggest that bank nationalisation is a step calculated to promote social objectives."