Last Man Standing

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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SV Raju keeps the flame alive of the long dead Swatantra Party
It is 1959. SV Raju is 26 and looking for a job in Mumbai. He has been working as a trainee with a journalist who knows Minoo Masani, the renowned parliamentarian. The statesman C Rajagopalachari and Masani have just launched the Swatantra Party on 1 August. Masani is looking for an office secretary for the party. The journalist suggests Raju, who is interviewed and then appointed an employee on 16 December. Raju does become a party member, but only after a year. That’s the time it takes for him to shed his socialism.

It is 1974. Rajagopalachari is no more, Masani has withdrawn from the party’s leadership. As an outcome of intra-party machinations, party leaders present at its ‘last’ national convention in Delhi are overseeing its dissolution. It is to merge with Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal, a desperate survival attempt by its leaders after the party’s decimation in the previous elections. Some state factions, however, walk out and continue functioning as the Swatantra Party. Three years later, the Janata Party comes into being, and these factions merge with it. The Swatantra Party’s Maharashtra unit, which has Masani and Raju, decides to retain its identity even though members are free to work for the Janata Party.

It is 1996. Post-liberalisation, the Maharashtra unit still exists in some fashion—it has an office, a telephone, and holds occasional meetings. But it hardly has any members. Raju and its general secretary, LR Sampat, decide to revive the Swatantra Party. For this, they need to register it again and reclaim the party symbol, the star. They approach the Election Commission for registration papers. But these demand that the party swears that it is ‘Socialist’, in accordance with a 1989 amendment of India’s Representation of People’s Act. They refuse. They cannot vow to uphold an ideology they have been fighting all their lives. They file a writ petition in the High Court challenging this provision.

It is 2014. The party has not been reactivated. The High Court is yet to have even a single hearing on their petition. Sampat has passed away. Raju is 80 now. In a small office in Fort, Mumbai, he sits and says he is still hoping to revive the party. “I am the only member now. I have kept it going because the idea is important. And now I am preparing a case of why we need to continue.”

In the brief period between 1959 and 1974 that the Swatantra Party came and went, it made an extraordinary journey. It began with Rajagopalachari emerging from retirement at the age of 80 to start it. He was a freedom fighter of the stature of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. Also, the first Governor General of India and a Congressman who served as Madras Chief Minister before being eased out by the party. After bowing out of active politics, he began voicing the need for an effective opposition to the Congress. Long a critic of the Licence Raj and State overreach that crushed private enterprise, what drew him back to politics was a 1959 resolution passed in Nagpur by the Congress advocating cooperative farming. Rajagopalachari saw this as the end of private property for farmers.

“The Government was taking away the right to own landed property, [while] on the other side private enterprise was [highly] restricted... When the Nagpur resolution came, he decided it was time for such a party,” says Raju.

Independent politicians like Masani, who did not believe in the socialist route taken by Nehru, rallied around Rajagopalachari. In the General Election of 1962, within three years of its formation, the Swatantra Party won 22 Lok Sabha seats. The next election in 1967 was its highpoint. It got 44 Lok Sabha seats and was the largest opposition party. It got 9.6 per cent of all votes polled and won 256 assembly seats in various states. And then, just as abruptly, by the polls of 1971, it slipped to eight Lok Sabha seats with just 3.1 per cent of votes polled. By 1974, the main party had ceased to exist.

What explains such a drastic reversal of fortunes? A combination of the Indira Gandhi wave after she split the Congress in 1969 and an implosion within the party itself. The old-guard Congress (O) made an alliance with the Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh for the 1971 polls. Masani insisted on a common minimum programme, but others wanted to contest only on the plank of ejecting Indira Gandhi. To his shock, Masani not only found Rajagopalachari going along with this, but also conceding a raw deal for the Swatantra Party in seat allotments. He thought Rajagopalachari, over 90 now and ailing, was “an old man in a hurry”.

After Indira’s Congress swept the 1971 General Election, a bitter Masani resigned as party president. Raju remembers a letter Rajaji sent him at the time, asking him to persuade Masani to continue for at least two more years. “Rajaji was clever. He was already in bad shape. He knew he would be dead by then,” recalls Raju, who went with the letter to Masani, who said, ‘What’s going to happen after one year? Nothing.’

The last meeting Raju had with Rajagopalachari was six months before his death. He says, “Rajaji said ‘I want you to keep the old leaders together because I am afraid that they are all wanting to go away’.” Rajagopalachari died in 1972 and his prediction came true. With his moral authority missing and Masani sidelined, the party hurtled towards its end.

The Swatantra Party had a rather ordinary end, but left an imprint on Indian politics. In his book, Makers of Modern India, the historian Ramachandra Guha has a section on Rajagopalachari’s writings. He writes in the foreword: ‘However, [the Swatantra Party’s] chief contribution to Indian democracy was intellectual and ideological, through its searching criticisms of the economic and foreign policies of the ruling party. It achieved a sort of posthumous success when key elements of its credo—outlined in the excerpts that follow— were, much later, adopted by the Congress Party itself.’

This credo is spelt out in the party’s first manifesto drafted by Rajagopalachari. It says that the party stands for ‘minimum government, minimum State interference, for minimum expenditure in administration and for minimum taxation, for minimum interference in the private and professional affairs of citizens and for minimum regulation in industry and trade.’ Many of its ideas, like encouraging private enterprise and free markets, became fashionable once the Congress Finance Minister Manmohan Singh adopted economic reforms in 1991. “We were saying everything then what was being said 30 years afterwards,” says Raju, “Rajaji and Masani [were] way ahead of their times. It required India facing bankruptcy for [then Prime Minister] Narasimha Rao to take a U-Turn.”

The Swatantra Party was capitalist and liberal in thought, and, in an era dominated by socialism, unapologetic about it. “We were the first to advertise. [Our ad appeared] in the solus position (bottom right hand corner) in The Times of India,” says Raju. “In 1967, [we used] that position to appeal to children of rich businessmen to join us. Which party would have the courage to say that?”

Also notable was its emphasis on propriety and democracy within the party. Party legislators did not stage walk-outs and refused to participate in no-confidence motions unless a better alternative was spelt out. The party kept away from horse trading even though it could have formed governments in Gujarat and Rajasthan this way, where it was only a few seats short. It had 21 written principles; the first 20 dealt with its political and economic policies. The 21st principle was unique. It stated that members were free to take their own position on anything that was not in the first 20. So, on issues like prohibition and a national language, party members were free to vote according to their conscience. “No party in India at that point of time had as much internal democracy as Swatantra Party did,” says Raju.

In an old stately building in the Mumbai suburb of Matunga East, I meet four men who are all between the ages of 70 and 75. In the 1960s, S Ramachandran, Pramod Tejukaya, Dharmendra Nagda and Mahendra Oza were strapping young men in their twenties. They were foot soldiers of the Swatantra Party.

Today, they relive their memories of the party. Tejukaya, who belongs to a family of builders, speaks of taking the only Fiat car in the area for campaigning with a microphone system rigged to it. The others speak of working on Masani’s election bid in Rajkot in 1971; of being part of a procession to welcome South Vietnam’s president at Mumbai airport during the Vietnam War and having Communist party members throw stones at them; of chalking out party strategies after work and going out for tea late at night with senior party leaders; of the split in the party and their decision to side with Masani even though they’d been friends with his opponents; and then working for the Janata Party after the Emergency even though they refused to merge with it; and finally, after the failed Janata experiment, getting out of active politics.

I ask them how people in the 60s and 70s would respond to their advocacy of free enterprise. “The educated middle- class and lower middle-class could appreciate the philosophy,” says Nagda, “The tragedy was that socialist thinking was quite prevalent in the country. It was so strong that the Swatantra Party voice was drowned out by other voices. Trade unionism was at its peak. We never entered the trade union business.”

“Freedom of expression was the main principle of our party,” says Oza, who is now in the Nationalist Congress Party, “No matter who was there, Rajaji or anyone, we were free to express what we thought.” It was because of this, he says, that he kept speaking his mind fearlessly in other parties he joined later.

Ramachandran remembers Raju being active all over the country in those days. “[Since his memory was failing], Rajaji would always check with Raju, ‘What did I say?’ Raju has been totally dedicated to the party all his life.”

Tejukaya has an anecdote about going to Madras in an effort to meet Rajagopalachari. Raju organised the meeting. Tejukaya reached the house, but his daughter didn’t let him through because Rajaji was ill. “Rajaji asked ‘Who is there?’ She said ‘Raju has sent Pramod Tejukaya.’ Rajaji said ‘Send him in’.”

Raju, whose party designation was Executive Secretary, emphasises that he was an employee till its dissolution and never in any policy making position. “My function was very clear,” he says, “I was not to get into the press. I was not to make any statements. I implemented policy decisions [of the leadership]. I was very clearly told, ‘You are a backroom person, you have to take care of the organisation,’ with the result, more than Masani, more than Rajaji, more than anybody, my reach within the membership was tremendous.” Even during the 1974 convention, Raju could point out who the fake delegates were because he knew just about everyone in the party.

Financially, Raju’s role was unrewarding. “I was on a pitiful salary. But I did not resent that because I was enjoying every moment of it. I used to get enough to keep myself going. I had a small house which I still own and have been living in for 55 years. I could never think of a bigger house because the party taught me to be honest. The kind of education that I got from all the intellectuals that [the party] gathered together, I wouldn’t have got anywhere else.”

In 1974, after the party was dissolved, Raju had to look for a job. Masani hired him at his consultancy firm and he worked there for seven years before going to the Middle East. He returned after four years and joined a company in Mumbai. But he kept the party’s remnants going. He got someone to stay in the party office and pay the monthly rent and bills. “I kept the office till we lost the tenancy three or four years ago in a court case,” he says.

Masani was a difficult man to work with, he says, but his character more than made up for it. “He was very temperamental and wanted everything yesterday. But he was totally clean and his integrity was amazing.” Their 40-year association ended only on Masani’s death. Raju happened to be in the same room—on a visit to see how the ailing leader was doing.

Now Raju runs a magazine, Freedom First, started by Masani 62 years ago at Sardar Patel’s request. “The Telangana agitation of the Communists was at its height then. The magazine was started to educate people on the real nature of Communism. [The ideology] went, but we kept bringing the magazine out because it is a small independent voice. It doesn’t take any sides. I have been editing it since 1985,” says Raju.

Meanwhile, he says he is trying to get people interested in reviving the party he dedicated his life to. Many tell him this is the right time for a party in India that is unambiguously liberal-right.

“I am too old to take this up,” he says, “but I’ll try and see if I can put the party back on its feet.”