27,000 Never-Seen Papers Shed Light on India’s only Liberal Party

The Quint | 03 February 2018

Offering the only substantive critique of Nehruvian socialism at the time, the Party was founded on first principles of individual liberty, rule of law, freedom of enterprise, respect for dissent, autonomy of the press, and increase in decentralisation. 

A recent finding of 27,000 documents throws light on the only liberal party India has ever had, allowing us to probe its contribution to Indian politics in the 15 years of its existence.

Founded in 1959, by C Rajagopalachari, one of India’s greatest political thinkers and leaders, as well as literary giants, Swatantra Party arrived on the Indian political scene with a bash.

What We Found In These Documents?

The archive features correspondences, office memorandums, meeting minutes, speech drafts, party literature and publications, and many personal notes shared by the party leaders, allowing us a glimpse into the life of the party as it was conceived, formed, and introduced to the larger Indian political scene.

A small correspondence between Indira Gandhi and M R Masani, notes shared by Masani and Rajaji are among the many treasures housed in the archive. In the letter issued from the Prime Ministers Office on 12 March 1967, Indira Gandhi invites Mr Masani to join her in an informal meeting with parliamentary leaders, before the inaugural session of Lok Sabha.

The letter reads: “I write this to invite you to an informal meeting of Leaders of different Parties in Parliament so that we have an opportunity of meeting one another on the eve of the session and to exchange views on matters of common interest. I should like to maintain similar contact throughout the session if you find the idea appropriate and useful. I wonder if we could have our first meeting at 10 am on 15th March in my office in Parliament House. I hope you will find it convenient to join.”

A handwritten note by C Rajagopalachari, addressed to Mr Homi Mody, a lawyer, administrator, businessman, and social reformer is another valuable find. Homi, a moniker for Sir Hormasji Pherozshah Modi, held a variety of public offices as Chairman of Bombay Municipal Corporation (1913), a member of Indian legislative assembly (1929-1943), a member of Viceroy’s Executive Council (1943), a member of Constituent Assembly of India, and governor of United Provinces and Uttar Pradesh (1949-52).

In the note C Rajagopalachari expresses his gratitude to Mody for leading the early collection efforts to establish the corpus of funds for the party. Written on 20 October 1959 – Swatantra's founding year – the note states, “It was kind of you to write and give a cheerful account of the collection work. I had intended to write to our staff about the need for active assistance but as I have just read your letter, I feel it is unnecessary. I cannot tell you how greatly I feel heartened by your continued support. Tyranny cannot be brought to an end until the victims shed fear. Our 'friends' are going to get more and more autocratic and dictatorial seeing that we are gathering strength...”

The archive has been successfully restored and digitised by the efforts of the Centre for Civil Society as a part of its Indian Liberals digital archive project, and will be placed at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library for public engagement, and will soon be available on the open Indian Liberal website for visitors.

Swatantra Party Response To Nehruvian Socialism

According to Rajaji, a liberal democracy rests on four pillars, or feet: an active citizenry, prudent statesmen, a responsible parliament, and independent judiciary. The party was Rajaji’s response to the rise of what he saw as the ‘one-footed’ democracy—a monolithic Congress system, which had erupted due to the absence of a sustained and principled opposition, and a fractured electoral system which rewarded expensive campaigns mounted by those in power with subsequent victories.

Rajaji’s greatest concern was the rise of majoritarianism, which he felt was eroding the democratic nature of our public institutions. Congress’ eclipsing victories at national and state level in the 1950s, the abuse of ordinances by the Nehru Government in the early 1950s as a means to subvert scrutiny by both houses, the misuse of Ninth Schedule to overcome judicial review, and the increase in instances of agitation and boycott by Parliamentarians troubled Rajaji, for they threatened to erode the sanctity of institutional procedures.

Writing on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti in 1963, he argued “democracy in a pluralist society is sustained not by force of numbers but by the vital force of trust, the maintenance of which must, therefore be the greatest concern of statesmen guiding democracies.”

How The Liberal Thought Grew To Attract Leadership

No less than a year old, it commanded the presence of many of India’s greatest statesmen and thinkers. M R Masani, Dahyabhai Patel (son of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel), Sir Homi Mody, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, V P Menon, Maridas Ruthnaswamy, N G Ranga, and more.

The party boasted of a wide and diverse leadership, bringing together voices from the South as well as Northern India, peasant and agrarian activists and aristocrats on one platform. The party had offices and regional centres in Madras, Bombay, Bangalore, Mysore, and Patna, with units in Himachal Pradesh, UP, Bengal, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

It was the only national party to not have an office in Delhi, and this was done to ensure candidates and party leaders stayed close to their respective constituencies.

The party also held one of the few female members of royal families to participate in electoral politics: Maharani Gayatri Devi, who campaigned relentlessly for the party in the 1962 elections.

Why Did The Party Cease To Exist?

While the party performed well in the general elections of 1962 and 1967, it could not withstand the rising forces of extremism and majoritarianism in the 1970s, and floundered after Rajaji’s demise in 1974 – only a few months before the imposition of Emergency.

A day-long Conference accompanied by an exhibition featuring highlight documents will be on display at the Auditorium Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on 3 February. For more information, visit the Indian Liberals website.

(Arushi is presently working on the Indian Liberals archival project at Centre for Civil Society . She holds an M.Phil and Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a bachelors from St. Stephen's College, New Delhi. )

Read this article on The Quint website.