Swatantra Party assembly, Courtesy: Mid Day
Swatantra Party assembly, Courtesy: Mid Day

Founded in  1959, the Swatantra Party comprised of a diverse bunch of fellow travellers- Gandhian conservatives, zamindars, propertied peasants, businessmen, aristocrats, and classic liberals. The common rallying point was the increased threat of statism as the PM Pandit Nehru sought to mould the newly built Republic in his image. Dismayed at both the communist influence in the country and sway of Fabian socialism in policymaking, the public intellectual and politician Minoo Masani manoeuvred to build a broad-based coalition. The Swatantra Party emerged as an outcome as diverge interests converged on the rallying point of anti-statism. To commemorate the founding anniversary of the Party, produced below is an article written by Masani which explained the rationale of the Swatantra project. 

For a decade now, Prime Minister Nehru, with his quaint blend of Soviet-style economic planning and British-model parliamentary democracy, has dominated the Indian intellectual scene. A faint challenge from an isolated pocket here and there is all he had to encounter. The fundamental thinking on which the Nehru government’s economic measures have been based is that, in an under-developed country such as India, a departure from the normal functioning of economic laws becomes necessary if the high expectations of material improvement raised in the minds of newly independent people are not to turn sour. So, the argument goes, the building up of heavy industry must, contrary to the normal sequence, precede consumer goods industries. The government has to play a particularly active role, both in establishing capital goods industries, such as steel and huge river-valley projects and in regulating the entire functioning of economic life, whether in industry or in agriculture. Like Russia and China, would not India, though not under political dictatorship, pull itself up by its bootstraps, performing in a short span of time what might otherwise take generations to accomplish? There can be no question that, during the first decade of independence, a large part of the Indian intelligentsia followed Mr Nehru in this line of thought.

Under the surface, however, second thoughts have been developing and discontent with the “socialist pattern” has been building up during the last few years. The middle classes have found themselves being ground down slowly by the inevitable consequences of excessively high taxation and of inflation slowly creeping over them. The consumer was made to pay more for the necessities of life through successive impositions of heavy excise duties. The investor was being taxed out of his inevitable surplus. The entrepreneur was being harried by bureaucratic regulation and interference. A businessman responding to the government’s call to undertake the manufacture of some scarce material for which there is an export market found that he had to trudge the dusty corridors of the New Delhi secretariat, moving from office to office in a never-ending attempt to obtain the various licences and permits. Those already in the field of manufacture have been known to spend several days every month, flying up to Delhi to answer queries or remove some roadblock in the way of obtaining the necessary facilities. New constraints on the people’s enterprise were being systematically imposed, and justified by reference to the socialist doctrine. Fear, hesitancy and uncertainty as to what the government would do next to have become a feature of economic life.

On the political plane, the evils of interference by political bosses in the administration of the country and the pressure brought to bear on officials have been causing demoralisation among civil servants and destroying public confidence in the government of the day. Interference on ideological grounds has been elevated into a principle. The cult of personality has smothered free discussion even within the ruling party itself. The bulk of the members of the Congress Party, who think along liberal or Gandhian lines, have been intimidated into silence by a few confused Marxists at the head of the party. In the absence of an alternative government, discontent has been funnelled increasing into Red channels, and the kind of polarization that took place in China in the ’40s between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party was becoming noticeable in the State of Kerala and was in danger of developing elsewhere. Even so, only the wildest optimist could have foreseen the emergence of a major political party which advocated rejecting the entire pattern of planning and economic development that has been followed during the past decade. Only a year ago, I myself tried unsuccessfully to weld together several of the local groups which have now come together under the umbrella of this new national party. How has this new party of freedom finally come about?

The “Nagpur Resolution” which the Congress Party adopted last January constitutes a three-pronged attack on the way of life in the Indian village. The first prong of the attack is the imposition of ceilings on land holdings, which in practice would deprive the farmer of all land that he might own in excess of what would bring in an income of around Rs.3,600 in the year. This measure would break the back of the middle classes in the villages and deprive them of the capacity to withstand the inroads of governmental authority.

The second prong is the proposal which is euphemistically called “joint co-operative farming”. Barring its name, it has nothing in common with the principles of genuine co-operation as practised in Denmark, England and other countries. It is, in reality, an attempt at introducing collective farming of the Soviet-Chinese pattern through the pooling of land, the uprooting of boundaries and the establishment of big cooperative farms. Even if this plan were brought about without coercion it must, in present-day conditions in India, inevitably mean management by officials of the government and the reduction of the farmer to the status of a landless labourer. Heedless of the lessons of the failure of collective farming in the Iron Curtain countries and ignoring the magnificent achievements of small-scale peasant farming in Japan, Prime Minister Nehru insists that this change would result in increased food production. It is also supposed to constitute a “higher way of life” than the age-old method of a man and his family cultivating land which is their own.

The third prong is the attempt to establish a State monopoly in the wholesale trade in foodgrains, thereby eliminating thousands of traders and leaving the farmer face to face with the monopoly, which can dictate to him the price at which he must sell his produce.

It was this ill-conceived Nagpur Resolution which acted as the spark-plug to the political revolt. The urban middle class and the business class, helpless against the hold of the Congress Party on rural areas, have found a new ally. The reaction of landed farmers, who with their families constitute at least 52 per cent of India’s population, has been instinctive. In a country where most peasants live in mud huts, own little more than a plough, and if they are lucky, a pair of bullocks, the piece of land that they have is all they can call their own. When Prime Minister Nehru brushes aside the plea for peasant proprietorship by pointing out that most of the peasants own small, fragmented farms and should therefore not object to the pooling of their lands, it sounds to the peasant-like asking a mother not to mind parting with her child because it is only a tiny infant. So it was not surprising that the All-India Agriculturists Federation convened the initiating meeting at Madras on June 4, where the decision to launch the Swatantra Party was taken. Professor N. G. Ranga, a leading spokesman of the Indian peasantry, resigned his post as Secretary of the Congress Party in Parliament to become Chairman of the new party.

Perhaps, the best parallel to the character of the Swatantra Party in Western countries is that provided by such as the Smallholders’ Party in Hungary. In the field of agriculture, the paramount need for increased food production is stressed, and it is felt that this is best attained through the self-employed peasant proprietor who is interested in obtaining the highest yields from his land. The peasant farmer should be given all psychological and material inducements for greater production without disturbing the harmony of rural life and without affecting ownership or management. Among such incentives would be a fair and stable price, the provision of credit and the supply of water, tools, seeds and fertilisers.

In the field of industry, the Swatantra Party believes in the incentives for higher production and expansion that are inherent in a competitive enterprise, with necessary safeguards against monopoly. The party would restrict State enterprise to the field of heavy industries, where essential, in order to supplement the notable achievements of such private enterprises as, for example, the giant Tata Iron & Steel Company in Jamshedpur, and such national services as the Railways. The party has declared itself to be in favour of a balanced development of capital goods industries, organised consumer goods industries and rural industries that afford supplementary employment to a large number of unemployed and underemployed people on the land. The party is opposed to the State entering the field of trade. It believes in free choice for the investor, the producer and the consumer.

Through such a positive policy, the Swatantra Party believes that agricultural production can be set on its feet in the way that has been so successfully achieved in Japan since World War II. Thus can be provided a sound foundation on which the industrial structure of the country can be reared. While deprecating the policy of asking the present generation to tighten its belt (which in India, it does not possess) for the sake of generations yet unborn, the Swatantra Party believes that the policies it suggests would liberate the productive forces from the restrictive effects of bureaucracy, so that a much quicker expansion of industry and a more rapid rise in the standard of life of the people can be brought about, just as was accomplished by the successful implementation of Dr. Erhard’s policy of social enterprise in West Germany. Such a policy would be in consonance with the established Indian principle that those who possess wealth should not run the government, while those who control the army and the police should not be in control of agriculture and industry. The party’s policy would prevent the concentration of political and economic power in a few hands. The way is thus opened for the building up of a broad-based coalition of the peasantry in the villages and the middle classes in the cities.

The whole world, including the peoples in the Iron Curtain countries, is moving away from the shibboleths of collectivism. The danger of India’s being committed to outmoded dogmas which the rest of the world is discarding must be combated. By rallying India against Communism and by educating public opinion about the moral gulf between Communism and the freeway of life, the new party will eliminate the danger of the current unconscious drift towards the precipice. The party’s Statement of Principles allows no co-existence between it and the ideology of Communism, and the leading spokesman of the party has a long record of struggle against Communist totalitarianism.

IndianLiberals.in is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages. The material that has been collected so far contains liberal commentary dating from the early 19th century till the present. The portal helps preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.

Read more: SO Musings: De-Stalinisation Versus Communism

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.