The Swatantra Party carried the torch of classical liberalism in India in the 1960s and 70s.
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C Rajagopalachari was the founder of the Swatantra Party–the only political party in India that espoused classical liberal principles. The party stood for individual rights and limited government, and was at one point the largest opposition to the main Congress party. Rajagopalachari started the party after breaking away from the Indian National Congress, which he believed was progressively moving toward socialism and statism. The Swatantra Party existed from 1959 to 1974. The word “Swatantra” means freedom or independence. The word “dharma” (which appears in the piece) can be loosely translated to mean “religion,” but it also means “righteousness.” To give some sense of its meaning, here is a quote by Gurcharan Das: “Dharma is a frustrating word (even for Indians) and not easy to translate. Duty, goodness, justice, law and custom have something to do with it, but it is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing, both in the private and the public life.”
The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so‐called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival.
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.
The new party seeks to oppose the trend of the ruling Congress Party to adopt the ways and ideals of the Communists in its eagerness to prevent the Communists from going forward. The Swatantra party believes that going over to the enemy is not defence, but surrender.
The Swatantra Party, apart from the ideology here explained, hopes to furnish a real opposition to the Congress Party so that parliamentary democracy may be properly balanced. The absence of a true opposition has led to the rapid deterioration of democracy into a kind of totalitarianism. Voices have been heard from all quarters calling for a strong opposition and the new party is supplying a felt want.
This party of freedom is further making a novel experiment in restricting disciplinary control over party members to essential issues, giving freedom in all other matters to vote according to individual opinion. This is not mere strategy to “net in” discordant miscellaneous elements as at first might appear. It is really an answer to the constantly expressed sense of dissatisfaction with party rigidity, and to the complaint that it often amounts to suppression of opinion and rule by a minority in the name of a majority. A majority in the ruling caucus can always, under present conditions, impose their views on all and every issue in the Parliament of the nation.
The Swatantra Party intends to initiate a departure from the usual practice of political parties and, true to its name, give Swatantra or freedom to its members to vote according to their own convictions and conscience on all but the party’s fundamentals so that the decisions of Parliament may on those issues truly reflect the prevailing opinion, and not be just a replica of the majority opinion of the ruling party or the fads of the ruling clique.
Without the inconveniences resulting from proportional representation and, in particular, the instability of governments formed under such a system, the reduction of voting in accordance with whips to the barest minimum, as proposed by the Swatantra Party would be a healthy example for all parties. If followed generally or even by the more important ones among the various parties, the freedom given to members on all but essential issues would result in government more in accordance with the ideals of those who conceived the system of proportional representation and laid high hopes thereon. In this matter, the new party may claim to have initiated a great democratic advance worthy of trial in all countries really believing in democracy, and not willing to be subjected to a form of dictatorship in the name of party discipline which often serves only the ambition of individuals or groups.
The new party does not believe that legislative compulsion, any more than the violence that preceded and enthroned Communism in certain countries, can contribute to true or lasting human happiness. We must depend on the moral sense of the people in order to equalise without destroying freedom.
It may be that there are a large number of people in our ancient land who have now lost the capacity to respond to moral appeals, who are impervious to the call of dharma. There have been causes that have brought about this state of things. But this large number of bad and successful men of the world should not blind us to the fact that in the large mass, dharma still rules and supports our society. The millions that make up our nation are still moved and guided by their sense of dharma and the voice of their conscience. If the cynics who deny this were right, our society would have broken down long ago and perished. We should have been hearing of starvation deaths in thousands every day. If we take a survey of the numerous charitable foundations and trusts that work as a matter of routine in the country and which were born of a sense of dharma, without any kind of State compulsion, we can cure our cynicism with irrefutable and abundant facts. The charitable motives and compulsions of the heart which prevailed in the days when these trusts and charitable institutions were founded can prevail today, for we are the same people after all.
“There is no need for charity when there is an obligation; let the State compel”. This is the slogan of the Socialists. But it is forgotten that this will lead irresistibly to total serfdom.
The cynics are not right. Our society is still maintained by the inner law. The outer laws can touch but the fringe of life. They deal with criminals and keep order going. Normal life does not depend on the laws. It depends on the moral consciousness of people. This moral sense has not been effaced whatever changes may have taken place in the rituals and observances of forms. It is by dharma that society is sustained, Lokah dhriyate. It is by dharma we must build, and not on the sands of material motives and our capacity to satisfy them quickly and get votes to be in power. The good seed is not lost. It is still there. We must not ignore its availability. The soil also is good and God will send us the rains. Let us not fail to look after it.
This piece, previously collected here and originally from the Swatantra Party pamphlet “Why Swatantra,” was selected for publication on Libertarianism.org by Indian Liberals.
IndianLiberals.in is an online library of 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 shall help preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.