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The Rediff Special/Rajmohan Gandhi

The War Against The Status Quo

C Rajagopalachari C Rajagopalachari was among the first to challenge the dominance of the Congress party in Indian politics. Free India's first governor general was also the first to attack the permit-license Raj, the move towards socialism and the imminent wave of corruption and stagnation. Rajmohan Gandhi, his grandson -- who was also the Mahatma's grandson -- chronicles the birth of the Swatantra Party, India's main Opposition party through the sixties.

In 1959, the elderly watchdog became a greyhound! Ignoring ailments and shaking off inhibitions, Rajaji, 80, decided to challenge Jawaharlal, who seemed to embody power, fame and vitality, with a new political party.

Events and his own analysis propelled CR. The Congress, he felt, was steadily corrupting. Though committing themselves, in 1955, to 'a socialistic pattern' and, later, to plain 'socialism,' its members seemed to be getting richer rather than more caring. In 1956 CR had publicly asked: 'Congressmen look so well off. Have they taken up new avocations and earned money? Then how have they made money?'

'Anyhow, somehow,' was his answer at the time. Now, three years later, he replaced it with a phrase that would become central to Indian political debate for the rest of the century. It was the 'permit-licence-quota' raj, he said, that was fattening Congressmen. The socialistic pattern, where the State controlled, 'permitted' and farmed out business, was enriching Congressmen, officials and favoured businessmen and harassing the rest.

A realisation began to stir in him that if he wished to oppose State control of business he would have to oppose Congress itself. While he was thus cogitating, the Congress came out with a new agricultural policy. It had three prongs: government takeover of the grain trade; ceilings on land holdings; and co-operative cultivation of land.

To CR this policy represented a wolf that needed immediate chaining, and he barked at once and loudly. 'Bureaucrats, he argued, would make incompetent traders. Land ceilingswould be unconstitutional and would dry up the flow of grain into towns. And rural industrialisation, the soundest route to more jobs, would suffer if the bigger farmers were squeezed out.

Calling Nehru, for the first time, 'the Congress dictator,' CR also said: 'The single brain-activity of the people who meet in Congress is to find out what is in Jawaharlal's mind and to anticipate it. The slightest attempt at dissent meets with stern disapproval and is nipped in the bud.'

Two years earlier, he had spoken somewhat academically of the role a Right party could perform. Now, perceiving a threat of joint farming and the collapse of independence in Congress, he called for a Conservative Party of India:

Men do not feel any inclination to become wage-slaves, and peasants are least inclined.... A wide public is waiting to give support to an opposition formed on a sound basis, because the people have realised that one-footed democracy is no good and is not distinguishable from coercion and totalitarianism.

For a year or so, he had been urged to lead an initiative against Congress socialism by men like Minoo Masani, the former socialist and now an independent MP, P K Deo, the maharaja of Kalahandi in Orissa, Murarji Vaidya of the Forum of Free Enterprise and Janakinandan Singh, leader of a group of breakaway Congressmen in Bihar. So far CR's reply was that he was 'told old, too long a Congressman and too close to Nehru personally to consider an active re-entry into politics.'

After the AICC session at Nagpur, the pressure was stronger. CR deflected it, first towards Jayaprakash Narayan. Though a socialist himself, JP had spoken of the need for a conservative party and for opposing Congress. Inscribing his best wishes, JP tossed the ball back to CR. This time CR threw it towards Chintaman Deshmukh, who had resigned a few years earlier from Nehru's Cabinet, and whose talent and integrity CR esteemed.

Touched, Deshmukh pleaded inability. Simultaneously with Deshmukh's reply came Nehru's first comment on CR's criticisms. At a public meeting in Madras, Jawaharlal referred to his 'affection and respect' for Rajaji, and then said, 'May I perhaps venture to say one word to him with great respect; and that is, a little charity in his thinking may sometimes not be out of place.'

On June 4, the day's engagements listed in the Madras papers included a meeting of the All India Agriculturists Federation to be addressed by Masani in the evening. When Monica Felton met CR in the forenoon, he told her that though Masani was 'the real speaker,' he too would be saying something. 'Nothing in his manner or tone (suggested) that the occasion was of the slightest importance.'

After the conversation with Felton, CR went to Woodlands Hotel to confer with Masani, N G Ranga, the Andhra MP and AIAF leader (he had protested against the Congress's land policy by resigning his post of secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party), V P Menon, who had been a close aide of Vallabhbhai Patel, and several others.

At this get-together twenty-one principles for a new party were agreed upon, including equal opportunity for all Indians, anti-statism and encouragement of thrift and individual initiative -- but a suitable name seemed to elude the 'midwives.' Rajaji suggested the Conservative party, but Ranga preferred an Agrarian party and Masani a Liberal, Centre or Democratic one.

JP was in Madras that day, and CR made another attempt to enlist him as the new party's first president. Though declining the offer, JP expressed his goodwill.

In the evening, those gathered at Vivekananda College to hear Masani were happily surprised to see Rajaji and JP too step on to the dais. What Rajaji said was a greater surprise.

Jawaharlal Nehru 'This morning,' he said, 'a new political party was formed.' Stunned for a moment, the audience then gave a terrific round of applause. Continued CR, 'And the name of the party is' -- and it was the turn of Masani, Ranga and the other midwives to be surprised -- 'Swatantra Party!' He had settled on the name while being driven to the meeting!

Ranga was the Swatantra Party's first president and Masani soon became general secretary, but it was clear that CR had agreed to lead the party. His clash with Nehru was now formalised. Yet their was a strange confrontation. 'We are positive friends and love each other,' he had said after Jawaharlal charged him with a total lack of charity and a year earlier he had written:

Some dear people have the jitters because Rajaji and Nehru are quarreling... Yes, I have differed and have spoken harsh language for the sake of clarity. But can't friends differ and yet continue to love one another?

On his part Jawaharlal would continue to speak of his 'respect and affection' for CR, but the two did not talk their differences over. Perhaps each waited for the other to make the first move; perhaps, too, each thought the other to be unbudgeable. It was CR's further belief that only the pressure of public opinion would affect Nehru.

Excerpted from Rajaji: A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi, Penguin, 1997, Rs 250, with the publisher's permission.

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C Rajagopalachari, continued

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