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The Rediff Special/Rajmohan Gandhi

'Its tone being liberal as well as conservative, Swatantra reached out to moderate Hindus and non-Hindus in ways not available to the Jan Sangh'

The political field to the right of the Congress was not vacant. The Jan Sangh, founded by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951 and espousing a militant Hinduism, had occupied parts of it, specially in north and central India. But Swatantra had some advantages. Apart from Rajaji, notable southerners such as Ranga and Menon had joined it. In Masani it had an effective spokesman. Veteran Congressmen such as K M Munshi had entered its ranks.

Moreover, its tone being liberal as well as conservative, the new party reached out to moderate Hindus and non-Hindus in ways not available to the Jan Sangh. CR's identification of statism as the menace seemed to click with a number of traders, businessmen and farmers. In Congress's Nagpur resolution the party had an issue which could be exploited, and in Rajaji a leadership that other Opposition parties could not rival.

Aristocrats joining included the maharwal of Dungarpur, the raja of Ramgarh in Bihar, the raja of Manakpur in UP, the maharajas of Patna and Kalahandi in Orissa, and -- the star recruit -- the beautiful Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur. The great majority of the former princes, however, sided with the Congress, which had the power to remove their privy purses -- or, as with the Maharajas of Jaipur and Patiala, to make them ambassadors.

Other eminent recruits to Swatantra included leading businessmen Homi Mody and A D Shroff, old warriors like Dahyabhai Patel, the Sardar's son, and the engineer-educator, Bhailalbhai Patel; N C Chatterjee, the Bengal lawyer formerly with the Hindu Mahasabha; M Ruthnaswamy of Madras, once in the Justice party; and outstanding veterans of the civil service such as H M Patel, Narayan Dandekar and J M Lobo Prabhu.

The comment that Swatantra's leaders were more distinguished than popular was valid. True, Rajaji himself possessed a continuing appeal. As Humayun Kabir, member of Nehru's government, conceded while attacking the new party, 'The only rallying point of the Swatantra party is the personality of Rajagopalachari.' Yet that appeal did not match the magnetism with the masses with which the fates had endowed Jawaharlal.

Apart from lacking in mass appeal, Swatantra was heterogeneous, even if not to the same extent as Congress. Agreement on the evil of statism could not conceal differences. If Rajaji and Munshi proclaimed their roots in Indian culture, and Rajaji unhesitatingly called himself a conservative, Masani and Mody were Westernised liberals. Again, Munshi, a Hindi enthusiast, could scarcely warm to Rajaji's campaigns against Hindi, which many of Rajaji's north Indian supporters also found hard to defend.

Another lack was of funds, which galled all the more in the context of Nehru's well-publicised charge that Swatantra was 'the rich man's party.' CR and his colleagues vigorously advocated a ban on company donations to political parties, but Nehru rejected the suggestion: almost all the contributions were going to Congress. In addition, Nehru asserted that he would reject any gifts from a company that also gave money to the Swatantra. Moreover, in a crucial steer, Ghanshyamdas Birla declared, 'Swatantra politics were not good businessmen's politics.'

Most companies became too frightened to give anything to Swatantra. The ones contributing also gave, in almost every case, a much bigger sum to Congress -- but, despite Nehru's assertion, no money was in fact returned by Congress.

Ten or so MPs had formed a Swatantra contingent in the existing Lok Sabha, and similar units had emerged in the Bihar, Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra assemblies. Across India, membership was increasing, but there were some problems. Chatterjee, leading the West Bengal unit, resigned after being told that in the coming elections Bombay would finance only one Lok Sabha seat from West Bengal. The raja of Ramgarh who controlled a vote bank in Bihar, clashed with the party's central executive.

As elections drew nearer, the desire to defeat Congress and win some seats through electoral adjustments with non-Communist Opposition parties tended to eclipse the anti-statist cause. Resenting a newcomer's intrusion, the Jan Sangh was reluctant to leave seats for Swatantra. However, in Rajasthan, Madras and the Punjab, Swatantra reached constituency-level agreements with, respectively, the Jan Sangh, the DMK and the Akali Dal.

CR's wooing of C N Annadurai, the DMK leader, as he was increasingly called, who had courted arrest in defiance of the Rajaji-led ministries of 1937-9 and 1952-4, merits attention. In Annadurai's eyes, CR had been an Aryan secretly striving to maintain brahmin domination over the Dravidians. On his part CR had accused the DMK and its parent, the DK, of 'openly preaching a creed of hatred based on ethnological conjectures and unrecorded and unproved historical conflicts.'

Privately and publicly, CR urged Anna to abandon the independent Dravidaland that the DK and the DMK had earlier demanded; and with the nationalists in the south and elsewhere he argued that the DMK was not in fact the secessionist demon they feared. He is entitled to his share of the credit for the DMK's formal abandonment of the secessionist aim, which was announced at the end of 1962, following India's conflict with China.

An 83-year-old CR threw himself into the election campaign. As thousands seated on the ground would chant 'Rajaji! Rajaji!', 'a patriarch wreathed in white, and carrying his famous cane like some Old Testament prophet would pick his way among them to deliver a delightful drumfire attack.' Congress socialism 'was grinding the individual,' a Congress-Communist contest was no more than 'an Oxford boat race, and 'the pernicious system of permits, licences, quotas and controls made the Congress party's rich friends richer and the poor poorer.'

He complained about two wrongs. One was the permission, grossly unfair to the other parties, for a Congress flag which was virtually the same as the Indian tricolour. Two, 'the collection of funds for the ruling party's chest (by) prominent ministers' who held the power to promote or ruin industrialists.

Receiving money in Kanpur, Nehru confessed that he was 'a little ashamed,' but, as CR pointed out, the prime minister 'pocketed the purses given!'

Two suggestions for the longer term were made by CR. One was State funding of elections, which would help eliminate 'the overwhelming advantages of money-power.' Added CR: 'Elections now are private enterprise, whereas this is the first thing to be nationalised'

His second suggestion was that for six months prior to a general election, the President should rule directly, through officials, thereby reducing the capacity of ministers to influence voting. But fair elections were hardly the ruling party's first concern. CR's complaints and suggestions fell on deaf ears.

'Humble the Congress. Pluck its feathers. Maul its strength.' This was CR's election-eve message to his public. He and others speaking like him were not heeded. In 1957 Congress had polled 46 per cent of the nation's votes; now it secured 44.5 per cent. In the Lok Sabha and most state assemblies it secured comfortable majorities. Swatantra's share of the Lok Sabha vote was 8 per cent, that of the Jan Sangh 7 per cent, of the Communists roughly ten per cent.

In the Lok Sabha, the Congress won 361 seats (a loss of ten); the Communists 29, Swatantra 25, the Jan Sangh and allies 18, and different Socialist factions 18.

Swatantra secured a total of 207 seats in the different state assemblies, as against 153 for the Communists, 149 for the Socialists, and 115 for the Jan Sangh. In Madras, the DMK obtained 50 seats and Swatantra 9.

The new party had 50 MLAs in Bihar -- Ramgarh had done his bit; 36 in Rajasthan; 26 in Gujarat; 19 in Andhra; and 15 in UP.

Held earlier, the Orissa assembly elections had given Swatantra 37 seats out of 140. There, and in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar, Swatantra was now Congress's leading Opposition. All in all, while the Congress fortress was not breached, the new challenger had not done too badly.

To an American reporter, CR said: 'I will carry on. I will work for a strong opposition in the next general elections.' Meredith Brown of the Louisville Courier-Journal noted that these would take place in 1967, when 'the remarkable Mr Rajagopalachari will be 89 years old.'

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

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