Exploring Possibilities of a Liberal Party in India
Swatantra Conference CCS

That liberalism is a western abstraction is a much touted surmise in India. A strong challenge to this belief lies in the formation and the ideals of the Swatantra Party (1959-74), a party that revolutionized the political milieu in India. Founded by C.Rajagopalachari, it was the country's only national party to promulgate the principles of social justice, personal liberty, secularism, free enterprise and individual rights. It became the sole alternative to Nehruvian socialism and the hidebound Congress Party system that persisted in the first two decades of a free India.

The Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) partnered with the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) to launch an archive of over 27,000 pages procured by CCS from the defunct Swatantra Party’s offices in Mumbai. The launch was marked by a one-day conference. The conference titled ‘Swatantra: Principles, People, Politics,’ probed the genesis, the principles and the sudden demise of the Swatantra Party and its exemplary contribution to “Indian Liberalism”. To preserve Indian liberal history, FNF supports the online database of Indian liberals at indianliberals.in. This singular website documents a plethora of writings and testimonies of some of India’s important liberal minds. These historical sources are evidence enough that liberalism was very much a strand in Indian political thought.

On the occasion, Dr. Ronald Meinardus, Regional Director at FNF South Asia, stressed on liberalism being an important part of Indian history and the Indian present. Invoking the writings of the leaders of the Swatantra Party Dr. Meinardus said that they “were testimonies of a great liberal tradition”. “The archival storing of these intellectual treasures in the Nehru Memorial Library makes them accessible for future generations of scholars and political practitioners – for the benefit of all Indians and the world at large.” he said. He also spoke of the challenges liberalism faces in India. “Liberalism is confronted with a government that, if you go by the rhetoric, aspires to unleash the powers of the market. With the extent and seriousness of this effort a matter of dispute even among supporters, the main concern lays elsewhere, suggestions: tolerance and respect for diversity and civil liberties has suffered, are voiced not only by isolated advocacy groups.” Dr. Meinardus asserted.

(Dr. Ronald Meinardus’s full speech can be read here)

The first session of the conference dealt with the origins of the Swatantra Party and the debate on its very nature. The session put into spotlight the contribution of the Swatantra Party to Indian politics. The second session delved into the idea of constitutional supremacy, individual rights, freedom of the media, free enterprise and market-based economy in contemporary Indian politics. All of which were the core goals that the Swatantra Party sought to achieve. The panelists spoke on Swatantra Party’s critique on the welfare state and discussed the envisioning of state with an alternate, more liberal view. The panelists discussed the limits to state intervention. In the final session, the experts discussed the challenges that a liberal political party would face in India in times of divisive politics and sensationalism.