Subscribe Now! Get features like
Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India is a new book on the Swatantra Party, a leading opposition party that emerged after India’s Independence, to contest the entrenched dominance of the Congress. The leaders of the Swatantra Party imagined a conservative alternative to the left-of-centre Congress, one that embraced libertarian principles and promoted the idea of a “free economy”. The author of this new book, historian Aditya Balasubramanian, was featured on last week’s episode of Grand Tamasha, a weekly podcast on Indian politics and policy co-produced by HT and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Balasubramanian, a lecturer in economic history at the Australian National University, told host Milan Vaishnav that while conventional histories of the party exist, his aim was to delve deeper into the unique economic ideas that key Swatantra Party leaders propagated.
Balasubramanian’s decision to focus on the party was a product of circumstance. The project started in the John F Kennedy Library in Boston where the author was examining the papers of John Kenneth Galbraith, President Kennedy’s former Ambassador to India. The Galbraith papers revealed a string current of dissent on Indian planning coming from within India that was tied to a broader political movement that would eventually lead to the founding of the Swatantra Party.
To tell this story, Balasubramanian waded through the private papers of the Swatantra Party leaders, journals and newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the National Archives, writing most of the book before the official Swatantra papers became more readily accessible. Balasubramanian thinks there’s an important lesson in that: “There’s actually quite a lot that we can do with the post-colonial history of South Asia [without official documents]. For example, most recently in Abhishek Choudhary’s brilliant biography of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, we learn so much about Vajpayee that is invaluable—and that I don’t think will be necessarily bettered for a long time—without even having access to Vajpayee’s own papers.”
By triangulating sources, Balasubramanian documents the political evolution of figures such as C Rajagopalachari, a leading protagonist in the nationalist movement who eventually broke with the Congress to helm the Swatantra Party. The book also profiles other leading lights of the party—including N.G. Ranga, Bhaikaka Patel, and Minoo Masani—all of whom shared a relatively privileged upbringing but harboured deep grievances about the overreach of the Nehruvian state.
One of the party’s weak spots, Balasubramanian argues, was gender. He notes that not a single female name appeared in a 58-page list of people whom the party originally targeted for help in building up its cadres. Balasubramanian calls this a “blind spot” and acknowledges that party leaders were not particularly seized by the invisibilising of women that is being done. “Women are seen to be a part of society, but very much subordinate,” he explained. “And that is something…we shouldn’t necessarily think of as particularly unique for the era, but I would say Swatantra [Party] is a bit more patriarchal in that respect than the Congress, which [did] have a selective, but important, presence of key female leaders.”
Subscribe Now! Get features like