In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian National Congress was a classic “big tent” party, an organisation which embraced individuals of different political philosophies and predilections. By the late 1950s, another big tent was being thrown up on the maidan of Indian politics: smaller in size, yes, but accommodating perhaps an even more diverse cast of characters.

What happens when you bring together an octogenarian nationalist veteran, the maharani of Jaipur, a suit-and-tie-wearing associate of JRD Tata, a lapsed British communist, a globally minded peasant leader from Andhra Pradesh, and a Bombay flour mill magnate who once helped publish the first Indian edition of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto?

The answer is the Swatantra Party, which was founded in 1959 and briefly became India’s chief opposition party before disintegrating in the early 1970s. In this episode, Aditya Balasubramanian, author of Toward a Free Economy, talks about Swatantra’s legacy and relevance in our era, when Indian politics has returned to being a one-party game.

Political commentators and scholars have tended to dismiss the Swatantra Party as a self-serving alliance of feudal interests and big business. As Balasubramanian demonstrates, however, it was much more than that.

True, the party’s diverse cast of leaders shared a broadly conservative economic vision: India needed a “free economy” unshackled from the permit-and-licence raj and committed to ideas like the defense of private property. But Swatantra’s leaders also believed that, in an era of unassailed Congress dominance, India’s fledgling democracy was drifting into dangerous waters. It urgently needed a strong and vocal opposition party.

The founding of a party in strident opposition to Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress, Swatantra’s leaders declared, was of equivalent importance to the fight against British colonial rule. Swatantra, therefore, was as much about healthy democracy as it was about a free economy.

Balasubramanian acknowledges that the Swatantra Party could be out of touch with the Indian aam aadmi. Many of its leaders conversed and campaigned only in English; one Parsi candidate canvassed in rural Gujarat while carrying along his own portable toilet. Nevertheless, many of their ideas were in tune with Indian and global ideological currents.

Somewhat unique for a party with national aspirations, Swatantra enjoyed a strong base in western and southern India. Its commitment to small business, a less burdensome tax regime, and the safeguarding of private property found favor amongst groups which had prospered in the early 20th century, such as the Kammas of Andhra Pradesh and the Patidars of Gujarat.

On the international level, Swatantra established itself as stridently anticommunist and thus disposed to friendly ties with the West. Party interlocutors hobnobbed with the likes of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Swatantra’s leaders, however, did not unthinkingly parrot western neoliberal and libertarian notions. Their conception of a free economy was fashioned in response to the teething pains of India’s still infant democracy.

Rather than simply spouting laissez faire doctrine, the party formulated responses to some of the burning issues of the day like increasing bureaucratic corruption and runaway inflation. They claimed to represent the legacy of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Vallabhbhai Patel rather than free market ideologues from the United States and Europe.

Swatantra’s big tent withstood multiple pushes and pulls from those who stood under it. C. Rajagopalachari, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s chief lieutenants, helped found the party when he was 80. Rajagopalachari brought his sterling nationalist credentials and deep ties to the Tamil literary sphere, but also certain political baggage, such as tone-deaf attitudes towards caste prejudice.

Minoo Masani, who had the ear of JRD Tata, wanted the party to represent the interests of the middle-class Indian citizen, but had difficulty tying “the idealised middle class to real groups of people living in India”. While Swatantra struggled with electoral success, it poured its energies into educational outreach, churning out articles, books, and pamphlets on economic matters.

As Balasubramanian notes, the breadth and reach of Swatantra publications show that “India’s eventual abandonment of socialist rhetoric and planned economic policy had constituencies of support as early as the mid-twentieth century”.

What does the rise and fall of the Swatantra Party mean in the era of Narendra Modi? While numerous calls have been made over the past few years for the revival of a party committed to economic conservatism and political liberalism, Balasubramanian cautions that Swatantra’s ideology could be very regressive when it came to caste and gender.

Popular mobilisation was the party’s “Achilles heel”. But its commitment to robust democracy – with a vocal and viable opposition – is clearly as relevant today as when Swatantra’s vision was first articulated in the late 1950s.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.