It is fashionable these days in India to assume the labels “free marketer”, “right liberal” or some such.  There are many who have discovered the salvatory powers of private capital and enterprise post May 16, 2014, after a decade of chanting the mantra of redistributive welfarism.

SV Raju, 81, a founding member of Swatantra Party and longstanding editor of the lone libertarian journal in India, Freedom First, who passed away on Tuesday morning, was no lily-livered, fair-weather votary of liberal ideas.  The stated objectives of Freedom First, and indeed the Swatantra Party were: creating a new society, secular in its foundation; ensuring liberty of thought, belief and action; and the realisation of economic and social justice for all the citizens of the free republic.

The adverse political climate, political correctness or Freedom First’s dwindling readership and reach did not affect Raju’s faith in liberal values or liberal economics. Despite his failing health, Raju wrote the journal’s editorial and a short but stinging critique calling out the all-round political hypocrisy around the Land Acquisition Bill in its April 2015 issue.

Taking on the system

Raju was well trained to withstand opprobrium, first in the role of the Swaratra Party’s joint secretary, and then as the editor of a journal that stood firmly for economic liberty when socialism was not just popular political currency but also surreptitiously enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976 by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency years. He challenged the 42nd Amendment through a writ petition in the Bombay High Court in 1994. The battle was eventually unsuccessful.

The Swatantra Party was founded in 1959 by Minoo Masani, JRD Tata’s former chief of staff, and Acharya NG Ranga, a peasant leader from Andhra. C Rajagopalachari (who was better known as Rajaji), the first Governor General of India and Gandhi’s "conscience keeper" was the party's presiding deity. It was the first intellectually and politically coherent response to the prevailing Nehruvian socialism of the time. The party’s motto was “To Prosperity Through Freedom”.

It clearly and openly declared its opposition to socialism, which it described as "state capitalism". Its objectives were to “save freedom”, “preserve family economy”, “restore fundamental rights” and to provide the country “a democratic alternative”. “For Farm, Family and Freedom” became the signature slogan of the Swatantra Party.

Against the odds

Raju remained the executive secretary of the party for 14 years. At its peak, Swatantra emerged as the single largest Opposition group in Parliament, winning 44 seats in the 1967 elections. However, it was consistently dogged by the kind of negative PR that would make the conspiracy charges often  trotted out by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its rightwing supporters today appear to be of the garden variety in comparison.

Swatantra was dubbed a reactionary force. What hurt Rajaji personally was Nehru’s repeated jibes about Swatantra being the hand maiden of Big Business despite the fact that it was Congress that received an overwhelming chunk of corporate donations. Close to the 1962 elections, Congress loyalist and industrialist GD Birla declared: “Swatantra politics were not  good businessmen’s politics.”  Besides being the party of the wealthy, Nehru said Swatantra belonged to the “middle ages of lords, castles and zamindars”, and likely to become “fascist in outlook”.  The BJP’s predecessor, the Jan Sangh, accused Masani of being a beef-eating  Parsi.

After the Swatantra experiment had failed, Raju, along with Geeta Doctor, took up fulltime editorship of FreedomFirst in 1978, a journal started in 1953. According to friend and admirer Jerry Rao, the former chairman of tech firm Mphasis BFL, for Raju, the idea of Swatantra was more important than the personalities involved. “Masani was flamboyant, Ranga one-dimensional, and Rajaji often cranky,” Rao said. “But Raju was the patient, hardworking backbone of the idea of Swatantra. People came and went. It was he who singlehandedly kept the flame alive. A hundred years from now when future historians assess and re-assess the quality of Freedom First’s editorials under Raju is when we will fully understand the man’s importance in India’s history.”.

Freedom First was for Minoo Masani what Swarajya was for Rajaji.

Last year, as part of a group of people planning to re-launch the Swarajya magazine, which had ceased publication in 1980,  I had the opportunity to speak to Raju. After all, Swarajya and Freedom First were not just blood brothers, Raju was perhaps the last living link to the Swatantra Party and Rajaji. Raju had kept a similar journal alive (it has come out unfailingly, bar for six months during the Emergency) against unimaginable odds.

Freedom First had virtually no financial support. According to Jerry Rao, it was mostly Raju’s own money and infrequent donations of Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 from old-time Swatantra friends and well-wishers that paid the printer’s bill. “I can’t think of anyone more vehemently opposed to crony capitalism in theory and practice than Raju,” Rao said.

Fierce independence

When I told him about our plans, he was thrilled, and bemused that a bunch of twenty- and thirtysomethings would want to re-launch Swarajya ,of all publications. We wanted Raju to mentor us and chair our editorial board. He politely declined saying as it is he found it difficult to run Freedom First with one-and-a-half people and didn’t want to take up something he couldn’t do justice to.  He said he was planning to close the magazine down in the next year or so. Several well-meaning industrialists had offered to buy the magazine, and help Raju scale up the operations, but he had never been tempted. "It would then become their mouthpiece, and not a platform for the ideas Freedom First stands for," he said.

The conversation quickly took the shape of an interview.  “Why in the world do you want to do this at all?” he asked. “Does anyone even remember Swarajya? It’s a very tough grind.” A bit awestruck and nervous, I cited Freedom First’s March 1979 cover titled “Were Rajaji alive Today...” and offered a poorly rehearsed marketing spiel about re-interpreting Rajaji’s ideas for a new demographic or something lame to that effect. Raju laughed in mild rebuke and said there was no need for any re-interpretation. "And what is this ‘right liberal’ that you people want to be?” he said. “The word liberal should be enough.”

On the future editorial course of Swarajya, he cited his latest edit of June 2014 as an example of the tactical and qualified support the magazine must offer the new rightwing government. “Only when they talk about a minimum government, not when they peddle their dangerous cultural or religious ideology,” he declared. “On the issues of culture, you need to look nowhere other than Rajaji or what I would call the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan approach. He praised Hinduism’s catholicity and Vedanta’s practicality but never claimed them to be exceptional or supreme.” As it happened, those were precisely the issues we were debating internally.

Raju generously offered, without my asking, access and the use of Freedom First’s stellar archives, and was willing to share “whatever was left” of its subscriber base of 1,500-2,000. “I only hope you find the money to run Swarajya. That, and lots of stamina,” were his parting words.

That conversation was certainly was one of the most profitable outcomes of my brief stint with Swarajya

 TR Vivek is a journalist in Hyderabad.