Masani and Swatantra Party

Masani and Swatantra Party

Minocher Rustom Masani, Minoo Masani as he was better known, author, activist in India’s struggle for freedom, parliamentarian and a member of the Constituent Assembly, was free India’s most eminent Liberal.

The tribute published here, written by S.V Raju, is an part extract from the bookProfiles in Courage: Dissent on Indian Socialism” edited by  Parth Shah and reproduced here with permission.

Though Rajaji and Masani shared similar concerns about the future of India if Congress rule went unchallenged, Rajaji asked to be excused on grounds of ill health and old age when Masani asked him to join him in his efforts to form a new Party. Jayaprakash Narayan also asked to be excused as he believed in a partyless democracy and was engaged in the Sarvodaya movement. Masani was clear in his mind that without one of them the new Party could not take off. He was honest enough to accept the fact that he did not have the qualities of a leader to lead a new Party. He wrote in his memoirs, “I never had any illusion about the fact I personally lacked the political appeal of the kind that a country like India needed for the purpose. I had always conceived my role in Indian politics as an effective No.2 man, who could run the machine efficiently, provided there was a leader who had the necessary charisma. Such was the role I was able to play along with JP in the 1930s and with Rajaji in the 1960s.”

Masani’s definition of an acceptable leader in India was “a home-spun and earthy personality with deep roots in the Indian tradition” which Masani admitted he did not possess. And how is this reflected? It is reflected in one’s way of life, one’s dress and a certain austerity and abstinence from allegedly ‘Western’ habits such as drink and ballroom dancing. He felt that he was “too much of a world citizen of the kind Stalin described as a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ to play the role of Supremo in an Indian Government.”

Meanwhile, pending the formation of a new Party he played the role of a one-man opposition. Masani was perhaps the first to launch a frontal attack on the Second Five Year Plan in the Lok Sabha. The occasion was the debate on the Union Budget 1957-58. He described the Five Year Plans as the source of evil and the Budgets a device to secure the financial resources, which the Plans would swallow. He also drew attention to the harm done to the country’s image by the “provocative utterances and postures” of Krishna Menon in his capacity as India’s Representative in the United Nations. On the other hand he supported the dismissal of the Namboodiripad government and the imposition of President’s rule in Kerala. While his criticism of the Plan and Krishna Menon irritated Nehru, his support to Nehru in throwing out the Communist government in Kerala, drew communist ire. He was laying the pattern for the manner in which the new Party would function as a party in the opposition. Not opposition for opposition’s sake but constructive issue-based opposition. Masani was trying to introduce the concept of “His Majesty’s Opposition” in India’s parliament!

And then came the opportunity that Masani was waiting for—a development that would propel the hesitant to join his efforts to form a new Party. The All India Congress Committee met in Nagpur in January 1959 and adopted what came to be known as the Nagpur Resolution on joint cooperative farming and a ceiling on landholdings. In a speech in Parliament, Masani denounced the AICC resolution and said that the farmers of India would fight what was really a move to collectivise Indian agriculture. When he said in the course of his speech that he knew for a fact that many members even in the Congress benches were opposed to the Nagpur resolution but were not prepared to say so openly for fear of invoking Nehru’s wrath, Professor N G Ranga jumped up and defiantly proclaimed his opposition to the Nagpur resolution. He resigned from the Congress soon thereafter.

The Farmers Federation of India rose in revolt and, in association with the Forum of Free Enterprise which was already protesting the regime of licenses and permits in industry and commerce, was ready to help in the formation of a party to champion the cause of peasant proprietorship and a free market economy.

Masani was invited by M A Sreenivasan of the Forum of Free Enterprise in Bangalore to address a public meeting on May 29,1959 which would be chaired by Rajaji. At the meeting both were at their fiery best. The next day May 30, 1959, Rajaji told Masani that it was time to form a new Party and said he was prepared to join in the convening of a meeting to announce its formation! “In public life, time takes over the years its sweet revenge. In 1937, it was Rajaji who had complained against me to Jawaharlal Nehru, who as Congress President, had come to my rescue. Now here we were in 1959, joining in forming a new Party in opposition to Jawaharlal” observed Masani in his autobiography.

A week later on June 7, 1959 Rajaji convened a meeting in Madras for a closed-door meeting of those who were keen on forming the new Party to be followed by a public meeting that evening. Masani’s plane was delayed and by the time he arrived in Madras, the closed-door meeting had settled a set of 21 principles of the Party drafted by Rajaji, and a press statement containing the principles and the names of the office bearers of the new Party yet to be named. Masani was happy with the principles but disappointed with the names of office bearers who he complained to Rajaji were either too old or were mostly from the South. He was also disappointed with the choice of N G Ranga as President. Masani was hoping it would be Rajaji. However on his request, Rajaji agreed not to consider the Madras meeting as the date of the birth of the Party but the date when a formal function would be held so that people from other parts of the country could attend and a more representative organizing committee set up. As for Ranga, Rajaji informed Masani that while he had no intention to hold office but was prepared to be a member of the National Executive, he had offered the Presidentship of the Party to Jayaprakash Narayan who happened to be in Madras that day. JP, even while in full agreement with the 21 principles, declined the offer on the ground that he had decided to refrain from party politics. In the circumstances Rajaji felt that the best person to hold the office of President was Ranga and therefore Rajaji had invited Ranga to be the new Party’s President. Masani accepted the decision and there the matter rested.

It was at this public meeting in Madras on June 7, that Rajaji announced to the surprise of everyone present, including Masani that the new Party’s name was the Swatantra Party.

The formal function in the form of the Preparatory Convention of the Swatantra Party was held in Bombay August 1 and 2, at a place not far from Gowalia Tank where Gandhiji had launched the Quit India movement also in August. It was the height of the monsoon and raining heavily. This did not deter around 2000 people from braving the storm to attend the Convention. Of these, 600 came from other parts of India.

I remember attending this Convention as a reporter for a Kerala weekly.

The atmosphere was electric. It was, as if, a new freedom movement was being launched. On the platform were a galaxy of luminaries led by Rajaji and which included men like N G Ranga, V P Menon, K M Munshi, Homi Mody, Prof M Ruthnaswamy, Sardar Bahadur Lal Singh, K B Jinaraja Hegde, J M Lobo Prabhu to name a few. For the first time since independence speeches were were heard that were critical of socialism and Jawaharlal Nehru’s governance from the liberal point of view. Masani as Chairman of the Organizing Committee set the tone with a blistering criticism of the Delhi government. Rajaji’ s was no less emphatic and so were those by the others like Professor Ranga, K M Munshi. Masani described his role in the birth of the new Party as that of a “midwife.” This was a fairly accurate description. He had indeed, helped to deliver a healthy baby. The Preparatory Convention received a great press and most editorials welcomed the formation of a political party that was different from the rest.

The list of office bearers which had been prepared in Madras and the composition of which had upset Masani was revised to include many names from other parts of the country, illustrious names that carried weight. But the Central Office was still in Madras and its General Secretary, a gentleman by the name of S Y Krishnaswamy, a retired ICS officer. Masani was clearly uncomfortable that a party he had worked so hard to create was getting to be an “all-Madras” affair.

But this did not inhibit him from doing PR for the Party. A month after its formation, Masani, while on a visit abroad found that people abroad viewed the birth of the Swatantra Party as a major development? ”To some extent this interest was due to my article in Life International  as also my interest in the Liberal International.” Masani was interviewed on the Austrian Radio, “had an off-the-record editors” lunch arranged by Encounter magazine at which members of the editorial staff of The Economist, Spectator, Daily Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, Observer and the Socialist Commentary  were present. All this certainly helped to project the party abroad.

General Secretary

On his return home he received a message from Rajaji through Sir Homi Mody that he should take over as the Party’s General Secretary. Responding to Rajaji’s request, Masani pointed out that that there was need to be clear about the organizational set-up if he was to function effectively. The other was a personal one about his need to earning a living and that party work would eat into the time he could give to his consultancy business. Rajaji replied: “As for the personal problems that arise from it, we must face them somehow as we did in 1920.” The present crisis is as big as we had then to face.

Your powers and responsibilities as General Secretary will cover the entire field of the Party administration until our Constitution is passed. It will only be limited by your own discretion as to whether you should take others into confidence – me and Ranga of course you will try to keep satisfied. How can we convert the potentiality of our party into fact unless you throw yourself into this responsibility with all the courage and tact you can command?” Rajaji suggested that the Central Office should be located in Bombay and not Delhi saying, “we should think of Delhi only when we are 10 lakh strong in membership.” Rajaji was, in fact, giving Masani a carte blance  to run the Party. This settled the matter and at a meeting of the Party’s General Council held in Hyderabad on December 9, 1959, Masani was elected General Secretary of the Swatantra Party.

With A D Shroff’s assistance, the Bombay Unit of the Party had already started functioning from the 1st floor of Sassoon Building in Kala Ghoda and across the street was Masani’s consultancy firm. The Bombay Unit accommodated the Central Office in its premises.

I had written to Masani indicating my interest in being considered for the position of secretary of the Central Office. He called me over for an interview that must have lasted around 30 minutes and offered me the job. I joined him as Office Secretary of the Central Office of the Swatantra Party on December 16, 1959.

Masani’s idea of a Party office was far removed from the traditional view of an office of a political party where people are constantly coming in and going out; which opens late in the day and closes around midnight; of smoke filled rooms and an unending supply of tea and eats. His first instructions to me were clear. He told me, and the words still ring in my ears though he said this over 40 years ago, “Raju, please remember this is the Central Office of the Swatantra Party. I am in charge and I will not permit this office to be used as a caravansarai by anyone even if he claims to be an active worker of the party. It will function like any commercial office and observe regular hours. If I find that you are unable to carry out these instructions then you will have to go.” I was so intimidated that all I could say was “yes sir!” The Central Office observed regular hours viz. 9 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday and 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays.

Sunday was the weekly holiday. And the number of public holidays was strictly restricted. “Please do not imagine that any day declared a holiday by the government will automatically be a holiday for the Central Office,” I was cautioned by Masani when once I kept the office closed because it was a bank holiday and he could not get in touch with me. This lapse however turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He could not get in touch with me because I did not have a residential telephone connection. The next day after giving me a dressing down, he wrote a letter to the General Manager, Bombay Telephones for a telephone connection on a priority basis as he found it difficult to get in touch with me outside office hours. The phone was installed at my residence in 48 hours flat! He was an excellent trainer. He trained me in office systems. He also taught me how to speak and write good English.

The Central Office started off with one person – me. My request for a peon was rejected out of hand. This is a habit that is prevalent only in India and nowhere else. In other countries and even in foreign companies in India, Masani informed me, office staff and executives make their own tea or do the million things that peons are called upon to do. I did get one finally, but with considerable reluctance. Next I asked for a stenographer and the response was equally negative. Don’t you know typing? Why do you want a stenographer? Only when Masani found that I was being snowed under by papers and I was unable to keep pace with Masani’s output did I get a stenographer. As long as I can remember I had to fight for every additional person or equipment that was required. One can understand that funds were never adequate and hence his tight rein over expenditure. But I suspect that it was not so much the lack of money, which of course was a perennial problem, as much as to find how seriously I pursued any demand! If I persisted he gave in. If I did not then he could say, “See I knew he could manage without one!” He was a hard taskmaster and a disciplinarian as I was to experience over the many years I worked with him.

Masani was that rare combination of party ideologue and organization man. He knew precisely what the Swatantra Party was about and set about organizing the Party to achieve it. This meant as he puts in his autobiography “good housekeeping and efficient field organization.” For the first twenty years or more the Congress was in a majority not only in Delhi but also in most of the states barring Kerala and West Bengal. This influenced Masani to run a highly centralized party. His objective was Delhi and not the States as the centre of power was in Delhi, not in the States, which Rajaji had described as “glorified municipalities.” Unfortunately, this strategy often brought him into direct conflict with the leadership in the states. But this did not deter him in the least. “I was elected General Secretary to be effective, not popular” was yet another of his maxims.

The Party adopted its Statement of Policy and Constitution at the First National Convention in Patna in March 1960. The Statement of Policy was entitled “To Prosperity through Freedom” an adaptation of Ludwig Erhards’ “To Prosperity through Competition.” The Constitution was a short and workmanlike one uncluttered by any kind of rhetoric. The initial draft of both, were Masani’s. The draft statement of policy was circulated well in advance and amendments invited. The amendments were placed in parallel columns to the relevant paragraph and formed the basis for discussion. It was all done very systematically. He was absolutely the master when it came to conducting meetings of Committees and Councils. The General Council of the Party, which met in Patna on the eve of the Convention in March 1960, went through the amendments and prepared the final draft for the Convention’s approval. At the end of it all what emerged was a middle-of-the road document even while emphasizing the primacy of the individual.

As General Secretary of the Party from 1959 to 1967, he was very effective even if not very much liked. The Party grew rapidly and in less than ten years emerged as the single largest party in the opposition, in the Lok Sabha with a strength of 44 members; leading a principled coalition government in Orissa (1967–1971); the officially recognized opposition in the Rajasthan and Gujarat legislative assemblies; and with significant representation in the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu legislative assemblie.

As the Party’s ideologue he was clear that the Swatantra Party should eschew non-parliamentary forms of protest like satyagrahas, morchas, bandhs and walkouts in the legislatures. He was largely influential in ensuring that the party did not form fronts in the trade union and student movements. Gandhiji’s dictum that the end does not justify the means was a principle he implemented ruthlessly even if it meant reverses. Another Gandhian dictum, which he adhered to faithfully, perhaps even fanatically, was his rejection of the choice of the lesser evil. An evil is an evil. There is no such thing as a lesser evil he would say. This again did not help him become popular. On the contrary it sometimes made things worse. Perhaps it was his insistence on discipline and doing the right thing that led to the Party’s exit from electoral politics.


In 1968, he was elected President of the Swatantra Party. He had forgotten his own assessment of himself—that he was a good number two man and could never be number one because he lacked the qualities that were required in the Indian milieu. Those who succeeded him, as General Secretary did not have the qualities and competence required to manage the Party because that was what the job of the General Secretary. Even the persons who succeeded him, as Presidents did not have his vision and his abilities. I trace the decline of the Party to the decision when he decided to seek the Presidentship of the Party even if the immediate reason was the Party’s disastrous performance in the 1971 elections to the Lok Sabha.

Retirement from politics

In 1971, the so-called “Indira wave” swept all parties aside including the Swatantra Party. He accepted responsibility for the Party’s miserable performance (he himself failed to retain his seat in the Lok Sabha for a third term from Rajkot) and resigned from the presidentship of the Party and from party politics altogether; his third and final retirement from active politics.

But this retirement did not mean he had taken sanyas. He was the active citizen instead. In the introductory paragraph I mentioned that he was a “champion of lost causes.” Light hearted though this may sound, it brought out the liberal in him to a greater degree than even his political activities did. He could not be indifferent when he felt that things were not going right and where the freedom and dignity of the individual was at stake. In an appendix to this the essay is a list of organizations he founded and which are still functioning. There were many others, which have faded away because the reason for their existence is no longer there.

As we were coming out of a meeting held on June 10,1998 to condole Masani’s demise, his son Zareer asked me how I had managed to sustain such a long relationship with Minoo Masani. I replied that I had managed this in spite of his father!

Masani was not the easiest of persons to get along with. I held on because I admired some of the qualities he possessed, qualities that were very rare in those days and are getting even rarer now. Masani shared a number of qualities with Rajaji53 even if they were poles apart on some others. The primacy of values in public life was one. A clinically logical mind, shorn of emotions, which led to clarity of thought, was another. This gave him both an uncanny ability to foresee events Cassandra-like and absolute integrity. The two got along very well.

The problem as I saw it with Masani was his inability to be flexible even if such flexibility would not in any way affect his principles. He had the unhappy knack of converting even inconsequential matters into matters of principle. Take his fetish over punctuality and insistence that people see him only after prior appointment. Around 1968 or 1969, when Masani was a Member of Parliament representing Rajkot Parliamentary Constituency, and I was Executive Secretary of the Swatantra Party at its national headquarters, a middle-aged farmer from Dhoraji a segment of the Rajkot Constituency, walked into my room and said to me in Gujarati that he wanted Minoobhai’s darshan.

I phoned Masani, whose office was across the road, and asked him if he could spare a few minutes for one of his constituents from Rajkot who had come all the way from Dhoraji to have his darshan. “Does he have an appointment?” Masani asked me. I said, “No, he does not have an appointment.” “Then I am sorry I will not see him,” said Masani. I put the phone down, took the farmer across the road and into his office. Masani’s secretary informed me that he was alone; I barged into his room with the farmer in tow.

The farmer had his darshan. Masani was his charming best and made the farmer feel very important. The farmer had come to thank Masani for having persuaded the railways to install a manned level crossing on the railway tracks running through his village. This had saved the lives of many buffaloes which otherwise strayed on to the tracks and were killed by speeding trains. The entire meeting took not more than ten minutes.

As we were leaving, Masani bid the farmer good bye but asked me to stay behind for a minute. He gave me a dressing down for conniving at indiscipline! I didn’t mind the admonition because the job had been done and the farmer’s trip to Bombay was not in vain!

Read the story in Centre Right India