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Issue No.: 575 | May 2015

The Swatantra Party in Gujarat : A Shooting Star

Usha Thakkar
The emergence of the Swatantra consolidated the opposition forces to fight against the Congress in Gujarat

This is the first part of the three-part paper presented at the International Conference on Gujarat Society after Five decades: Retrospect and Prospects, 18-20 January 2012, Centre for Social Studies, Surat.on the History of the Swatantra Party by Dr. Usha Thakkar

The Birth of Swatantra Party

The Indian National Congress, energised after winning two general elections in post-Independence time, decided to march forward with its progressive policies. At its session in Nagpur in January 1959, it put forward a bold programme of a new three-pronged agricultural policy: governmental takeover of the grain trade, ceiling on land holdings; and cooperative cultivation. This alarmed some stalwarts like C. R. Rajgopalachari (Rajaji). Charged with the passion to organise a strong opposition to the centralisation of power in the Congress, Rajaji announced along with M. R. Masani, N. G. Ranga, V. P. Menon and other leaders the formation of the Swatantra Party on June 4, 1959 at Madras (now Chennai). 

The Party’s opposition to socialist ideas of Nehru and advocacy of free enterprise attracted some sections of the society. Often described as a Party with feudal elements, it had in its fold former princely states, rich farmers, merchants, industrialists, bureaucrats, intellectuals. With leaders like Rajaji, Masani, Bhailal Patel (Bhaikaka), H. M. Patel and K. M. Munshi the Party had created ripples in nineteen sixties. The Party declared its opposition to socialism, state control, ‘statism’ and heavy taxation. It believed in intensive programme of agricultural improvement and protection of cultivators’ rights of ownership and management of the land, incentives for higher production in industry and enterprise, and restoration of the constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of property, trade and employment. It emphasised the need for a broad-based opposition Party to safeguard democracy. It had emerged as a force to reckon with in Orissa, Rajasthan, Bihar and Gujarat as well as in national politics. This was, however, short-lived. The Party emerged and vanished like a shooting star in the sky of Indian politics.  

Though the Swatantra Party could not form the government in Gujarat, for some years it remained a formidable opposition Party to the Congress. It made its presence felt in the 1962 and 1967 assembly elections before fading away from the political scene. This paper is an attempt to explore its political chart, political currents and undercurrents as well as the reasons for its emergence and fading away in Gujarat. It catches glimpses of the course of electoral outcomes and the dynamics of political process at the state level operative in a nascent democracy. 

Caste politics has become a part of the mainstream electoral politics as years passed. This paper shows the rise of the powerful role of the castes in politics of a new democracy with a traditional social set up. It also unveils that the implementation of the idea of the two-Party system often involves electoral compromises that mar the very idea of democratic opposition, and the ambitions of leaders are pursued at the cost of the interests of the Party. The first section of the paper traces the rise of the Party in Gujarat. The second and the third sections deal with the context and results of the 1962 and 1967 elections in Gujarat. The fourth section discusses the decline of the Party in Gujarat and the last section contains concluding observations. 

Rise of the Party in Gujarat

When the All India Agricultural Federation had met in June 1959 at Madras to consider the formation of opposition to the Congress, Gujarat had taken a leading part in the deliberations. The heated controversy over land ceiling and cooperative farming had by then revitalised rightist forces in Gujarat. Many delegates from Gujarat attended the preparatory convention of the Swatantra Party in Bombay in August 1959. The preparatory convention appointed the nine-member Regional Committee and entrusted Bhailal Patel with the work of organising Swatantra Party in Gujarat. The Gujarat branch of Swatantra Party was inaugurated on September 14, 1959 and an ad-hoc committee of ten members was appointed. Swatantra Party in Gujarat started functioning in September 1959 and the first convention of the Gujarat branch of the Swatantra was held in Nadiad in on October 20, 1960. 

Rightist ideology is not new for Gujarat, largely because of the social and economic forces operating here. The larger middle class in the cities and villages has blunted the edge of economic disparity. The Ryotwari system also had created a wide spread class of small land-holders. Abolition of Jagirdari and Girasdari had turned many tenants into land-holders. This class of peasant proprietors is attached to their land, is educationally advanced and politically enlightened. 

The most notable community among the farmers is that of the Patidars. They have brought prosperity by their hard work and investment of capital earned abroad. Their contribution to the Satyagrahas of Bardoli and Kaira has been impressive. Many of them were antagonised by the land-reform measures of the Congress government. They resented the Bombay Tenancy Act, 1948 on the ground that it out-stepped its declared purpose by infringing upon their property rights rather than protecting the tenants against exploitation. They nurtured a wide-spread grievance that they were asked to sacrifice their property rights over land, when the urban properties had been left untouched. The growing rightist dissatisfaction against the Congress was reflected as early as 1952. The Kutch Rajput Sabha in Kutch, the Saurashtra Khedut Sangha and Praja Paksha in Saurashtra, Purushttamdas Patel’s group in North Gujarat, and Krishikar Lok Paksha and Lok Paksha in Central and South Gujarat were the rightist forces that had fought the 1952 elections, and had won roughly  20% votes. This, however, did not make any impact on the poll results, mainly because of lack of cohesion among them, their failure to create an ideological philosophy out of their grievances, and their overdependence on nebulous discontent and comparative neglect of organisation/ (Desai, 1963: 144-5). 

The emergence of the Swatantra consolidated the opposition forces to fight against the Congress in Gujarat. The group of Purushottam Patel in Mehsana had joined the Congress after the formation of Gujarat. But a sizeable part of it led by Ramchandra Amin joined the Swatantra. Rightist elements were drawn to the Swatantra Party. In this context, the component of the Kshatriyas became very important for the Swatantra for the electoral victory. Bhaikaka had gauged the political importance of the Kshatriyas and the Patidars mainly because of their numerical strength. He wanted the opposition to have a wider social basis and thought of an alliance between the two communities that could be of immense value to the Swatantra. He worked for this despite the widely known antagonism between them.  

Under his leadership, the Swatantra Party had set two aims: consolidation of various forces into a cohesive force under the Swatantra umbrella, and widening the social base of the Party especially by winning the support of the Kshatriya community, and building an alliance between the Kshatriyas and the Patidars. During its short span, the Party did manage to achieve this to a great extent. In addition to the deep rooted antagonism between the Kshatriyas and the Patidars, there were also differences of economic/land ownership interests between the Patidars of Gujarat area and Saurashtra area as also between those of Kshatriyas of Gujarat area and Saurashtra area. 

The Kshatriya group is heterogeneous, consisting of Rajputs and Kolis and others. The former consider themselves superior. The economic conditions of various Kshatriya groups differ and there is a wide gulf among them. Tenancy legislations and competitive politics have increased rivalry between these two communities. (Shah, 1975:, 32) 

The Kshatriyas in Gujarat have been largely ‘have-nots’. Conflicts between the Patidar land owners and the Kshatriya tenants have a long tradition. Faced with the growing challenges from the Patidars, the Congress had sought the support of the Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha in 1952 and 1957 elections (for details of the Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha see Shah, 1975) and benefited by it. Bhaikaka had noticed the strength of the Congress due to the support of the Kshatriyas. He himself was defeated in the 1952 elections by Natwarsinh Solanki, a Kshatriya candidate and one of the pillars of the Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha. 

In 1957, the Congress, having faced the tension on linguistic issue, was eager to retain the support of the Kshatriyas, but the aspirations of the Kshatriyas had increased considerably as they became aware of their bargaining position vis-a-vis the political parties. The leaders could not get specific commitments from Congress. Narendrasinh Mahida, a powerful leader of the Kshatriyas, was pro-Congress but found it difficult to convince his colleagues to be with the Congress. The Congress, facing the popular uprising in support of Maha Gujarat, encouraged Mahida to undertake election tour. Mahida left the Sabha in June 1957 for a short while but soon came back to its fold, where Natwarsinh Solanki and Bhagwandas Chhasatiya were keen to have him back. Mahida, supported by Solanki and Chhasatiya tried to forge an alliance of the Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha with the Congress. At its convention at Dakor on 4th April 1958, the Sabha unanimously accepted its alliance with the Congress. However, by mid-1959, differences cropped up. The Congress felt that the Sabha’s demands were increasing. The Sabha on the other hand, felt that promises were not fulfilled and their efforts were not liked by the local Congress persons, particularly the Patidars. Soon the anti-Congress voices were vocal. Solanki took the lead in organising anti-Congress grievances of the Kshatriyas. The Swatantra leaders attracted leaders like Solanki and Chhasatiya. At its Bayad convention the Sabha announced its break from the Congress. Mahida did not approve of the decision, but could not prevent it. The Congress lost the support of the Kshatriyas in the 1962 elections and paid a heavy price. (Shah,1975:91-136)

As Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha started getting disenchanted with the Congress, Bhaikaka tried hard to win them. After severing its relation with the Congress at its Bayad convention in March 1961, Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha extended support to the Swatantra. 

Assembly and Lok Sabha Elections of 1962

The Swatantra benefited as the Congress weakened. In 1961 session at Bhavnagar the then Congress President, Sanjeeva Reddy, talked about ‘ten years rule’, i.e., the persons in power for ten years should voluntarily give up the office and take up organisational work. This created furore among many members and caused a rift between the organisational and ministerial wings of the Party. The organisational wing tried to keep persons with ten years in office out of election contest in 1962 and aimed at ousting Jivraj Mehta. However, three aspirants for the position of the chief minister - Balvantrai Mehta, Thakorbhai Desai and Babubhai J. Patel - were defeated. Internal politics of the Party affected its performance adversely. 

The Congress’s loss of the mass base in 1962 was huge as compared to the 1957 elections, and the Swatantra benefited from this. The Swatantra contested in 15 out of 16 districts of Gujarat; it did not contest in Amreli. It fielded 106 candidates for 154 seats of the Assembly and won 26 seats. The major gains of the Party were in the districts of Kutch (5 out of 5), Kaira (10 out of 15), and Panchmahal (5 out of 11 seats). The remaining 6 seats were secured from 4 districts of Baroda, Ahmedabad, Mehsana and Sabarkantha. The Party came second in 55 places, and lost deposit in 21 places. Jaydeepsinhji of the princely state of Devgadh-Baria constituency in Panchmahal district secured the highest number of votes. 

For the Lok Sabha elections in 1962, the Swatantra fielded 14 candidates for 22 seats of Gujarat. It won 4 seats - Anand, Kutch, Kaira and Dohad; secured second place in 9 and lost deposit in Bhavnagar constituency. The most prominent victory was that of Narendrasinh Mahida of Swatantra who defeated Maniben Patel in Anand by more than 20,000 votes. Himmatsinghji of Kutch won defeating Bhavanji Arjun Khimji, the strong candidate of the Congress, who had been winning since 1952. He won both the Assembly and the Lok Sabha seats. He gave up the Assembly seat. Pravinsinh Solanki, Natwarsinh Solanki’s son, who had recently returned from England, won the Lok Sabha seat from Kaira. Hirabhai Baraiya of Swatantra won the Lok Sabha seat in Dohad.  Lilavati Munshi, a Swatantra candidate from Broach constituency, lost to Chhotabhai M. Patel of Congress, despite campaigns by Rajaji and Munshi. Bhanumati Dahyabhai Patel also lost from Bhavnagar as well as Surendranagar. Among other losers of the Swatantra for the Lok Sabha elections were Maganlal Joshi from Jamnagar, Pashabhai Patel from Sabarkantha, and Ramchandra Amin from Mehsana. The Swatantra had a strong base in Kaira because of Bhaikaka and support of Kshatriyas. 

The Party did well in both the elections. In 1962 it won 26 assembly seats (6.9 % seats and 24.32 %votes in the assembly, and 4 parliamentary seats (18.18 % of seats and 24.99 % of votes). It displayed a good grip in Kutch, Central and Northern parts of Gujarat, but Saurashtra and South Gujarat were its weak points. It emerged as the alternative to the Congress in place of the PSP (Praja Socialist Party) or Janata Parishad. 

The 1963 bye-elections were important. The Swatantra contested two seats of the Lok Sabha and won both: Parshottamdas Bhil in Dohad and Minoo Masani in Rajkot. Rajkot election became the site to test the strength of the Swatantra against that of the Congress. The political climate at that time was changing. Old loyalties began to be restored and new grievances began to take place against the administration and the Congress. In 1962 some of the ex-rulers, like that of Rajkot, pushed by the Swatantra Party and the changed political climate made bold to contest against the Congress. (Maru,1965:997)

The Congress had won all the three earlier general elections in this constituency. Masani, though the General Secretary of the Party, was an outsider in Rajkot. The Congress had fielded Jethalal Joshi, a person of credibility with forty years in public life. Bhaikaka, the then President of the Swatantra Party in Gujarat, and Jaydeepsinhji, its General Secretary, brought the Patidars and the Kshatriyas together. Rightist parties like the Jan Sangh promised support. The campaign was full of excitement. Congress leaders like Indira Gandhi and Y. B. Chavan campaigned for their Party, while Rajaji, Munshi, Gayatridevi, Jan Sangh leader Atal Behari (?) Bajpai and the socialist leader J. B. Kriplani, and the Saurashtra Khedut Samaj helped the Swatantra election campaign. Bhaikaka worked with amazing zeal and skill: he mobilised workers and energised the organisation. Masani’s national image, Swatantra’s effective election strategies and the support it got from traditional interests helped the Swatantra candidate’s victory that was a blow to Nehru’s prestige. 

to be continued

"This paper was presented at the International Conference on Gujarat Society after Five decades: Retrospect and Prospects, 18-20 January 2012, Centre for Social Studies, Surat. I thank the organizers of the Conference. I thank Prof. John Wood for making available the findings of his own research including the transcripts and notes of the interviews that he had conducted of the Swatanta MLAs; Prof. Ghanshyam Shah, Prof. Howard Erdman, for their insightful comments; and my gratitude to Mr. S. V. Raju, who was Executive Secretary, Swatantra Party at its national headquarters for his support and valuable inputs. 

We publish this paper in three parts and trust post graduate political science students will find this paper of interest and politics as it is played at the ground level in our country. Ed. 


Ghanshyam Shah, Caste Association and Political Process in Gujarat: a study of Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1975. 


K. D. Desai, Emergence of the Swatantra Party in Gujarat, Journal of Gujarat Research Society, April 1963 Socio-economic Infrastructure of Gujarat Politics, and, The Swatantra Party in Gujarat Politics,  in State Politics in India, Iqbal Narain, ed., Meenakshi Prakashan, Meerut, 1967. 
Rushikesh Maru, Fall of a Traditional Congress Stronghold, Economic  Weekly, June 19 1965.





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The Swatantra Party in Gujarat - A Historical Perspective

The Swatantra Party in Gujarat : A Shooting Star

Usha Thakkar
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