To be an economic liberal in the 1970s was to be a member of a small, beleaguered minority. Indira Gandhi had ridden to near-absolute power on a populist, "pro-poor" platform; the academy and the media were full of socialists, communists and fellow-travellers; and India's place in the Cold War, and its postcolonial paranoia, meant that expressing strong opinions on any side of the capitalist-communist divide opened you up to charges of being an agent for the superpower in question. Even Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji, the last mass leader identified with liberal values, had passed on, leaving the movement headless. But, in the midst of all this, a group of intellectuals and activists persisted, doing the hard work of keeping the idea of free enterprise alive. This past week, the last of those, the Mumbai-based S V Raju, died - bringing to an end that story of struggle even as it appears India is ready for a move to the right in economic terms.
The Swatantra Party, of which Raju was a leading member, was once a force to reckon with in Indian politics. In the 1967 elections - the last with the undivided Congress - it won 44 seats, and was the largest opposition party. (The Jan Sangh, ancestor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, had 42.) In Parliament, its members thundered in favour of enterprise, freer trade and a floating rupee. Minoo Masani, once private secretary to J R D Tata, delivered speeches on the restraints imposed by the state that sound urgent and immediate even today. The party's manifesto in 1967 is a model of clarity and programmatic liberalism ("To prosperity through freedom"). This proud history has caused many to fondly imagine that there was the possibility of a liberal moment at that point, one that was tragically snuffed out by Indira Gandhi's turn to the left. But this is completely overstating the case. A closer look at the Swatantra Party reveals exactly how weak Indian liberalism in fact was. Not one of those 44 seats came from an urban constituency; most of them were the pocket boroughs of princelings, who found the Swatantra Party a congenial location from which to defend their inherited privileges. Masani and Rajaji fired their intellectual broadsides at socialism from over the shoulder of "royal" dynasts. In retrospect, it was Nehru and not Rajaji who was correct about the Swatantra Party: it was indeed a party of landowners. The true battles for economic freedom in the late 1960s were being fought within the Congress, by men like Nijalingappa and Morarji Desai.
The compromises made by the Swatantra Party caught up with the party after Indira Gandhi broke the princes' power, and Rajaji passed on. The party dissolved, and merged - like every other strand of dissent - into the Janata Party. When that coalition broke up in 1979-80, no shard comparable to the Swatantra Party emerged. But Raju kept on fighting. Party politics was only one of the methods in which he intended to preach the gospel of liberalism. His magazine Freedom First, first published in the early 1950s, and which Masani's searing columns made famous, continued to come out, surviving on Raju's labour and a few small monetary gifts. Various other organisations - the Project for Economic Education, the Indian Liberal Group - kept the fight alive.
It would seem that Raju lived just long enough to see a historical moment that indeed marked the culmination of his long struggle in the way that the late 1960s never did. The victory of the BJP in the last general elections suggested that a platform of genuine deep-seated economic liberalism was on offer. It is, however, looking increasingly likely that this would be too hopeful an estimation. Just like with the Swatantra Party, free-market rhetoric may be hung on a scaffolding of old-style politics. Raju was always a man ahead of his time - and he still is.