Within a decade of India’s Independence it was becoming clear that the country lacked an effective opposition party. Devout patriots were becoming disenchanted with the Congress party’s way of doing things and clamored for an alternative. But none could be built for decades. Until the recent rise of the BJP party. But now the BJP is rapidly becoming the single-party that ‘rules’ the entire country.
This is due to the inherent nature of India’s system of government. Power can be so centralized in a few hands in this system that a ‘ruling’ party can decimate all opposition.
This is not befitting a great democracy. Historian Ramchandra Guha has just unearthed a letter written in 1961 by JRD Tata to Jawaharlal Nehru making this very point (see below). A single-party dominance “contains the seeds of trouble and risk in the future,” he told Nehru.
A few years later Tata began to openly advocate switching India to the presidential system of government. “Presidential democracy will free the country from the grip of professional politicians,” he declared. Tata remained a proponent of the presidential system for the rest of his life. (Please see more of his comments.)
Guha’s full write up in a recent issue of The Hindustan Times…
When JRD Tata called for a strong Opposition
JRD Tata wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru that in the absence of a constructive Opposition, the only option for patriots opposed to the Congress was ‘either to go into the political wilderness where their services will be lost to the country or turn to the Communist Party or some equally undesirable extremist party
By Ramchandra Guha
On May 15, 1961, the politician C Rajagopalachari wrote to the industrialist JRD Tata, asking him to support the newly-formed Swatantra Party. A patriot of impeccable pedigree, ‘Rajaji’ had started Swatantra to provide effective opposition to the ruling Congress party, which he saw as insensitive to economic and political realities, and dominated by a single individual (Jawaharlal Nehru). Rajaji knew the House of Tatas had long funded the Congress, but, as he now told JRD Tata, ‘even if you help the ruling party with funds for its political and electioneering activities, it would also be just and proper for you to help a party that seeks to build an efficient check on its errors’. Rajaji told JRD that were the Tatas to fund Swatantra in addition to Congress, it would be a patriotic duty, for ‘no democracy governs well in the absence of a strong opposition…’.
The Tatas decided to fund Swatantra, in the hope that, as JRD Tata told Rajaji, ‘India’s political life develops in a truly democratic way around two main opposing Parties, neither of which would be to the extreme Left or the extreme Right’. JRD also wrote directly to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressing his concern at ‘the total absence of an responsible and organised democratic opposition’ to the dominant Congress party.
‘I am one of those’, wrote JRD Tata to Nehru in this remarkable letter, ‘who believes that the single party regime under which we have lived since Independence has been up to now a good thing for the country as it has provided the stability and the means of concentrating the national energies and resources on orderly development, which would have been impossible without a strong and continuing administration.’ But ‘even you will agree’, said JRD to Nehru, that if single party dominance continued ‘indefinitely this situation contains the seeds of trouble and risk in the future. However good any political party and its administration may be, it is inevitable that people will ultimately want a change and that some elements in the political life of the country will come to disagree with some of the Congress Party’s policies and seek the means of trying out their own ideas’.
JRD Tata pointed out that in the absence of a constructive Opposition, the only option for patriots opposed to the Congress was ‘either to go into the political wilderness where their services will be lost to the country or turn to the Communist Party or some equally undesirable extremist party’. The Tatas had thus concluded that it was ‘indispensable in the national interest that an effort should be made to displace the Communist Party as the second largest party in Parliament’. The party most suited for this role was Swatantra, for, apart from its commitment to individual rights and the promotion of private enterprise, the leaders of this party, ‘while conservative in outlook, are not reactionary or communal or extreme rightists’.
And so, JRD told Nehru, the Tatas had decided that ‘in addition to continued support to the election funds of the Congress we should also contribute, although on a lower scale, to the funds of the Swatantra Party’.
Nehru replied to JRD almost immediately. While willing to modify his views with experience, he believed that so long as the policies of the Congress ‘are beneficial to the people of India, I must continue to follow them’. Then Nehru came to the question of party funding. ‘You are, of course, completely free to help in any way you like the Swatantra Party’, he said, before adding: ‘But I do not think that your hope that the Swatantra Party will emerge as a strong Opposition is justified. I think it will be disappointed at the turn of the next General Elections. It seems to be that it has no roots in the thinking of either the masses of India or the greater part of the intelligentsia…’.
It is noteworthy that Nehru replied so courteously to J. R. D. Tata, respecting his decision while defending his own policies. Some other Indian Prime Ministers may have reacted rather differently to the head of an industrial house seeking to fund a ‘responsible and organized’ Opposition to the ruling party.
The Tata/Nehru correspondence of 1961 seems strikingly relevant today, at a time when Narendra Modi’s BJP has become the dominant force in Indian politics, displaying in the process the same arrogance that Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress once did. But can one imagine an Ambani or Adani writing to Modi in the manner that J. R. D. Tata wrote to Nehru, declaring that, in the larger interests of Indian democracy, they would fund another party in addition to the BJP? Of course not. There is no Indian industrialist alive today who has the political sagacity or moral courage of J. R. D. Tata. No industrialist now would have the guts to tell the Prime Minister so frankly that he, his party, and his Government were not flawless or perfect.
Like Nehru in his pomp, Modi today leads a party whose political dominance is far too excessive for the health of our democracy. But who will have the charisma and staying power to mobilise and lead a credible, non-sectarian (and preferably non-dynastic) Opposition to the BJP? And who will have the courage to come forward to fund it? On the answers to these questions much depends, for, as Rajaji pointed out all those years ago, ‘no democracy governs well in the absence of a strong opposition’.
This article was first published on Hindustan Times on 24 September 2017