Divisive and fractured
THE emergence of George Fernandes as the most dependable sharpshooter of the S-Company is symptomatic of the ideological and political malaise that has afflicted Indian socialists for a long time. His interventions during the parliamentary discussion on the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, making light of the public mass rape of pregnant women and defending various acts of omission and commission of the Narendra Modi government, show the distance our home-grown socialists have traversed in their Lohia-inspired zeal of promoting anti-Congressism. This zeal has made them blind to the dangers of aligning with the openly anti-minority Hindutva brigade led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mother organization of Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh et al.
Socialists in India offer a truly bizarre picture. There is no socialist movement or socialist party worth its name (unless, of course, one is willing to accept Amar Singh as the general secretary of a socialist party!). Yet, socialists can be found almost everywhere with the sole exception of the communist parties. There are George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Digvijay Singh in Janata Dal (U), Mulayam Singh Yadav and Janeshwar Mishra in Samajwadi Party, Laloo Yadav and Shivanand Tiwari in Rashtriya Janata Dal, Vasant Sathe and N.D. Tiwari in Congress, and Chandra Shekhar in Samajwadi Janata Party, to name only a few. There are also some partyless individuals like Kishan Patnaik who are busy working at the grassroots level. In this respect, there is a great similarity between the socialists and the naxalites; both have made a virtue of splitting parties and forming groups centred around the personality of a self-proclaimed charismatic leader. Both share a pathological antipathy towards established communist parties.
Indian socialists are generally confused with West European social democrats. The close association that leaders such as Fernandes had with Socialist International has greatly helped reinforce this impression. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Social democracy in Europe was born out of the working class movement, enjoyed a long history of leading working class struggles and several of its prominent leaders were important Marxists of their time. It split after Lenin founded the Third International and communist parties were set up in various countries.
On the contrary, socialists in India organized themselves in 1934 in the form of the Congress Socialist Party as a faction within the Congress. A few like Acharya Narendra Dev were influenced by Marxism but a majority drew inspiration from Gandhian notions of social justice. However, in the mid-fifties, especially after the death of Narendra Dev, Ram Manohar Lohia emerged as the most charismatic socialist leader and influenced a generation of socialists by virtue of his personal honesty and integrity, intellectual brilliance, irreverential attitude, uncompromising nature, and utter frankness. Barring Chandra Shekhar, N.D. Tiwari and Vasant Sathe, most others who claim to be socialists today are followers of Lohia, be it Fernandes, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Yadav or Laloo Yadav.
Lohia made a transition from being a protégé of Jawaharlal Nehru to becoming his severest critic. This led him to propound the theory of all-encompassing anti-Congressism. This may have made some sense when Congress was enjoying an uninterrupted rule at the Centre and in a majority of states but hardly now when the party has been considerably weakened. Still, Mulayam Singh Yadav chose, as late as on 16 June this year, to make a statement that socialists have always been against the Congress and would not hesitate to continue in their opposition to that party. George Fernandes too justifies his association with the Hindutva forces in the name of anti-Congressism.
However, Madhu Limaye, who dedicated his book Socialist-Communist Interaction in India to George Fernandes on his 60th birthday, wrote about Lohia’s policy of non-Congressism in its concluding chapter: ‘This policy of course demonstrated that it could destroy the Congress monopoly for power, but it bred opportunism and lust for power and contaminated the springs of idealism and self-sacrifice on which the edifice of the Socialist movement had been raised.’
The ease with which our socialists gravitate towards the Sangh is baffling to many but if one looks at the analytical schema employed by Lohia to understand world history, its inevitability becomes amply clear. In 1963, four years before his death, Lohia, in the Preface to his book Marx, Gandhi and Socialism, wrote: ‘Nearly hundred and fifty years ago, there were nine coloured persons to every white in all the world. What was nine to one has already changed to two to one. Of three billion persons in all the world, two are coloured and one is white. The process is not yet halted. The Russian and American rate of reproduction is higher than any in Asia. The smug belief that increasing prosperity and maturity of economy leads necessarily to a shrinking birth rate is proved to have been wrong. If the Russians and Americans go on reproducing themselves at the present rate indefinitely against the background of the current rates of reproduction in Asia and elsewhere, the whites would outnumber the coloureds. In the context of a catastrophe, the whites might occupy the earth all by themselves.’ Does this ring a bell? Substitute ‘white’ with Muslim and ‘coloured’ with Hindu and you might well be reading an excerpt from an RSS pamphlet.
The propensity to view world history in terms of the exploitation of the coloured peoples by the whites led Lohia to the conclusion that ‘Marxism is Europe’s weapon against Asia.’ It may be mentioned that Lohia spent some years in Germany during the early 1930s when Hitler and his National Socialism were on the rise. Perhaps, he was influenced by the German intellectual environment of those times, imbibed the idea of explaining historical events in terms of antagonistic interplay between different races, and viewing Marxism as a conspiracy.
It was T. Prakasam of the Praja Socialist Party, a hugely popular leader hailed as Andhra Kesari, who set an example of political opportunism in 1953 by leaving the party in order to become the first chief minister of the newly constituted Andhra Pradesh with Congress support. In the past fifty years, socialists of all hues have matched their counterparts in other parties in this game. George Fernandes set a new record in political immorality when he defended the Morarji Desai government by making a brilliant speech in the Lok Sabha in July 1979 and joining the topplers of the same government the next day.
The topplers, led by Charan Singh and inspired by Madhu Limaye, wanted the members of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh to relinquish their membership of the RSS. When Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani refused to oblige, the Janata Party split and the Morarji Desai government fell. However, less than ten years later, when V.P. Singh raised the banner of revolt against Rajiv Gandhi, the same Limaye was busy advising opposition leaders that the BJP could not be ignored and should be included in the anti-Congress alliance.
Caste was another distinguishing feature of Lohia’s thinking. While the communists ignored this typically Indian phenomenon placing exclusive emphasis on class, Lohia overemphasized its importance. He became a strong advocate of reservations not only for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, but also for other backward castes. His caste-based analysis of Indian society provided a theoretical justification to the emergence of caste leaders and his most prominent followers such as Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes ended up playing second fiddle to a caste leader like Charan Singh. Subsequently, the next generation of socialists produced leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav who consolidated their political position primarily as caste leaders of Yadavs and Kurmis.
The anti-Congressism of the Lohia variety is in tatters today, especially after the formation of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre. The socialists are as usual dispersed among various political parties. They have largely forgotten the example set by leaders such as Lohia and Limaye who were second to none in terms of their honesty, integrity and spartan living. They have also repudiated the anti-corruption legacy of the JP movement to which many of them owe their political existence and identity.
Socialists qua socialists are no political force today. Those, like Mulayam Singh Yadav, who still claim to be socialists and invoke Lohia’s name to claim respectability for their actions have nothing to do with the basic ideals of socialism such as equitable redistribution of wealth and social ownership of means of production.
The caste and community alliances so assiduously built by Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh face the danger of getting dented. Following the example of Charan Singh, he forged an alliance with other backward castes and the Muslims. To keep his flock together, he fiercely opposed the BJP and the other Hindutva forces and earned the support and respect of the minority community. However, the way he formed his government with tacit support from the BJP and allowed the much-discredited speaker of the UP assembly, Kesari Nath Tripathi, to continue, sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of his Muslim supporters.
The upswing in the Congress fortunes is a factor that might upset Yadav’s political calculations. However, if the Congress shakes hands with Mayawati, Yadav may make some desperate moves. Since politics is supposed to be the art of the impossible, one should not be surprised if he, who was derisively called Maulana Mulayam by BJP leaders, who never fought shy of making a show of how intensely they despised him, ends up in the arms of his declared political foes.
On the other hand, it is not clear if the National Democratic Alliance will be able to hold together. Much will depend on what course of action the BJP decides to adopt following its dismal defeat. If it tries to go back to its core contentious issues, its allies may not be able to stick with it. The JD(U) and the Trinamool Congress have already expressed their view that the Gujarat riots cost the NDA dearly. Yet, there is no imminent threat to the NDA and a realignment of socialists seems to be a far cry at the moment.
Madhu Limaye had realized that the schism between the communist and socialist movements had done harm to both. Towards the end of his life, he had started advocating that the two streams should come closer and work in tandem. ‘The future,’ he wrote, ‘seems to be bleak. The time is running out for the forces of socialism in India. The communists must wake up to the need of getting rid of ideological shibboleths, and the socialists – to whichever party they belong at present – quickly liberate themselves from the coils of power politics. Unless both come together and take drastic steps towards the creation of a new movement and a new broad-based party of socialist democracy or democratic socialism, socialism would be wholly marginalized in the coming decades.’
Thirteen years have passed since he wrote these lines but his socialist colleagues have not paid heed to his advice. No concerted effort has been made so far to bridge the gulf between socialists and communists. On the contrary, his close comrade George Fernandes has joined hands not with the communists but with Hindu communalists.
Among the socialists, the only non-caste leader of any consequence happens to be Fernandes. Other senior leaders like Janeshwar Mishra, once called ‘Chhota Lohia’ (Junior Lohia) have faded into insignificance and been overtaken by Johny-come-latelys like Amar Singh in the Samajwadi Party. Even Fernandes has been gradually losing ground to Kurmi leader Nitish Kumar and their feud within the Samata Party has become part of political folklore.
While the socialist movement was an all-India phenomenon till the 1970s, the socialists of today are confined to their various regions. Mulayam Singh Yadav does not count in Bihar while Laloo Yadav cannot boast of any following in UP. Nitish Kumar’s influence too is limited to his state, Bihar. This constraint naturally restricts the vision and worldview of these leaders who think in all-India terms only when the itch to become prime minister becomes irresistible.
At the moment, despite various hiccups, Mulayam Singh Yadav is trying hard not to differ from the line of action advised by the left parties, especially the CPI(M). It is difficult to predict how long this will last as he seems rattled by the unpleasant noises being made by Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, regarding the future of his government. In Bihar, Laloo Yadav has secured the support of the left parties and forged a social alliance of backward castes – primarily Yadavs – and Muslims. His record of maintaining communal harmony is also exemplary. But it would be too much to expect the two Yadav leaders to make common cause with the communist parties and initiate joint social and political actions.
Any ideology that cuts across caste barriers – be it Hindutva or class justice – is unlikely to suit the socialist-turned-caste leaders. It appears certain that our socialists will remain a divided lot in the foreseeable future and one cannot realistically expect from them a concerted attempt to revive and strengthen the socialist movement.