We are approaching the 50th anniversary of a major, even tectonic shift in Indian politics that took place in early 1967. In February of that year, the Congress lost power in six states and also posted its worst-ever performance till then in the Lok Sabha under the new Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Barely a few months in power, she was dealing with slow economic growth and also bitter internecine fights within the Congress as her deputy Morarji Desai and the rest of the old guard – later collectively called the Syndicate – could not stomach the fact that their ‘goongi gudiya’ had turned out to be a strong and imperious leader.
The losses in the elections threatened to weaken her position to which she reacted with her characteristic confidence, fighting back and seizing the initiative within two years, the Congress had split and the oldies were cast into history’s dustbin. Indira Gandhi emerged as the supreme leader of her party and led it to a spectacular victory in 1971.
But that was to come later. In the mid-1960s, she and her party were faced with an emerging political threat that shook the Congress, the pre-eminent party on the Indian political scene with almost no competition from any quarter.
The disparate, non-Congress opposition, too fragmented to be of any threat, was brought together by the Ram Manohar Lohia, a bitter critic of Jawaharlal Nehru and later, of his daughter. It was Lohia who devised the notion of anti-Congressism, which, despite the grand old party’s situation today, has not entirely vanished. Madhu Limaye, a social stalwart, had tried to modify this by arguing that communalism was the greater danger and all secular forces needed to come together to fight it, but as was seen, anti-Congressism has long been the leitmotif of Indian politics. Even today, it lingers on among some socialists, Swarajists and even leftists.
While the BJP’s Congress-Mukt Bharat is a strategic ploy to make the Congress irrelevant in the electoral stakes and to emerge as the only national party, ‘anti-Congressism’ became an ideology in itself. Scratch a socialist of the old school and that virulent strain, embedded there by Lohia’s ideas, shows up immediately.
Lohia was obsessed with the idea of anti-Congressism. He tried to bring about unity among the various socialist groups and for a while even succeeded. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the socialists kept on breaking and reforming under various heads. The Praja Socialist Party and the Lohia-led Socialist Party merged in 1964 but it did not last too long. The PSP’s somewhat weak leaders objected to Lohia’s crusade against the English language but they couldn’t stand up to his energetic personality.
In 1967, only eight of the 16 states that went to elections returned the Congress. In Tamil Nadu, a new force, the DMK emerged and since then, Dravida politics has closed off the space for the Congress. The Left took over power in West Bengal and held on to it for over three decades. In Kerala, the Congress won just one seat in the assembly elections.
But not all was well within the new groups that Lohia put together. In UP, the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal government’s bitterest critics were the Lohiates – among them a young, rising star called Mulayam Singh Yadav. Lohia died in 1967, but his legatees are still very much with us, spouting not just his socialist and anti-English theories but also – 50 years later – as fractious as ever, as the intra-Yadav clan fight in UP shows.
History is useful in understanding today’s politics. In Uttar Pradesh, the socialists morphed into casteists, seizing the opportunity that came their way when the Mandal Commission report was accepted by a floundering V P Singh. The Lohiates were in the forefront, grabbing the vast vote banks that suddenly became theirs almost overnight by a sheer stroke of luck. Now, with the caste vote assured, they have grown, like the Samajwadi Party, into family corporations, any notion of socialism left long behind.
Lip service is paid occasionally to Lohia, but one key lesson of those times – opposition unity – has been forgotten. From 1977 onwards, when the Janata Party was birthed in extraordinary circumstances, many a Front has come and gone. The socialists were part of all of them as was the BJP, either as a joiner or a supporter. But the BJP, with a strategic goal in mind, continued to grow. Today the BJP has no legitimate opposition at the national level. Like the Congress of old, it is aiming to become a broad umbrella, which will include its core Hindutva supporters (upper castes) and many other constituencies, including the urban middle-class which may not be otherwise attracted to the more extremist Sanghi views. It would like to bring in Dalits, OBCs and even the minorities within the fold, but is limited by the fact that it wants all of them to sign up for the Hindutva project or at least accept its supremacy.
The only way to counter that is to create an even broader opposition front. Lohia assembled an unlikely coalition that consisted of the Jan Sangh and the socialists. Today’s version should theoretically be easier to cobble together, since there is broad ideological agreement among most small parties. The Mahagathbandhan of the Congress, Nitish Kumar and RJD is one example of this new pragmatism, but it remains at the state level.
As long as the Opposition parties do not come together – and the Congress has to be part of such a coalition – the BJP cannot be dislodged, even if there is growing disappointment with its performance. But in a scenario where the socialists are fighting among themselves, the Left cannot still find it in itself to shake hands with the Congress and the Congress itself remains incoherent about what it stands for, the BJP has nothing to worry about.
Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.