As the internecine strife in the Samajwadi Party played out last weekend, the BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu quipped that the socialist parties “unite in the morning, divide in the afternoon, operate in the evening, and separate at night”. A veteran of the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the mid-1970s, Naidu presumably knows whereof he speaks. But a closer look at the history of socialist parties shows that the ongoing convulsion is qualitatively different from those of the past. And these differences underscore the fundamental challenge confronting the Samajwadi Party.
The Congress Socialist Party (CSP) formed in 1934 reflected the dissatisfaction of the younger Congress workers — JP and Rammanohar Lohia among others — with their party’s conservatism on social and economic questions. The CSP sought to act as a pressure group within the Congress. But its decision to take in the Communists proved disastrous. As the latter tried to push the CSP in a more radical direction, the first schisms appeared in the party.
After Independence, the socialists were forced to rethink their relationship with the Congress. And it remained a thorny issue over the following decades. In 1948, JP and others left the Congress and started the Socialist Party (SP). Three years later, another group of Congressmen led by JB Kripalani formed the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party (KMPP). Both the SP and the KMPP were unhappy with the Congress’ conservative leadership, notwithstanding Jawaharlal Nehru’s progressive outlook. But their poor showing in the first general elections led them to combine in 1952 to form the Praja Socialist Party (PSP).
Within three years, Lohia left to form his own Socialist Party. The move was prompted by his substantive differences with the PSP leadership. Lohia found the PSP insufficiently militant in its opposition to the Congress. This came to the fore during party’s lukewarm support for his efforts in 1954 to mobilise farmers in Uttar Pradesh against the hike in the price of canal water. Further, there were ideological disagreements over the relative importance of caste (emphasised by Lohia) and class in Indian politics. Despite periodic calls for socialist unity, these differences widened over the following decade.
Personalities aside, there were important issues in contention. The PSP opposed Lohia’s decision to work with the Jana Sangh in the by-elections of 1963 and his call for extending such an alliance to include the Swatantra Party and the Communists. Then there was Lohia’s insistence on doing away with English in both the central and state governments. Finally there was Lohia’s demand for reservations for the backward classes as well as the SCs and STs. Although the two parties merged in May 1964 to form the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), a section of old PSP leaders peeled away to retain their identity.
Both the SSP and PSP managed to perform better in the 1967 election and joined the anti-Congress coalition — Samyukta Vidhayak Dal — governments. By this time another strand of socialist politics was crystallising. Charan Singh’s decision to leave the Congress and form his own party marked the rise to prominence of a new form politics that underscored the gulf between the peasant and town-dwellers, rural and urban India. Although Charan Singh was a Jat, he sought to project a broad peasant identity that subsumed several lower and upper castes.
The coming together of the Lohiaite and kisan politics could be seen in the career of the young, first-time MLA from Charan Singh’s party who had come to political consciousness during Lohia’s canal rate agitation: Mulayam Singh Yadav. It was also evident in the merger in 1974 of a section of the SSP with Charan Singh’s party to form the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD). More importantly, the BLD now embraced the Lohiaite demand for reservation for backward classes.
The JP movement against Indira Gandhi once again brought together socialists of various hues and the Hindu nationalists. After the Emergency, they combined to form the Janata Party that dislodged Gandhi from power. This short-lived government awaits its historian, but popular accounts tend to harp on the socialists’ habitual squabbling without taking into account the serious issues that rent the party: The appointment of the second Backward Classes Commission led by BP Mandal; Charan Singh’s push for reorienting economic policy towards rural India; and the links between Janata members from the Jana Sangh and RSS.
The Janata Dal of the 1980s also fissured on similar issues, especially the implementation of the Mandal Commission report and the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. The shadow of family politics also began to lengthen over the socialists — especially with Charan Singh and his protégé Devi Lal.
The parties that came out of the wreckage of the Janata Dal in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar benefited enormously from the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report and the upper castes’ opposition to it. The consolidation of an OBC political identity was a remarkable achievement. But 25 years on, the Samajwadi Party is left with little more than caste politics dominated by the Yadavs and buttressed by money and muscle.
It is tempting to think that Akhilesh Yadav’s platform of “development” is an attempt to pull back from this cul-de-sac. But the record of the past five years is not encouraging — to put it mildly. The ongoing power struggle is a far cry from the substantive political and ideological tussles of the past. Their absence signals the challenges looming ahead of the Samajwadi Party, irrespective of who wins this round.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal