Are any socialists left in Indian politics?

Oct 13, 2020 06:16 AM IST

Socialists were once austere, uninterested in personal power, free-spirited. The era is gone

Ab ke hum bikhare to khawabon mein miley/ Jaise sookhe hue phool kitabon mein miley (Scattering now, we may meet but in dreams/Like dried flowers found within books’ seams) — Maqbool

Narendra Deva, Jayaprakash Narayan (above), Kamaladevi, Ram Manohar Lohia and their colleagues were hugely attractive personally but also hugely fragile politically(HTPHOTO)
Narendra Deva, Jayaprakash Narayan (above), Kamaladevi, Ram Manohar Lohia and their colleagues were hugely attractive personally but also hugely fragile politically(HTPHOTO)

Ram Vilas Paswan’s death raises a pertinent question — are there any socialists left in Indian politics? This would make some wonder if he was indeed a socialist. A look at his career graph shows that he had socialist origins, beliefs and affiliations. And it would help answer the question of whether India’s socialists belong to the pages of dry-as-dust history.

To be sure, there are many individuals who are doing what old-style socialism would want to see done for India’s working classes, peasantry and the new phenomenon of migrant labour. We have the examples of Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, Bezwada Wilson, Yogendra Yadav, P Sainath. I have mentioned but a few representative names; there are many more of the same league of determination and dedication. And then we have, of course, the countless diligent labour unions in the field and there is the doughty institution of the Kisan Sabha.

But by the question “are there any socialists left in Indian politics?” I refer to socialists in party politics, offering electoral options, political alternatives in policymaking, seeking and getting — or failing to get — voter-support for what the Constitution of India calls justice — social, economic and political. And the resounding answer is — no, not any longer.

Samajwadi — socialist — as a name and style lives in the nomenclature of political parties as, indeed, it does in the preamble to our Constitution. But the old-school socialist of the mould of Acharya Narendra Deva, Jayaprakash Narayan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Rammanohar Lohia, Asoka Mehta, Madhu Dandavate, Mrinal Gore, SM Joshi, George Fernandes, Madhu Limaye, has become a kitab-ka-phool.

Socialists are now only encountered in chronicles of our freedom struggle, the histories of the Congress Socialist Party, the Socialist Party, the Praja Socialist Party, the Samyukta Socialist Party.

Inspired and inspiring men and women committed to an egalitarian social order, a democratic political regime and a non-monopolist economic system, who do not believe in violent revolution, are to be found, of course, in the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But my question is not about the Indian communist, who is quite distinct from the Indian socialist.

Who, then, was the Indian socialist? First, the Indian socialist was an individualist, a free-spirit, who prized individual liberty as much as social equality. Second, while wanting “power for the people”, the Indian socialist was totally uninterested, personally, in holding office.

Third, while differing from Gandhi on the subject of trusteeship as an alternative to socialism, the Indian socialist held Gandhi in esteem, intellectually, and in affection, personally. And did not allow that from impeding other influences such as that of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Four, the Indian socialist was axiomatically a person of great personal probity, living a simple, even spartan life.

Five, the Indian socialist was a thinker first, a doer next and a strategist, if at all, only a distant third. And this role of thinker had in it a natural-born propensity to feel outraged. Not for the Indian socialist the calm mind, the steely nerve. The Indian socialist could and did boil over.

These five qualities made Narendra Deva, JP, Kamaladevi, Lohia and their colleagues hugely attractive personally but also hugely fragile politically. It brought them admirers and even adherents but did not help create party apparatuses, did not draw funding of the order that Congress or the Jana Sangh and later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and many regional parties under supremos could and did attract.

And I must mention two other features — one, may be called personal and the other “philosophical”. The Indian socialist was Gandhian enough to wear khadi but, unlike many khadidharis, did not let the starch of pelf stiffen its soft folds. The philosophical quality in the Indian socialist was the absence of the fear of defeat. One might even say the Indian socialist had a defeat-wish. Those among them who had a touch of the survivor in them allowed themselves the option of co-option. They survived politically but perished philosophically. The result? Savour remained, the salt evaporated. Stature crowned but success eluded the Indian socialist. A propensity to be outraged is what we received from the Indian socialist. That, today, requires a tragedy of indescribable dimensions, such as the Hathras rape, to ignite it.

The Indian socialist was not a politician who could think but a thinker who was in politics. Socialism is not a creed, any more than Left is a place. It is a direction, coming from what Gandhi called the inner voice. And that is what has turned into a pressed flower in the pages of history

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed are personal


    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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