The death of Mulayam Singh Yadav should have invited some reflection on a deeper question: what is the relevance of the Indian socialist tradition in our times? It so happened that his cremation took place on 11 October, the 120th birth anniversary of socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, and a day before the 55th death anniversary of Mulayam’s political guru Rammanohar Lohia. This is also an occasion for the legatees of this tradition to rethink their role in the present and future.
If there was one thing consistent about Mulayam Singh’s political life, it was his self-identification with the socialist tradition. From the ‘Samajwadi’ name of his party to his insistence on the red cap of the socialist movement, his position against English dominance and his invocation of Rammanohar Lohia, he remained a ‘socialist’ all his life. True, many of his old associates would say that his socialism was all form and little substance. But that is all the more reason why we should debate the legacy of the Indian socialist movement.
Indians’ alienation with socialism
This political tradition does not figure anywhere on the radar of the young Indians today. They face ‘Hindutva’ all the time. They hear about liberals, Leftists, Naxalites, feminists, Gandhians and environmentalists. But ask them about socialists, and you would draw a blank. Or they might think of it as a synonym of communism. Educated Indian is more likely to associate socialism with Bernie Sanders than with the homegrown political tradition associated with stalwarts like Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Deva, Yusuf Meherally, Madhu Limaye, George Fernandes and Kishen Pattnayak.
Even those who recognise socialism as distinct from communism do not understand the unique nature of the Indian socialist movement. Like democratic socialists all over the world, the Indian socialists opposed both the capitalist inequalities and communist dictatorship. But unlike democratic socialist parties in Europe and the rest of the world, Indian socialism was not merely a watered- down, pinkish version of the communist Left. Their immersion in the freedom struggle and their encounter with Gandhi transformed their ideas and politics. Thus Indian socialism is not just the Indian version of democratic socialism. It is a distinct political ideology that combined the quest for economic equality with caste and gender-based justice, political and economic decentralisation, cultural decolonisation and non-violent resistance. Indian socialism was an indigenous socialism.
Why socialism’s relevant today
Why must we recall the forgotten history of a bygone era? Mainly because this politically weak and fragmented movement is in a unique position to rejuvenate politics of resistance today. The socialists are naturally opposed to capitalist inequalities and oppression; this has become more relevant in the context of sharp rise of billionnaiares in the amid rising impoverishment. But let us focus here on the special contribution of the socialists. Indian socialist tradition offers three unique resources critical to the political challenge to our republic. Those who wish to resist the ongoing assault on the foundations of our constitutional democracy can draw upon these three lessons for course correction.
First, Indian socialists were firmly nationalists. In fact, this was their foundational difference with the Communist Party of India. While the Communists had a love-hate relationship with the Indian freedom struggle, the socialists firmly placed themselves within the national movement led by the Congress. Theirs was not a narrow, parochial nationalism. The socialists were leading voices of the positive and forward-looking nationalism that bonded with anti-colonial struggles all over the world. After Independence, their nationalism was mainly about nation-building, communal amity and independent foreign policy, but they did not shy away from critiquing Nehru’s China policy that led to the debacle of 1962. Today, as the BJP-RSS invoke nationalism to defend chauvinist politics of imagined enemies outside and inside the country, the liberals and Leftists are caught on the wrong foot. You cannot take on BJP’s aggressive nationalism with the help of an abstract internationalism; positive nationalism of Indian socialists can be the effective antidote to the fake, bigoted nationalism being perpetuated today.
Related to that is the position of politics of cultural self-respect. The BJP flaunts its pride in the Indian (read Hindu) civilization and culture. It appeals to the self-respect of every Indian by symbolic acts of erasure of colonial past. It surreptitiously extends the boundaries of colonial past to include Muslim rulers. It gives reasons, real and imagined, to celebrate the glory of ancient Indian civilization. It appeals to a large constituency by attacking the dominance of English. Critics of the BJP point out that much of this is empty posturing, that this symbolism is trite and that the history they invoke is fake. But they do not offer alternative reasons for cultural self-respect. Their defence of English sounds elitist, if not colonial. Indian socialists offer a distinctly indigenous response that affirms our civilizational heritage in our own terms. Their critique of the dominance of English, without endorsing the hegemony of Hindi, offers an alternative cultural politics. Their empathy for religion, rather than a contemptuous dismissal of an atheist, provides the possibility of a dialogue with an ordinary believing Indian.
The third element is the socialist politics of social justice, especially their opposition to caste-based inequalities. Besides Ambedkar, the Indian socialists were among the first ones to recognise caste as the principal vector of inequality in Indian society. They raised the demand for affirmative action for the “backwards” (for Lohia, this category included SC, ST, OBC, Minorities and Women). Socialist parties were the moving force behind the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations. In North India, the rise of OBC leaders like Mulayam Singh was made possible by the socialist movement. Today, that legacy is of utmost importance, as Dalit-Bahujan unity can become the bulwark against the current onslaught. Socialist movement provides the ideological and political basis for the widest unity of all disadvantaged sectors of society.
While the legacy of the socialist movement can play a critical role, would the legatees of this movement play this historic role? Socialists have had a glorious record of resisting all forms of oppression and authoritarianism in post-independence India. In the haydays of the socialist movement, the Congress represented the establishment the former opposed. So their anti-establishment stance took the form of anti-Congressism. Like most socialists of his generation, Mulayam Singh Yadav was also known as a staunch critic of the Congress. Some ex-socialists have used “anti-Congressism” to justify joining hands with the BJP. The legatees of the socialist movement today need to revise this stance, when the BJP is the face of the establishment that seeks to suppress constitutional democracy and the very foundations of India’s unity. Indian socialism has had a glorious past; it can have a glorious future only if it takes a new birth.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)