New Delhi: Last month when Nitish Kumar took oath for the eighth time as the chief minister of Bihar, yet again with Congress as one of his allies, his professed ideology — Lohiaism, rooted firmly in anti-Congressism — was sacrificed once more at the altar of political pragmatism.
While the idea of an India without Congress, or “Congress-mukt Bharat”, may now be irrevocably associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, it could just as well have been the calling card of the motley group of which Nitish was a member, that first challenged the grand old party in the 1960s and ’70s. Most of them now find themselves inside a political galaxy centred around the Congress party.
In contrast to their ideological mentor Ram Manohar Lohia, those leaders scaled far greater heights of success in electoral politics.
Among the prominent faces that were once a part of the political caucus known as Lohiaites, only one is currently the elected head of a state — Nitish Kumar. Though he is not the only one among fellow Lohiaites (or their political successors, almost always family members) flirting with ideological contradictions and facile alliances.
The once-firebrand Sharad Yadav is now wishing success to the Congress for its ongoing ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, and Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag is negotiating terms for his Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to return to the fold of the BJP-led NDA, having been driven to the opposite side since 2020.
Satya Pal Malik is an NDA-nominated governor who has occasionally refused to toe the stringent political line laid down by his party, the BJP, while former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, who began his political life as a member of various Janata factions, reached the pinnacle of his political career as a Congress leader.
There is one common thread though — across the political spectrum, from Lalu Prasad Yadav to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav, Lohiaites have largely been vocal in their opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill.
“There was Lohiaite ideology and there were the inspired political claimants, the ones we currently categorise as Lohiaites. They are a fractured fragmented lot. There is one lot that is continuing with the OBC and social justice politics, a splinter that has gravitated towards the Congress, and a third that has moved towards the BJP. Then there are some academics with Lohiaite leanings who joined the AAP and then moved out. The basis issue is that politics no longer is that of ideology, it is of pragmatism,” political commentator Badri Narayan Tiwari tells ThePrint.
Legacy of Ram Manohar Lohia
Lohia started his political innings as a Congressman, but emerged as the principal opponent of Nehruvian ideas after quitting the party in 1948.
During his stint as a doctoral student in Germany, he derived his core idea of socialism from the social and democratic ethos of Western Europe. His ideas spawned a whole generation of politicians who, in the pre-BJP era, were the only political alternatives to the Congress in the face of receding Left influence in their respective states.
Lohia, interestingly, is remembered most often for his misjudged description in Parliament of Indira Gandhi as “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) in the first few years of her initial tenure as the Prime Minister of India.
In his 2018 article ‘Caste Politics in Bihar: In Historical Continuum’, Rakesh Ankit, then a lecturer at Loughborough University, England, had described Lohiaism as thus: “Within his ‘New Socialism’, Lohia retained Liberal Populism and Gandhism but replaced Marxism with his own understanding (since called ‘Lohia-ism’), which linked the continuing caste and social-assertion movements of the backwards with the socialists. In so doing, he recognised a home-truth of Bihar Politics, as The Indian Nation re-affirmed fifty years ago: ‘The general impression is that almost everyone is casteist’.”
Lohia’s slogan, “pichhda pave sau mein saath” (60 per cent of opportunities for the backwards), laid the ground for several decades of politics centred around reservation.
“Congress, in those days, derived its support mainly from Brahmins, Muslims and SCs — Harijans. There was little representation of the farming and cattle rearing communities like the Jats, Gujjars, etc., the ones that we currently know as OBCs. Lohia attempted to form an alliance of these castes and the idea has been in Indian politics since the 1960s and culminated in the Mandal Commission,” says journalist Dilip Mondol.
Mondol adds, “But over the years, OBC politics took different hues in North and South India. In North India, it harmed states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but in the South, the focus on development, health and education served those states well.”
The original tenets of Lohiaism have been replaced by contemporary political exigencies, taking the inheritors of Lohia’s political legacy far away from what he had preached.
ThePrint takes stock of what the self-proclaimed Lohiaites are up to across states.
The Bihar Chief Minister has gained a reputation for performing the most ideological flip-flops among all his fellow Lohiaites, with the sole exception perhaps of the late Ram Vilas Paswan.
Nitish first entered the NDA fold in 1996, subsequently becoming a minister in the Vajpayee government in 1998. He remained with the BJP — in many ways the ideological opposite of Lohiaism with its then predominantly urban, upper-caste base even though its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, was one of the elements that made up the Janata Party post emergency — for a good 17 years, becoming the chief minister of Bihar with its support.
He walked out of the NDA only in 2013, citing his unhappiness about the communal past of BJP’s then prime ministerial hopeful, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
He has since returned to the BJP, locked horns with his one-time ideological colleague Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), become chief minister with the support of RJD and Congress, dumped them in favour of BJP and then returned to the RJD-Congress fold again.
Nitish has made firm believers out of Bihari women, who constitute a major chunk of his poll base, with the prohibition law. With a majority of OBCs in Bihar in RJD’s corner, Nitish coined terms such as Mahadalit (poorest among Dalits), luring them with land, jobs, radio sets and spectacles. He also created political capital by reaching out to Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) comprising groups such as Nishads/Sahnis, Mandals and Kahars, among others.
Much like his colleagues, Yadav, a Parliamentarian of several decades, has moved from anti-Congressism to anti-BJP-ism but is currently in search of his own space. Earlier this year, he merged his party (Loktantrik Janata Dal) with the RJD. Yadav’s name is synonymous with his derisive description of short-haired women as “parkati auratein” (cut off women) and his strident opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill.
In 2009, he had even threatened to kill himself should the Bill pass.
Yadav is also known for his occasional bouts of misogyny. In 2015, while talking about the Insurance Bill in the Rajya Sabha, he used a reference to the “dark” South-Indian women and their bodies.
Ailing now, Yadav attended the RJD state council meeting earlier this week during his first visit to Patna in a long time.
Mulayam Singh Yadav
The Samajwadi Party patriarch had maintained his strong hold on his caste base till his party was swept out of power in Uttar Pradesh by a BJP juggernaut, first in 2017 and then again in 2022. For much of his political career, Yadav, too, opposed both English and computers. Both were a part of the party’s election manifesto as late as 2009 when Yadav also promised to bring corporate pay at par with government salaries.
But as pragmatism hit home in 2012, and also perhaps under the influence of Yadav’s Australia-educated son, Akhilesh, SP promised free laptops for students. The party formed the government in Uttar Pradesh later that year, dethroning Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati.
In 2022, Akhilesh made free laptops his calling card not just during the election campaign but also later. Having travelled far from its anti-Congress roots, SP even fought the 2017 Assembly elections in alliance with the Congress, though it ended in a defeat and much bitterness between the two largely dynasty-run parties.
The SP had extended support to the UPA government earlier, most notably during the vote on the nuclear energy deal in 2008.
In an interview with The Economic Times in the run-up to the 2017 UP Assembly polls, when Akhilesh Yadav was asked whether the Congress-SP alliance went against the SP’s Lohiaite philosophy, he justified it, saying that it was Lohia’s argument that when Congress is weak, socialists will be its “best friends”.
Lalu Prasad Yadav
Yadav, another prominent Lohiaite, has traversed a long road from his times as a young anti-Emergency activist who responded to the clarion call given out by J.P. Narayan. Yadav went to jail for opposing the government that he and his fellow activists found to be corrupt and autocratic.
In fact, his firstborn is named Misa after the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) that was invoked to jail anti-Emergency activists. Yadav was a part of the Manmohan Singh government and remained in the UPA fold till the very end as a trusted colleague of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
It is widely believed that the infamous ordinance that Rahul Gandhi tore at the Press Club of India in 2013 had been brought in to help Yadav. His son Tejashwi, educated at Delhi Public School in Patna, is currently deputy chief minister of Bihar in a government that counts Congress as an ally.
The Meghalaya governor who has been making headlines for his pro-farmer stance through the prolonged farmer protests against the now-withdrawn farm bills, has been something of a political wanderer, having started his political career in 1974 as a member of Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal. Singh, who went on to become the fifth prime minister of India, was not strictly a Lohiaite, says Mondol, but he was a mentor to the current crop of once-Lohiaite politicians.
Malik joined Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party before he was made national vice-president of the BJP in 2012. He was then appointed the governor of Bihar in 2017 and has since called various Raj Bhawans home.
Diversity of political parties he has embraced notwithstanding, Malik emerged as a strong voice for farmers. In June 2022, several months after the withdrawal of the farm laws, he struck a belligerent note once again, this time on the issue of MSP (Minimum Support Price) when he said that farmers would take to the streets once more if that demand is not met.
Former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s political origins lay with the Lohiaites and till as late as 2005, he was still in that fold as a Janata Dal (Secular) MLA and deputy chief minister of Karnataka.
However, by the time he was sworn in as chief minister in 2013, Siddaramaiah was a Congress legislator. At the time of joining the party in 2006, he had said: “I am joining Congress to strengthen the hands of Sonia Gandhi and the party-led government at the Centre.”
Siddaramaiah is now in the running for the post of chief minister as the Congress gears up to unseat the BJP in the only southern state where Modi’s party has managed to make inroads.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)