Ram Manohar Lohia on India, Indians, Nehru and the world in his private correspondence.

BY RAKESH ANKIT

You must always remember that anyone who goes like a swine or a rhino straight will never come to harm. He may die. But he will not lose. I go through life like a rhino or a swine, as far as politics are concerned.
—Rammanohar Lohia to Roma Mitra, September 14, 1957

Seven years ago, on Lohia’s birth centenary, academic-activist Yogendra Yadav asked, “What is living and what is dead in Ram Manohar Lohia?”, as he assessed his ideas, excavated their philosophical foundations and reconstructed his political doctrine. A rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny of the political, philosophical and ideological Lohia, Yadav’s essay was as much a tribute to his subject’s place in India’s post-1947 history as it was a portent of his own coming public position. Since it was published in 2010, Yadav has been involved with the Aam Aadmi Party (2012-15) and the Swaraj Abhiyan (2015- ). On a man as much written about as Lohia, it remains the latest word.

This essay is more interested in the person, in a personal space. It approaches him through the 50-odd letters Lohia wrote to Prof. Roma Mitra, his associate and friend for over two decades (1946-67). These letters—fast, furious and frank—show Lohia articulating his thoughts without mincing his words on a range of issues and, to that extent, throw light on this fascinating figure among the Socialists of early independent India. Their significance was acknowledged by Prof Mitra herself when she published Lohia through Letters in 1985.

Thirty years on, it is worth revisiting the more curious and perhaps overshadowed aspects of Lohia’s persona and positions in the hope that this reappraisal provides a glimpse of the continuing relevance of this near-and-yet-distant figure of recent history. Lohia has been dead 50 years in 2017 but appears recent thanks to his followers, disciples, academic interpreters and younger contemporaries—the Lohiaites, not the least of whom is Yogendra Yadav himself. Lohia formed his Socialist Party 60 years ago, and today when “socialism/socialist” is not exactly an idea eagerly embraced, it is interesting to find Lohia prophetic about this, too.

***

At considerable odds with his public professions, Lohia confessed privately that he did not think “there is much hope for India or for the Socialist Party. The two are so damnedly tied together” (23/12/59). Similarly, one can understand that “foreign capital” weighed on Lohia’s mind in 1956 when he formed his Socialist Party (13/10/56). After one of his visits to the Rourkela steel plant—set up with West German help—he would write a line of enduring truth that “all this talk of economic help to backward countries is so much nonsense, for the helpers seem to be making a lot of money out of their help” (15/11).

Contrast this with his insistent wish to know more about Razia Begum—“the only woman who sat on the throne of Delhi from the viewpoint of the personal, historical, artistic [and] architectural” (6/8/56), or his description of Chittor, “at once the glory and shame of medieval India… we are the only people in the world who take pride in defeats such as Sanga’s 84-85 wounds or Prithviraj’s marksmanship” (25/9). He is referring to either or both Khilji king Alauddin’s and Mughal Emperor Akbar’s siege of Chittor and his heroes are in line with a certain insidious indigenous/insider, Hindutva understanding of history.

Sometimes the letters reveal a less known facet, for instance, Lohia’s self-description: “a child of the Ganga and the Saryu, rivers of action but hardness” (12/2/58). On other occasions, they reinforce the better known political combatant, obsessed with “India’s current collapse”, for which he is convinced “the assassination of Mr Gandhi and the uprooting of the refugees are the two most formidable reasons” (5/9/58), and the inveterate Nehru-baiter, “the reference that the PM made to me of course like a Hindu wife, who does not mention her husband’s name” (3/2/59).

On other instances, they present a man whose thinking is tremendously tangential. In the aftermath of the Suez and Hungarian crises in November 1956, Lohia resisted the urge to get worked up on either, for “how silly it is that at least a part of our reactions are made for us by others [newspapers] in a most accidental manner”. For him, the crux was neither the “atrocities in Egypt” nor Hungary. Typically, his “world outlook” concentrated on the fact that “the whites are rulers of this world”. Lohia chose to illustrate it in his own manner: “Look at the Olympiad results. Does it not strike you a bit odd and also a little humiliating that the first ten-fifteen positions should be occupied by nations of white extraction? You think similarly of the bread, milk, steel…Even those whites who have acquired an understanding of the world as it is today and have given some thought to the world as it should be, they would be equally shocked by Egypt and Hungary but would earlier act for the Egyptians” (26/11/56).

In this racial and civilisational analysis, Lohia spared nobody—far or near, geographically or ideologically. He was convinced that European Social Democrats had a “feeling of superiority” derived “from too loyal an acceptance of Marx’s teachings” for, “after all, they are the end-product of civilisation according to Marx” (23/12/59). This is what Yadav terms as Lohia going ‘beyond “euro-normality”’ (Yadav, 94). He was courageous enough to write that “all over the world the Negroes and the coloured people are being treated at least in some places much worse than are the Jews or can ever be, but nobody seems to think in that emotional way about that. The Jews are after all Whites and it is almost a case of hurt or violence within the species” (28/1/60).

He was clear that “the backward castes are probably their own worst enemy”, when he tried to put together an anti-caste front in Tamil Nadu in 1960. He could presciently suspect that “the South which began with the slogan of anti-Brahmin[ism] and of special reservations for backward groups would begin to demand an end [to] all reservation, which they would call discriminatory”, as leaders of backward castes emerge with “legislative and ministerial importance” (28/1/60). And he candidly conceded defeat in his attempts to argue that skin-colour was no criterion of beauty because “the dark ones have imbibed the teaching of the white colour being superior in such a deep way that they cannot easily get rid of it” (28/1/60). In his mind, he had given up on the “non-Hindi areas [as] comparatively useless for the socialist movement. They [were] so much obsessed with the Hindi capitalists and politicians like Birla and Nehru that they are unable to look into their own oppressive, nation-destroying middle-class mentality” (12/4).

***

Reading these letters is proof of Lohia’s ability to connect apparently distant themes and diverse elements, but not to contain or let them coincide within each other. One example of his ability to bring together philosophical hypothesis, historical generalisations, political programme and social analysis is his response to the Kerala election of 1960. He begins his survey rather grandly and dangerously—given the ways the following assertion could be twisted and employed once again in an “insider-outsider” binary—by declaring “the utter falsity of the Dravidian or Mongolian or the Arabic doctrines— much of it in relation to India”. The goings-on in Malabar in 1957 to 1960 captured the skulduggery of Indian politics well.

The Communist Party of India came to office in the 1957 elections, making it the first case anywhere of communists capturing power through electoral means. However, a propaganda campaign by the opposition led by the Congress saw the government dismissed under Article 356, which allows the Governor to recommend President’s Rule in a state in the event s/he is satisfied that there is a breakdown of law and order, among other reasons.

This necessitated fresh elections by February 1960, as they have to be held within six months of the promulgation of President’s Rule. In the constituency where Lohia had gone to canvass for his party’s candidate, the communists had withdrawn in favour of Lohia’s, leading to the Muslim League and the Congress coining the slogan—“Namboodiri, hold the Lohia flag”. This was a tit-for-tat response to the communist’s slogan—“Congress, hold the League flag”—both aiming to show the absurdity of yesterday’s enemies becoming today’s allies. As Lohia so eloquently and enduringly put it,

“No political idea or argument ever gets discussed in an Indian election… I am inclined to think that the situation is not so bad elsewhere as here. The caste vote, the utter mendicancy of the middle class to whoever it has accepted as its leader, the total indifference to Indian newspapers… have created a situation of utter stagnation in the realm of political controversy. Everyone can get away with everything here…The Congress is flying its flag alongside of the Muslim League’s—when it speaks such a lot of anti-communalism. And, what shall I say of the Communists who denounce everything relating to the Congress except its leader” (15/1/60).

For Lohia, Kerala was made of two failures: (1) “the inability of Mr. Nehru to tame the communists into a heretical sect of his Congress, probably because the commies are too expansive for that or because his own party [is] too selfish and unwilling to abdicate even state power”; (2) “the readiness with which the Commies worked the Constitution instead of working their programmes…”. But, Lohia was perceptive enough to note that “although the Commies will probably lose, perhaps badly, they have further consolidated their hold on the backward castes and the Harijans”—a judgement borne out by experience in Kerala. These shenanigans depressed him enough to proclaim that he saw “no future for us as a nation. We are liars and deceivers and think a mighty lot of our trickeries” (Undated May/). How marvellously these sentences apply to the political class today!

Phases like these did no good to Lohia’s mood. Communication became difficult for him. The journal Mankind he had started provided no solace. If it is surprising that a Hindi-wallah should start a journal in English, one must recall his comrade Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay:  Essentially Lohia was “a humanist who felt deeply for his fellow beings and published [Mankind] in English to justify his basic humanism” (196, NMML transcript no. 338).

Nevertheless, Mankind had moribund phases making Lohia feel he should “throw up everything”. Enlisting subscriptions and attracting contributions proved more difficult than thought. Lohia encapsulated his frustrations and bewilderments: “They all appear sincerely to want certain objectives and policies but nothing happens. Is there something wrong with the period or the policies or the executors such as me?” (17 June).

***

In the early-1960s, one of his pet themes was the “Quit-English” crusade (12/2/61). How seriously he took it can be seen from the fact that not only did he exhort Mitra, a Bengali, to “learn Hindi better” (11/7/61), but took to writing to her in Hindi. That Lohia’s public “politics of language” was “controversial” is well-dissected (Yadav, 101); that some of Lohia’s reasons went beyond “inequality and cultural hegemony” is not so well-digested. For Lohia, it was axiomatic that social thought depended on the “exactness and refinement of language” and “that [was] one main reason why” he wanted English to go (2/2/60).

Lohia also linked disintegration of language with disintegration of desh and vice-versa. Break-up or toot in pre-colonial times, in his mind, often led to breaking up of language and script. With the [re]creation of the Indian state in 1947, it was time to [re]codify, for “codification [meant] congealing or sealing a situation”. Lohia could be fantastically relentless and insistent on this point: “I have been thinking of Indian alphabets. They are all variations of the Nagari alphabets, even the Tamil ones. The Tamil alphabets just drop a few Nagari characters” (6/6).

For those worried about a new kind of hegemony, the imposition of a homogenised Hindi, Lohia had an ambiguous message: “if you are clear about the larger [layered] view of Indian history, new facts would not derail you but add depth” (6/8). At times, it could be deeply personal as when his audience in Madras in December 1959 demanded that he “should speak in English” and “a dozen or a score of persons walked out of 150-200” (28/1/60), or when he felt bad that in the guise of informal, personal conversation, at a meeting of MA students in Mysore in February 1963, he was made to speak in English. He felt despondent enough to compare the plight of Hindi with the contempt people felt for the genda (marigold), India’s most common and most basic flower (12/2/63) but he remained dismissively bullish at the Dravida Kazhagam “starting their campaign of burning India without Tamil…I do not know why anybody should be upset about it and yet they are” (5/6).

That Lohia could and did take things extremely personally was evident to, and remarked by, one and all. He often linked the state of his “mann”, his mood, to the state of the country and wrote that as the latter improved, so would the former. Ergo, both seemed impossible in his lifetime (10/3/63).This affliction, to personalise issues, while retaining their intense political edge, was never more obvious than in his chequered relations with and colourful utterances on Jayaprakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru, respectively. As he conceded, sometimes “it is difficult for two people to understand each other… individualism, then nationalism”, just like he felt, sometimes that the “Ganges, Volga and Mississippi would not permit internationalism” (10/3/63).

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay remembered the “bewildering, disturbing and not clearly definable disturbance in his earlier close rapport and accord with Jayaprakash Narayan” (192, NMML transcript no. 338). On Nehru, under whom he worked at the Foreign Department of the Congress in the late-1930s, Lohia’s own words provide the best testimony. In private, his dislike was more acidic: “What an amazing man is he. He tells a Harijan and Girijan legislators’ conference that they should not have met and yet he comes to inaugurate them. There must be a thousand instances of such self-contradictory behaviour. But I had been told that was a female virtue. Is Mr Nehru a female? That would be some explanation for his conduct” (8/2/61).

Calling the “sons of soil” movement growing in Assam the “inevitable development of the philosophy of cosmopolitanism, which has ruled India over the past twelve-thirteen years [Nehru’s premiership]” and, which the Congress was “clever enough never to espouse openly”, Lohia unerringly put his finger on the gap between Nehru’s ideals and India’s realities; words that retain their relevance to help explain the rise of the BJP since 1980s and the demise of the Congress in 2014:

“At the root of it all… is the philosophy that strives to make the world alike without trying to make it equal, to initiate some superficial virtues of the dominant countries, to be liberal…The result is a concept of citizenship which is provincial at one end… and world-wide at the other…and the intermediate link of Indian citizenship is entombed in the Constitution without any corresponding place in the mind” (15/8/60).

It is this “place in the mind” of, at least, one-third of the electorate that the BJP has occupied that has propelled it to political power. Back then, according to Lohia, it was filled by the “unparalleled respect for big men and an equally unparalleled disrespect for little men” of the Indian people that benefited the Congress (12/2/61). Lohia must have felt it even more, for his fledgling Socialist Party had launched a satyagraha in 1960 that did not get any “mass backing except in some places”. Reporting of it was “very meagre” too (28/5/60).

His indefatigable public efforts to establish the party on a firm footing at this time often produced insightful private emotions. Travelling in Karnataka once, he reflected on the interesting nature of his exercise. In Mangalore, the Socialists had three “leaders”: “kumhaar, chamaar, nai”; from three lower-castes: potter, leather-worker and barber. Nor were they “educated” in a literal sense. But, their social understanding was sharp and they were committed individuals. Lohia was sorry the influence of such souls grew very slowly, mostly because of society’s “short-sightedness”, not to mention snobbery, much to the detriment of the country’s character (16/2/63).

The plight of the party would eventually be hard-wired into Lohia’s personality and produce frequent complaints: “I am a series of failures…I have talked of the philosophy of failure but how difficult [it is] to practice it” (13/12). This would sometimes be accompanied by fatalism: “I do not know why Jayaprakash [Narayan] has begun to talk about it. Indian politics has become too baseless. Still, at this time, a party with base can do a lot but only if it has a real base” (2/9).

How bad things were could be gathered, once again, from the preparations of the Socialist Party for the 1960 Kerala elections. For a meeting, 118 out of 500 state delegates turned up, who “behaved like wicked children frightened of the dark”. Even more dispiritingly, the all-India delegates of the party, after “several weeks of appealing had contributed 11/- Rs. – just 11/- Rs. for the election [fund]”. Lohia was “more or less definite that sharks, mice and tortoise alone [were] fitted for politics. And, yet politics is religion of the short run just as religion is politics of the long run—both the highest virtues of mankind” (3/1/60).

Party politics was important because it was the only route to office, in turn the fount not just of policy-making but also of power. How important this proximity to power and its attendant ability to bestow patronage was came home to Lohia when President Rajendra Prasad died in early 1963. Not that a man like Lohia needed reminders of the fickleness of public life. He visited Rajendra Babu at his deathbed, an hour or so before he died. Lohia accepted the inevitable; what he could not agree to was his suspicion, difficult to prove or disprove at this distance, of neglect that Prasad was subject to. As he obliquely and sarcastically put it, “when a Sarkaari man comes close to dying, he is sought to be saved by all kinds of means. By the time of his death, Rajendra Babu had ceased being Sarkaari”.

Lohia felt “this country has gone bad”. His satyagraha meetings were still on: “no gain, no loss”. He was addressing crowds of 3000-5000 people. But he had little money and few volunteers. The silver lining was that the issues he raised, for instance his slogan of “pichhda paave sau mein saath”, touched chords. At one place, his opponents denounced him as the leader of Shudras (5/3/63). And he struck a defiant note: “Some might think we have turned into a sect that is neither growing nor weakening. On the other hand, people are learning to think and speak our ideas” (12/4).

***

India’s China War gave Lohia a new lease of life. The military defeat and political debacle hastened the physical demise of Jawaharlal Nehru while invigorating his opponents, foremost among whom was Lohia. Much has been written about Lohia emerging as the lightning rod of public opinion, encapsulated by his entry into Parliament from Farukhabad through a by-election in 1963. Lohia visited Assam and the North East Frontier Agency in the month of March and his letters are revealing. The pillars of Lohia’s pronouncements numbered four, with none of which would today’s ruling dispensation disagree: “Why was Pakistan formed?”, “Why did China attack?”, “Save Himalayas”, “Remove English” (9/1). Writing from Bomdila on March 18, Lohia was still in his “doubting Thomas” mode:

“When a state is unable to showcase its prowess to the foreigners, it uses its power on its natives…All [our] policies in the Himalayas will fail because our heart is not in them. This government does not do any work properly. [Lohia was given a helicopter and a jeep for his travels but believed that] to travel thus ensures no contact with people. Everything is Sarkaari. Much–views, principles–needs to change before people can learn. Those [officials] who do not have true freedom of thought and expression, what does one gain by saying to them [that same is the case in China]”.

Two days later, from Teju, he zeroed in on the social evil at the heart of the Indian state and society: “Would Indian middle-class, caste-setup and indecent hierarchy [of all types]—bade/chote—ever let anything happen?’ (20/3/63) It remains a relevant question, 53 years on. As he went into upper Assam, a different strain of thought became prominent. From Dibrugarh-Zero, he raved about the positive results of nationalism: one was that people showed affection at distant places. Incredibly, he chose to overlook the fact that they were not Assamese but army officers and their wives. Lohia, that arch anti-establishment figure, found good things to say about army men, the arch establishment pillars: “Army men are usually nice, like a drunk; whatever other problems he may have”. Lohia, the incorrigible Congress-baiter, even found something to praise the government for: their efforts to control cold-fever and spraying of the DDT to control mosquitoes! (23/3/63)

But it is a letter that he wrote to Mitra the same day from North Lakhimpur that deserves closest attention and ought to be quoted substantially. His travels in the forward areas reminded Lohia of his trip to Israel, when he visited a village on the border. It was a kibbutz, a “cantonment village” of around 200 young adults, women and men. They tended the fields as much as the military posts, continuing the tradition started by the Zionists in the 1930s. Lohia asked the leader of this kibbutz, “What would 15 lakh Jews do against 6-7 crore Arabs? What would happen when the Arabs modernise themselves?” The calm, collected and cold, “thanda”, youth had replied, “Where is there to go? Israel’s demise is practically impossible”. Lohia remembered this episode and also remembered that since then he had been angry at the pro-European policies and outlook of the Israeli government but…

“…it is a nation of amazing determination. Where is there to go? And here in Assam in NEFA, one found only one thing to hear–run, run–the whole world is there to go to. When will determination come to India? It is this determination that will save Israel. And, as Arabs modernise, the destructive sentiments in their hearts will lessen. Youngsters and experts alike from Israel should be called and asked to evaluate the possibility of establishing agricultural settlements-cum-cantonments on the borders, especially the cold and rocky middle Himalayas. It is possible that the time is not right. The Chinese are standing in front. Our tribals and hill-peoples may not like it. After all, up to half of the young occupants in these settlements would have to be brought from the plains, the other half from among the hill tribes. Here, the population question is tricky. There are a total of 2 ½ lakh people over an area of 35, 000 square miles; 8-10 every mile. Something will have to be done. I have been shouting for ten years to start vigorously a settlement plan in the Indian Himalayas. It could have been done easily earlier. It can still be done. [Our] outlook has been faulty. As is the Prime Minister, so is his adviser…The views of Nehru-Elwin are such as to deserve contempt. Tibet and China are different – bodily too…although I said it 25 years ago that the world has a bastardised future. All races and castes have to meet bodily. Yes, not like China is trying to impose [in Tibet]. That would be demonic [akin to] national destruction” (23/3/63).

Reading Lohia, for Yogendra Yadav, conjures up words like “strong, bold, bright, blend, diverse, collage, careless, fragments, profound without being forbidding, accessible yet enigmatic [and] unsettling” (Yadav, 93). How is one to read the above? As an ode to strength, epitomised by Israel and admired by far too many in India now? As a bright blend of self-interest, from that of the ‘military-industrial’ complex to the “official mind”? As a careless collage of occupation, by people brought into Assam and NEFA from diverse parts of India? As forbidding fragments of a policy, no matter how necessary, scarcely imaginable for being profoundly inhuman and unjust?

Where is the enigma, barring the “bastardised future” bit, in the unsettling access to Lohia’s thoughts on the matter that this paragraph provides? And this flight of fantasy did not stop here. It went farther east. Three days later, Lohia wrote that “there was no doubt that Thai country and similar trans-Himalayas areas, which were earlier known as Greater India, had a lot of interaction [with Indian subcontinent]. India remains, but, the base of the people, languages and everything [there]. And Thai [land] is half India/n” (26/3/63).

That, in the next lines, he framed these thoughts in terms civilisational and natural, so as to distinguish them from his pet peeves, class distinctions and caste differences, characteristic of the plains, do no more than dilute the totalising ahistorical tendencies inherent above. His concern for Greater Indians, “people of Indian ancestry…everywhere in a bad way”, knew no borders. Indo-Fijians had been used as no less than “blood-seed, not even the Arabs have been similarly used” (25/4/64).

Lohia’s willingness to seek and learn from the world could be astounding, as above, but could also be acute as when he wrote from Vietnam that even with the war on, it was doing better than India in providing food for its people. While this could be taken with a pinch of salt, not to mention other variables, size, population etc., the next sentence analysing the “fundamental defect” in an Indian hits home: “Can [a] Hindustani behave with other countries [as with other people] only in terms of either disrespect—tiraskar—or sycophancy—chaaploosi?” (21/4/64).

As a widely-travelled man, from his stay in Germany in the late-1920s-early-1930s, to his travels through 1950s-1960s, Lohia knew that one of the engines of development of the west, and the least contentious one, was “how people work… not only hard but according to a schedule” (18/5/64). This is not to say that he liked everything in the west, especially in post-war America. He could be as caustic about them as he was to his countrymen.

When told about the coming of technology and the ultimate “heaven on earth” it promised, Lohia quipped that he was more “worried that the ultimate indefinite absolute expansion of technology will never take place [and] that heaven on earth will not occur automatically” (18/5/64).

***

From Kamaladevi to Yogendra Yadav, all reiterate that it is “not very easy” to read from or write about Lohia. Kamaladevi felt there were “really two Lohias”, pre-1942, modest and gentle, and post-1942, mercurial and assertive. The Lohia we met above, mid-1950s to mid-1960s, was “restless, impatient and moody” and impossible to fit into any “ready frame” of thought. She remembered his “scintillating mind”, which made him a skilful and forceful debater and his command over English, at odds with his preference for Hindi. (191-4, 338) The word “nationalist” does not sit easily on the “socialist” but as Kamaladevi recalled: “When he talked of India, he seemed to grow in stature. He became giant-sized and talked as though from a height. His facial expression changed. Patriotism in him was a matter of faith… a vital part of his being, without which he would not be a full entity. Nor was India a sentimental image of a mother with long hair trailing over her shoulders. To him the country was the people” (194).

This identification with nation produced dissatisfaction with state, disillusionment with mainstream society and aggression “for the millions of the abject”. It overpowered the public Lohia and was responsible for his complaining tone, which earned him sobriquets like “crazy, unbalanced, impractical and destructive” (194-5, 338). A direct person, Lohia could also be charming with his sense of humour; at times, sardonic and dry: “everything is alright provided you learn to laugh everything away in the confident realisation that there is someone who will always back me up” (29/6).

Lohia’s at times “narrowly nationalist cultural politics”, a majority of whose symbols were from the Hindu religion and, at other times, assimilationist, homogenising and hegemonic ideas about territorial and linguistic integration (Yadav, 103-05) were problematic then and now. Be it “political immorality” or “political extremism”, Lohia was sui generis in a country, about which he once wrote, “Hindustan kooda hai lekin apna hai; kooda kaise door ho?” (22/4); by the present Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

It has been said that people gave a mandate in favour of Lohia’s ideology to his followers on three occasions: 1967, 1977 and 1989 but none was translated into a meaningful exercise. Each of these governments, among states and at the Centre, fell in 2-3 years. Since 1989, there can be counted a handful of political leaders, with the fading of George Fernandes, who consider Lohia their ideological guru: from Bihar, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad and from Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav. To them, as Fernandes put it, in his introduction to one of Lohia’s books, Wheels of History, Lohia is “undoubtedly the most original thinker”, who, unlike others, was also “a man of action”.

The Ambedkarite Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati has never been at ease with the socialism of Lohia and his followers. Both sides, after all, have their own “Doctor Sahibs”. At the national level, Lohia’s anti-Congressism provided the ancestral inspiration for the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Since 2014, though, as the ground beneath Indian politics has shifted and coalesced around BJP, it remains to be seen if a similar tactic can be employed by today’s Lohiaites against BJP. They should remember that opposing the Congress was not central to Lohia’s thought, opposing an authoritarian, unaccountable and unresponsive Centre was.

Economically, they have to strive to keep socialism and egalitarianism alive in the age of globalisation on the one hand and individualism on the other. Lohia’s radical humanism is up against a combine of capitalism, the hyper-nationalist Indian state ideology and the politics of Hindutva. His brand of political extremism cannot be organised today given “anti-national” in the air and on the ground in India. One also wonders, if Lohia with his own assimilationist approach to national unity and his politics of language would have baulked at the Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan on the rise today. These ideas of his, difficult then and dangerous today, are best benched. He was ahead of his times on decentralisation of state, environmental concerns, cyclical crises of capitalism, caste-class-gender inequalities and troubles with technology but he was behind on the others.

A Marxist materialist and a Gandhian critic of European modernity, Lohia, nevertheless, sought to steer clear of both and strove for a third way: a culturally rooted, indigenous socialism, which reflected a sort of “functional federalism” of village-district, state-Centre, economically opposed the Nehruvian heavy-industry model by a stress on “small machine technology” and socially sketched a “sapt-kranti” or seven-fold revolution. It comprised caste, gender, racial and economic equality, national independence and international (world) government (parliament), and social ownership of private property, all achieved through a peaceful civil disobedience, free from coercion by any collective.

Those who have chosen to inherit Lohia would do well to remember that over and above all this, he “asked questions” and did not settle for easy answers. He was an educationist and an agitationist but left the task of organisation to his followers. Unfortunately, their record has been chequered even as a “new India” under the present Prime Minister systemically and sentimentally moves towards a conservative consolidation. A self-avowed socialist’s task is getting more difficult in light of what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “absolute a-social individualism”.

Politics of the “self”, mastered not only by the Right, as recently shown by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, has smeared socialism. The accompanying politics of possession, pleasure and profit in the name of nation [read state] and culture [read religion] has rendered the Lohiaites near-obsolete. In the last 25 years, a re-fusion of narrow nationalism, heavy industrialism, financial managerialism, cultural majoritarianism, self-righteous moralism and racial/ethnic chauvinism has reinforced the Right worldwide. Against this, they need to argue Lohia’s emphasis on local, humane alternatives and agitate for a devolved, decentralized, downsized and democratized political space.

But at the heart of this re-assertion is a structural and systemic logic of convenience of capitalism and it should not be lost sight of. Therein lies an opportunity for Lohia’s heirs, as much against the right-wing as against the parliamentary left (social-democrats) and its non-parliamentary counterpart (Naxal-Maoists). They need to do more than just cite that immortal statement by Lohia, which contains the kernel of his importance today: “Log meri baat sunenge zaroor, lekin mere marne ke baad” (People will surely listen to me, but after I am dead). As he showed, it is in the nature of capitalism’s logic to leave behind a vast and diverse mass of people: labourers, workers, farmers; minorities, women and tribes; and, migrants and marginalised. They have to come to terms with this humanity, for whom in Antonio Gramsci’s words, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, and have a Lohiaite “people’s movement”.

Rakesh Ankit teaches history at the Law School in Jindal University. He studied at Delhi, Oxford and Southampton.

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