The socialist leader was a lynchpin of Janta’s anti-Congressism; in a changed time, socialists and Congress seek to rally the Opposition against the day’s dominant power. Seema Chishti looks back, and forward.
May Day is the birthday of Madhu Limaye; had he been alive, he would have been 95 last week. This May Day was also the fortieth anniversary of his being appointed general secretary of the Janta Party. Limaye was an important lynchpin of the Janta experiment, the first non-Congress party to rule at the Centre. He was also an important player in both pre- and post-Independence politics. On May 1, several non-BJP Opposition parties gathered on stage to mark his birthday.
Who else was Madhu Limaye?
Many things, really. He was active in politics from 1937 to 1982, was a four-term MP from Bihar, a prolific thinker, writer and ideologue. He was a socialist, a member of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), and participated in the Quit India Movement — which is where he first met Mahatma Gandhi. He was present when members of the CSP met in Kanpur in 1947 and removed ‘Congress’ from the party’s name. Limaye made a case for being just the ‘Socialist Party’.
To many, Limaye is a mascot for anti-Congressism. The BJP has aggressively claimed the legacy of Emergency, and used its memory to nudge smaller parties to continue with anti-Congressism at the centre of their politics. The May Day gathering was, however, attended by senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh — and it signalled an attempt to draw the Congress into the socialist camp, and demonstrate dissolving antipathies in changed circumstances.
What sort of differences did the Socialists and the Congress have?
Socialists, among whom Ram Manohar Lohia was a leading light, spent most of their time and energies fighting the banyan tree that was Pandit Nehru, and later, the Congress when it dominated the polity entirely. The political framework was fully dominated and defined by the Congress, a large and capacious umbrella — so the dominant ‘opposition’ flavour was that of anti-Congressism. In 1963, and very overtly in 1967 through the formation of the Samyukt Vidhayak Dals, the Jana Sangh broke through its political isolation and teamed up with the Samyukt Socialist Party to seize power. Lohia and Jayprakash Narayan (JP) were mascots for anti-Congressism, despite having worked with Nehru closely. Lohia (in)famously coined the phrase goongi gudiya to refer to Indira Gandhi when she was making a bid to battle Congress seniors of the ‘Syndicate’.
The socialists’ anti-Congressism — and alliance with the Right — continued in later years too. George Fernandes, a veteran socialist, went on to become the convener of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet. Mulayam Singh, the biggest socialist leader in Uttar Pradesh since the Nineties, ensured, in 1999, there would be no Congress government at the Centre. And Nitish Kumar remained an NDA ally in Bihar for over a decade and a half.
The BJP accused Kumar of betraying the socialist cause — seen as being synonymous with anti-Congressism — when he struck an alliance with the Congress in 2015, and attacked Akhilesh Yadav on similar grounds in 2017. But now, with the BJP dominating India like no party except perhaps Nehru’s Congress has done before, and with the Congress reduced to its lowest ever tally in Parliament and the states, the Emergency moment has returned for the Opposition, and the need to band together has arisen again. As the socialists and the Jana Sangh came together, and were backed by the Marxists, against the Congress then, the socialists, Marxists and Congress sought to show a united face on Limaye’s birth anniversary.
What did Limaye stand for as a socialist?
At a May Day rally in 1937, Limaye was attacked by RSS workers — baptism by fire for the 15-year-old. The leaders of the procession, S M Joshi and Senapati Bapat, were badly injured. Limaye was unsparing in his attacks on the RSS ever since and, even in 1977, opposed Janta’s “dual membership” idea — a reference to party members who were previously with the Jana Sangh, and owed allegiance to the RSS. He was among those who insisted that former Jana Sangh members must necessarily sever ties with the RSS. A fight about this is what split the Janta Party in 1979. Later, Limaye joined the Charan Singh group, Janta Party (S), then Lok Dal, and formed the Lok Dal (K) just before he retired from active politics in 1982.
But how does picking a mascot like Limaye help anti-BJP parties?
At a time when the BJP is anxious to appropriate icons from other streams of thought to look more broadbased, a figure like Limaye can be helpful in unifying strands and labels of politics outside the BJP. He fought elections from the Hindi belt (Bihar), fought for the liberation of Goa, championed civil liberties, and was important in the struggle for social justice. He was also a powerful orator who served four terms in Lok Sabha.
He was also staunchly anti-RSS. In a famous piece written for Ravivaar in 1979, titled ‘What is RSS’, he explained why the philosophy and practice of nationalists and socialists was so much at odds with the RSS: “There is amazing similarity between the thoughts of Guruji (Golwalkar) and the Nazis.” He differed with the RSS on the question of a Hindu Rashtra — he did not believe that citizenship should have anything to do with religion — and of caste, and he disagreed with the RSS on regional identities and the imposition of Hindi.
So where are the socialists, and the socialist movement in India, headed now?
There has been talk of unifying all Janta offshoots and socialists under one banner since before the 2014 elections but, despite the strategic alliance of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal for the Bihar Assembly polls, the enthusiasm for that has not been sustained. Mulayam has been going through a troubled patch; he broke with the Bihar mahagathbandhan, and seemed unenthusiastic about later events of broader alignments, even with his son and within his party. The Biju Janata Dal remains its own party, and with the BJP anxious to usurp the socialist legacy with slogans of fighting for the dispossessed, it would need imagination, determination and a re-framing of its appeal to regain relevance in the India of 2017 and beyond.