Rammanohar Lohia was primarily a man of ideas. This is not to say that his short life (1910-1967) was bereft of action: there was his underground work during the Quit India Movement, in the Goa liberation, the movement for democracy in Nepal, and so on. But his goal of building a strong socialist movement in India was never realised, the Socialist Party he was part of has splintered and lost its character. However, his ideas and formulations have survived the debris of the parties and movements he was associated with. In fact, they have changed the grammar of Indian politics, and offer a new lexicon to understand and describe the currents that shape power equations, especially in northern India.
Exactly fifty years since he passed away in New Delhi’s Willingdon Hospital, now named after him, at the relatively young age of 57, Lohia, to paraphrase W H Auden, appears no more a person, but a whole climate of opinion. The Lohiaite is today a political animal like the Gandhian, Nehruvian, Ambedkarite, Communist, Maoist and so on, even though he has mutated beyond recognition after gaining office in some of India’s largest states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka. Two current Chief Ministers, Siddaramaiah and Nitish Kumar, are sure to acknowledge their intellectual debt to Lohia, as would a host of others, including Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad. The Mandal revolution transformed politics in northern India, but the ideological ground for OBC empowerment was prepared by Lohia, both intellectually and organisationally. Outside the realm of electoral politics, numerous new social movements and its leaders, for instance, Medha Patkar, are part of a political stream that counts Lohia among its sources.
In recent times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been heard taking Lohia’s name and certainly, the BJP under him has borrowed from Lohia’s political armoury to target the Congress — although not always acknowledging the debt, and only after masking the secular, ethical underpinning of those ideas. Anti-Congressism, a frequent chant in today’s BJP, was the political glue that Lohia created to build a united opposition to take on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress. The Samyukta Vidhayak Dal ministries in 1967 were the first anti-Congress coalitions to gain office in northern India. The tirade against the “Lutyens’ elite” has echoes of Lohia’s critique of the Nehruvian anglophone, urban upper class, which used the instrument of class position and knowledge of English to suppress the provincial Indian, who spoke and thought in a regional bhasha, and was rooted to the local culture. Lohia’s advocacy of Hindi over English was not that of a Hindi supremacist, but a claim for the development of Indian bhashas as the language of governance — his exchanges with Periyar reveal this aspect. Even the extolling of the virtues of having a Prime Minister from an OBC community seems inspired by Lohia’s advocacy of the transfer of power from the dwija to the shudra.
For Lohia, these formulations were a part of the armature he created to decolonise free India, and to anchor it in a socially just milieu. His criticism of Nehru was not personal, rather, it was the rejection of a political model that he felt was status quoist towards preserving the hegemony of the privileged castes, classes and gender — in his words, the privileging of the Vasishta tradition over the Valmiki tradition. He advocated positive discrimination towards the upper castes to favour the elevation of OBCs, tribals, Muslims and women — he considered all women to be included within the OBC spectrum — to positions of power. The ground of anti-Congress politics in northern India was prepared by Lohia thus, which now the BJP wants to occupy. The subjective re-reading of Lohia by the BJP has also become easy since the claimants to his political legacy have, on gaining power, reduced social justice politics to caste privilege and dynasty patronage.
Lohia belonged to the generation of leaders who came to limelight in the wake of the Quit India Movement. Jayaprakash Narayan was, of course, their leader, having founded the Congress Socialist Party within the Congress in 1934. Both grew close to Gandhi in the last decade of his life, even as the older generation of Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and others were becoming impatient with the Mahatma. Lohia was unsparing in his criticism of their pursuit for power over Gandhi’s desperate negotiations to avoid Partition in his study, Guilty Men of India’s Partition. Lohia and JP were the two most popular leaders when CSP members walked out of the Congress to form the Socialist Party in 1948. The socialists claimed to represent the principled core of the freedom movement and to be the inheritors of Gandhi’s legacy. Lohia would write that Gandhians are of three kinds, priestly, governmental and heretic, and that the Socialist Party was the abode of the heretic Gandhians. It is questionable if all socialists could claim this inheritance, but Lohia’s politics ought to be located in this heretic tradition of Gandhi. This was a radical Gandhi, deeply critical of the nation-state, capitalism and western modernity, spiritual while eschewing religious institutions, who has survived the onslaught of time and state appropriation.
Lohia’s seven revolutions (sapta kranti) — for equality between man and woman; against political, economic and race-based inequalities; for the destruction of castes; against foreign domination and democratic world government; for economic equality, planned production and against private property; against interference in private life and for democratic; and against arms and weapons and for satyagraha — in a way interprets the radical Gandhi for our times. Lohia, however, was unambiguous that caste, which he described as ossified class, must go, a position that Gandhi reached late in his life, for India to build a just society. His outreach to Babasaheb Ambedkar in the 1950s was part of his bid to build a broadbased socialist party with a radical social justice agenda. But before Lohia and Ambedkar could meet, Babasaheb passed away. The letters they exchanged hint at a lost opportunity. In a way, Lohia who offered a critique of capitalist modernity while advocating reservations as an instrument for the destruction of castes and classes, is a bridge between the worlds of Gandhi and Ambedkar.
What is to be retrieved of Lohia? There is the Lohia who advocated politics as practice of ethics and values — he once got a government of his party to resign because it ordered the police to fire on a political gathering. Or the ideologue who was acutely aware of the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics. Lohia, like Gandhi, had a deep sense of the sacred and thought in civilisational categories, not using the terminologies of the nation-state — not surprisingly, the magazine he edited was called Mankind. He would speak about the need for a world government and world citizen, but situated culture and tradition in specific locales and contexts and celebrated diversity. The seeds of a politics that can resist homogenising and centralising tendencies and the instrumentalist use of faith is immanent in Lohia. That Lohia waits to be retrieved.