Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s centenary celebrations and the naming of some schemes after him aroused reactions among opposition parties and intellectuals who have alleged that he is being imposed as a national icon. Upadhyaya was a Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) leader who enjoyed the confidence of the RSS and has been held in esteem for his idealism. In a rare gesture, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar, described him as “100 per cent swyamsevak”. His perspective and thought have become foundational to the socio-economic philosophy of the sangh parivar and Narendra Modi’s pro-poor commitment has the obvious imprint of Upadhyaya’s life and mission. Upadhyaya, however, played a larger role in India’s thought process and political life.
His impact on contemporary political actors can be gauged by his acceptance as an original thinker who transcended party affiliation: Veteran Congressman and a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Sampoornanand, wrote the preface of Upadhyaya’s Political Dairy, which contains social, cultural and political insights. He described Upadhyaya as “one of the most notable political leaders of our time, a man devoted to the good of his country, a person of unimpeachable character, a leader whose weighty words swayed thousands of educated men” and considered Political Dairy essential reading for future political workers.
Is it not a tragedy that the spirit of political socialisation and mutual admiration, which was visible in the 1950s and ’60s, has increasingly eroded? The Nehruvian-left intellectual stream, deluded by its hegemonic status, denied space to diverse thoughts and icons. Our historiography attributed divinity to certain figures and disproportionately glorified their role. Any new inclusion in this pantheon is considered a diminution of Gandhi and Nehru. Research has led to the emergence of many grass-roots women warriors and martyrs from the freedom movement. One of them is Uda Devi. Would the celebration of a Dalit woman patriot be considered a deliberate reduction of Rani Laxmi Bai’s status and role?
Greatness in public life is not measured merely by political success but also by contributions to the advancement of human values, which make democracy virtuous. Indian politics witnessed two contradictory events in the early 1950s. The Congress Working Committee delegated the final say on the selection of more than 4,000 candidates for elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. That a party with scores of visionaries and leaders felt crippled to contest Nehru’s hegemony shows that its culture of political grooming was weak.
While the Congress inaugurated a personality cult, Upadhyaya demolished this trait before it could take root in the BJS and eventually expelled the party president, Mauli Chandra Sharma, and another veteran leader, Vasant Rao Oak. This tradition can be seen in the symbiotic autonomy of the BJP’s parliamentary party and party organisation. In a democracy, an experiment within a party becomes part of the larger political culture. The Congress and BJP represent two distinct political cultures. While the Congress vice president, Rahul Gandhi, justifies dynastic politics, Modi’s obvious displeasure at the micro-dynasties which infected his party was witnessed during the last election.
Upadhyaya’s idealism is more relevant in contemporary India than in his time. In 1963, by-elections were held in four Lok Sabha seats and became a war of prestige between the Congress and the Opposition. Opposition stalwarts, socialists Ram Manohar Lohia (Farrukaabad) and J.B. Kripalani (Amroha), Swatantra Party’s Minoo Masani (Surat) and Upadhyaya (Jaunpur) were in the fray.
Upadhyaya’s victory was considered a forgone conclusion for two reasons: The vacancy occurred due to the death of the sitting BJS MP and caste equations in the constituency were assumed to be in his favour. For Upadhyaya politics was a mission, not a profession. He spoke against caste polarisation and identity-based voting, which led the conservatives to ensure his defeat. However, for him, it was a “victory of the BJS”. He advised parties, “not to sacrifice principles for quick gains” and people to do their duty while exercising their franchise “in a judicious and intelligent manner” to correct the distorted perspective of political parties.
Upadhyaya wanted to decolonise Indian political thought which was largely, as he said, “a Western political picture in the Indian background”. He strongly argued against the left-right division as being detrimental to the growth of a constructive, transformative pro-people ideology. He argued, “this categorisation does not give a correct idea of the politics of India because many programmes of these parties defy any classification on this orthodox basis”.
After decades, this view has emerging from many corners of the world. The “creative destruction” he employed for the “third way” led to a greater cohesion between opposing ideas and politics in the 1960s. The BJS, Swatantra Party, socialist parties and the CPI didn’t just form coalitions, the ideological discourse too took a more interactive shape. However, this socialisation was dealt a death blow by the excessive foreign influence on both academia and politics.
Upadhyaya believed that a reactionary politics does not leave the ground for reconstruction and fails to succeed in generating an alternative. He exemplified these beliefs in his political actions. When anti RSS-BJS propaganda by the Indian left was at the centre of the discourse, many wanted to turn the BJS an ideological hub for right-wing politics. Their efforts, however, were in vain. Upadhyaya knew the communists lacked the spirit to Indianise themselves and predicted their decline. He made egalitarianism the first principle of the party, which led to the expulsion of five out of eight BJS MLAs in the Rajasthan assembly opposed to the abolition of zamindari.
The Swatantra Party garnered a significant voteshare in the 1962. Following the result, there was a strong move to merge the BJS, the Swatantra Party and Swami Karpatri’s Ram Rajya Parishad (RRP). Upadhyaya raised fundamental questions regarding such a merger: He described the Swatantra Party as a “Dalal Street party” and said that though it was opposed to socialism “it, however, does not know if there can be any better alternative to socialism except the discredited capitalism”. Similarly, the many affinities with their social philosophy did not stop him from writing about the RRP as “a party run not from the cottage of Swami Karpatri ji but from the palace of zamindars and capitalists”, in Panchajanya.
Politics must be controlled by the masses, not the wealthy. Neoliberalism has challenged democracies to ensure they do not become beholden to corporate interests. Upadhyaya cautioned that “if steps are not taken to mend them, powerful lobbies will emerge in the country’s legislatures and political decisions will hardly be taken in an objective manner taking into consideration only the welfare of the people and furtherance of national interests.”
Upadhyaya’s “third way” is reflected in his philosophy of integral humanism in which he provided a holistic idea of human welfare. Materialism, spiritualism and cautious desire each have a role in achieving happiness: An economic index cannot be the sole measure of satisfaction or happiness. He pleaded for diversities in economic and social philosophies against a single meta-narrative ruling the world or a nation.
Most people have remained ignorant of Upadhyaya’s ideas for decades and now, PM Modi’s emphasis on his thoughts is contested polemically which is pushing India’s public discourse back to a battle between hegemony and counter-hegemony of political ideas. Sampoornanand, while writing the preface for Political Diary, said that the book might be “surprising to some people”.Therefore, it is no surprise that uninformed intellectuals groomed in a culture of political binaries see Upadhyaya merely as a party icon. Sampoornanand’s words are a beacon for contemporary India: He said in the preface to Political Dairy that we must practice “a simple expression of the great virtue of tolerance… if democracy is to take root in our country”.