Socialism: Where did the dreams and promises of a just democracy go?

Despite limited electoral success of the socialists, socialism as an idea always dominated Indian polity, compelling all the major political parties to pretend to be espousing the socialist cause | Illustration - Immayabharathi K

As the sun goes down the horizon in India’s capital, a group of elders comprising mostly retired professors, bureaucrats and social activists step out of their home for an evening huddle.

They gather at a DDA flat in New Delhi’s Munirka to brainstorm the contentious issues confronting the country.

The modest ground floor flat serves as the office of the Samajwadi Samagam, a platform of a group of socialists trying to revive the values of socialism, which are under serious threat in the country from the right-wing capitalist ideologies of the BJP.

The recent changes in labour laws, the hasty passage of farm bills, privatisation of even profit-making public sector companies, growing unemployment and ever increasing tentacles of communal hatred can be a premise for a renewed socialist movement in the country, feel many of the last remaining socialist vanguards.

“Socialism is the need of the hour in India today to safeguard the interest of the poor and marginalised people, and therefore, we are trying to bring socialist forces together,” said Arun Kumar Shrivastava.

Shrivastava was the convenor of a nationwide ‘Samajwadi Vichar Yatra’ the Samagam had embarked upon since January 30 this year, covering 16 states to spread the “ideals of socialism, unite India and save the Constitution” at a time when “secular ethos of the country is under threat”.

History of socialism in India

The history of socialism in India can be traced back to the early 19th century, with the formation of the Communist Party of India in 1920 inspired by the success of the Russian Revolution.

Socialism in India
Jia Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Rambriksh Benipuri at Kisan Sabha CSP Patna Rally, August 1936

But socialism as a distinctive ideology, separate from communism, emerged in India with the formation of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934 by Jai Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Narendra Deva, Minoo Masani and others. The CSP functioned as a socialist caucus within the Indian National Congress.

The CSP was however an ideological potpourri with a group led by JP and Narendra Deva espousing Marxist trend of socialism, Lohia favouring Gandhian socialism while Masani, inspired by a British socialist organisation, the Fabian Society, was advancing the principle of democratic socialism.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a self-proclaimed socialist, strangely remained aloof from the CSP, though he attempted to adapt western concept of socialism to the Indian context.

After independence, the CSP severed its ties with the Congress to form the Socialist Party with JP, Lohia, Narendra Deva and others joining it. In 1952, the nascent party merged with the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party of JB Kripalani to morph into the Praja Socialist Party. Within three years of its formation, the party suffered a split with a faction led by Lohia walking out to form Socialist Party (Lohia).

Since the early days, the socialist movement in India was marred by splits, leading to its disintegration into several small parties. Observers of the movement attributed the factionalism to the presence of divergent ideological and political convictions as was witnessed at the genesis when the CSP was formed.

Socialist suit

Despite limited electoral success of the socialists, socialism as an idea always dominated Indian polity, compelling all the major political parties to pretend to be espousing the socialist cause.

It’s this compulsion of being perceived as commoner that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in spite of sporting high-end luxury eyewear, watches and designer suits, proclaims himself a “fakir” and flaunts his purported “chaiwala” background.

George Fernandes with Ram Vilas Paswan and Ajit Singh (extreme left) and other socialist leaders

Perhaps it was his perceived humble past that allows him to get away with his affluent lifestyle, which is otherwise a pariah in Indian politics. The “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe hurled at his government stems from that inherent socialist polity where the rich have no electoral constituency.

Election speech of any leader of any political party is invariably loaded with promises of safeguarding the interest of marginalised, farmers and labourers. No leader would dare claim upholding the interest of corporate or big businesses even after the economic reforms initiated by PV Narasimha Rao in 1991 changed the contour of the Indian economy and the social fabric as well.

“I have learnt it very early that the fundamental nature of the big politicians in India is socialist that is really in the DNA. It is statist,” observed investor and fund manager Ruchir Sharma in an interview with the Economic Times last year.

The fading image

Constitutionally speaking, India is still a socialist democratic republic.

The enigma is why then the socialist parties are fading away though socialism as an ideology still remains relevant in India. Bihar is currently the only state where the ruling as well as the main opposition can claim direct lineage to a socialist party.

Many socialists and political observers say the decline is primarily because of two reasons—the poor understanding of socialism and giving prominence to self-interest by those who swore by the ideology.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad, the last of the socialist tradition are fast fading away into memories

The biggest setback to socialism in India was the idea that social change can be initiated through caste politics, points out Anand Kumar, a retired professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and one of the ideologues of the Samajwadi Samagam.

It has degenerated socialist parties into numerous caste-based entities, Kumar observes.

Moreover, in the popular psyche in India socialism narrowed down to the concept of nationalisation after Indira Gandhi unveiled her 10-point programme at the AICC session in June 1967 seeking to nationalise banks, general insurance, export and import etc. to make India a socialist democracy.

In contrast to the concept that under socialism all properties and means of production are communally owned and controlled by a strong centralised government, Scandinavian countries that practice social democracy have struck a fine balance between welfare states and free-market capitalism, points out Anand Kumar.

He says to revive socialism in India, the socialists need to return to the fundamentals and take their ideologies to the people to clear some of the misconceptions. For that, he says there should be unity among socialist clans, with leaders rising above their caste and self-interests. That is a tall task.

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