Karan Thapar’s interview with Satya Pal Malik for The Wire has fittingly left large sections of Indians bemused by its contents and angered by the government’s silence on the former Jammu and Kashmir governor’s accusations on key issues, including national security.
The interview also provides us an opportunity to turn the gaze on the role of India’s socialist groups, and leaders, over almost nine decades of their existence. In the first half of the 20th century socialist leaders worked with Jawaharlal Nehru, but later turned against him to create a platform of anti-Congressism. Today’s remaining socialist leaders may be doing something similar to Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Satya Pal Malik, although a BJP vice-president when appointed governor of Bihar in September 2017, embarked on a political career in 1966 as president of Meerut College Students Union by joining the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha – the youth wing of the Samyukta Socialist Party led by Rammanohar Lohia. It is a different matter that in the “tradition” set by leaders from various socialist factions, Malik, too, swung across the entire political spectrum.
India’s social democrats first coalesced under the banner of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934; they remained within the Indian National Congress (INC) despite having a separate constitution. Dual membership was customary then; numerous Congress leaders were associated with the Hindu Mahasabha. (Likewise, structural “fluidity” existed between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Mahasabha.) Acharya Narendra Dev and Jayaprakash Narayan were president and secretary, respectively, of the CSP’s constitution-drafting committee. The party’s foundation conference in May 1934 was attended by several bigwigs, including Minoo Masani, Sampurnanand, Lohia and N.G. Ranga.
Although socialist factions played a pivotal role in politically legitimising Hindu rightwing forces from the late 1950s onward, the parting of ways between CSP leaders and the INC was over the “softness” of Congress leaders, led by the then UP chief minister, Govind Ballabh Pant, towards the Hindu nationalist viewpoint as articulated by Nehru’s ideological opponent Purushottam Das Tandon. Narendra Dev was the Congress legislator from Ayodhya but resigned – in an era preceding the anti-defection law – on moral grounds as his group decided to establish the CSP as a separate political party.
Pant fielded a Hindu priest known for his sectarian views and an associate of Hanuman Prasad Poddar, promoter of the Gorakhpur-based Gita Press, pioneers in the publication of religious and Hindu nationalistic books and periodicals. Poddar, in turn, was a confidant of Mahant Digvijaynath – Yogi Aditayanath’s predecessor’s predecessor as the head of the Gorakhnath math and part of the plan being hatched to seize control of the Babri masjid. Pant’s plan worked and Narendra Dev lost the byelection.
This resolute opposition to communal forces was forgotten by the socialists swiftly. In the first Lok Sabha polls, Lohia backed the Mahasabha candidate against Nehru and the socialists engaged with the newly formed Jana Sangh and the Mahasabha. Contrary to the political consensus in India, the socialists backed Israel and supported Zionism. Several socialist stalwarts, including J.P. Narayan, J.B. Kripalani and Asoka Mehta, visited the country.
A decade later, after the poor electoral performance of the two socialist parties – the Praja Socialist Party and the Socialist Party – Lohia started forging an opposition platform based solely on anti-Congressism. In May 1963, byelections for four Lok Sabha seats – three in UP and one in Gujarat – were held and Lohia convinced Deendayal Upadhyaya and others to field a single opposition candidate for each seat. Consequently, Minoo Masani stood as a Swatantra Party candidate from Rajkot, Kripalani as an independent from Amroha, Lohia as a Socialist Party nominee from Farrukhabad and Upadhyaya as a Jana Sangh candidate from Jaunpur.
It was the first instance of a joint strategy to field single opposition candidates against the nominees of the Congress, which was reeling from the reverses of the 1962 war with China. The initiative for the joint strategy was largely Lohia’s and although Upadhayaya lost, this was the first time that the Jana Sangh was not treated like a political untouchable. Lohia continued his partnership with the Jana Sangh – in April 1964 he issued a joint statement with Upadhyaya opposing the Congress’s stand on nuclear disarmament.
The 1967 elections yielded fragmented verdicts in several states. Lohia’s health was declining, but other socialist leaders got the Jana Sangh on board for the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments, the first coordinated coalition effort across several states.
A greater push for the Sangh Parivar’s political legitimisation was given in the run-up to the imposition of the Emergency. A key role was played by JP, who was approached by two important RSS workers of that time – K.N. Govindacharya and Sushil Modi. By then, the Navnirman Movement in Gujarat, backed solidly by the RSS, was hugely successful.
The two RSS pracharaks met JP and got him on board. JP wanted absolute leadership and insisted that the movement must remain non-violent. The RSS agreed because this partnership ensured its passage towards the political centre stage. Tales of socialist and other opposition leaders being escorted to safe houses by underground RSS pracharaks during the Emergency are well known. Narendra Modi shepherded George Fernandes to safety. Shared experiences during the Emergency paved the way for the Jana Sangh’s merger into the Janata Party – Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee became ministers in Morarji Desai’s government.
But this experience singed the socialists as the Janata Party collapsed on the issue of dual membership. Much later, socialists like George Fernandes played a crucial role in ensuring that the BJP was part of the anti-Congress bandwagon in the coalition era post-1987 when VP Singh broke away from the Congress.
George Fernandes again played a pivotal role in securing more alliance partners for the BJP after its failed attempt at government formation in 1996. By this time, Nitish Kumar was his close aide in the newly formed Samata Party. Political skulduggery remained part of the socialist culture as eventually Nitish Kumar kept alternating between BJP and anti-BJP forces after the emergence of Modi. He also completely marginalised Fernandes, who in death was genuinely mourned by merely a handful.
Malik’s decision to reveal the “truth” about the Pulwama attack will be examined elsewhere, but his decision to part ways with Modi is part of an old socialist ethos of immense ideological fluidity.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
Journalist Qurban Ali’s article, Blunders of the Communists and Socialists, Janata, January 2016, was referred to for this article.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.