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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010

In Rammanohar Lohia’s Birth Centenary Year - Removing the Cobwebs

Monday 8 February 2010, by Surendra Mohan


Among the radical and progressive sections which have carried or inherited the legacy of the Nehruvian consensus, the name of Dr Rammanohar Lohia is synonymous with an anti-Nehru and anti-Indira Gandhi obsessed mindset. This personal angle is then transferred to the ideological plane and these sections associate Lohia with the opposites of the elements of that consensus.

This entire understanding is, however, deeply flawed and contrary to facts. Its dismisses, as if with a wave of hand, Lohia’s signal service in the cause of freedom, and in particular, his daring episode of setting up the Congress Radio in the ‘Quit India’ struggle through which he continuously broadcast messages instructing the freedom fighters working in the underground for over two months. When freedom was round the corner, he thought of the tiny pocket of Goa which was groaning under Portuguese oppression, and raised the banner of revolt there. He was arrested and released when Mahatma Gandhi intervened with the then Viceroy, Lord Wavell, and the Church.

Till mid-1945, Lohia was an acolyte of Jawaharlal Nehru who had brought him into the All-India Congress Committee’s secretariat in 1936 where he worked in the company of other Leftist radicals as Dr Mohommad Ashraf and Dr Z.A. Ahmed for a couple of years. During those days and later too, he stayed at the Anand Bhawan, the Nehrus’ residence, and received Nehu’s affection and guidance. This relationship was reflected thirty years later in his reply to a question put to him by Mrs Tarakeshwari Sinha, a Minister in Nehru’s government. She had asked him why he was such a vehement critic of Nehru. He replied that during the freedom struggle, Nehru was greatly loved by all socialists, including him, and he desired to get the same Nehru back, to serve the people of the country as a socialist.

Lohia’s disenchantment with Nehru came when Nehru, along with Sardar Patel, accepted the Mountbatten Plan for the vivisection of India, instead of launching the final onslaught on the British imperial authority. It is a recorded fact of history that the two leaders had not consulted Mahatma Gandhi before agreeing with Lord Mountbatten, and that the Mahatma had pointed it out in the meeting of the Congress Working Committee. In his book Guilty Men of India’s Partition, Lohia mentioned it, as also his own expression of deep anguish in the meeting at the prospect of partition.

Nehru, on his election as the Congress President in 1946, invited Lohia to join the AICC as its General Secretary. Lohia suggested to him that the offices of the Congress President and the Prime Minister should be kept separate in order that the supremacy of the organisation is established. He also wanted the number of Ministers who would be nominated as members of the Working Committee to be restricted. Since these proposals were not accepted, he did not accept Nehru’s offer. Lohia was profoundly shocked at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and blamed the government, particularly Nehru and Patel, for security lapses. Thus, bitterness between him and Nehru increased. This should be understood in the background of their earlier close relationship. But, obviously, the differences in political outlook alone were at the core of the growing bitterness.

The Congress Socialists left the Congress party in March 1948, and thereafter they functioned in opposition to the latter. Lohia, an expert on foreign affairs, a department he had handled in the AICC in the 1930s, was disturbed at Nehru’s refusal to actively oppose China’s incursions in Tibet in 1950, though he was not the only one to do so. Sardar Patel himself had advised the Prime Minister against it. The Socialists were also critical of the Draft Five Year Plan which had not even mentioned generation of employment as one of its objectives, and the party, with Lohia as its General Secretary, deputed Joint Secretaries Sadiq Ali and Asoka Mehta to represent its views to the Planning Commission. As they were acutely disappointed at the slow pace of land reforms also, Lohia went ahead to lead the struggle of farmers in Kodur Taluka of Shimoga district in Karnataka in 1951.


But, possibly, it was Lohia’s virulent opposition to the Nehru-JP talks in 1953 which created a strong impression that he was anti-Nehru, though it was only a principled position that Opposition leaders should not discuss sharing of power with the head of the government. Nehru’s close friend, socialist leader Acharya Narendra Dev, was also opposed to such a sharing of power. Then, there was the issue of preferential opportunities for the backward castes. Lohia had been referring to several Articles in the Constitution providing for it and was appalled when Nehru rejected the report submitted by the Kaka Kalelkar Commission appointed to make recommendations in that behalf. He was keen that the substance of political power and public employment is shared by the SE/BCs and they be provided opportunity of equality.

While the polity had strengthened the hold of the English-speaking public school-educated bureaucracy which invariably came from the forward castes so that the distance between it and the bulk of the people was increasing, Lohia strove for a people-oriented and democratic administration. His grouse was against the retention of the Huzoor Ma Baap administration which the colonial power had bequeathed. The professional elite, which also was English-speaking forward-caste middle class, was greatly upset and it characterised Lohia as anti-Nehru and opposed to the Nehruvian consensus. It should be obvious, however, that language and caste policies had nothing to do with that consensus which was based on the values of the freedom struggle. Its main features were democracy, secularism, progressive economic policies caring for the downtrodden and economic self-reliance. Lohia always subscribed to these ideals and was critical of Nehru only at their dilution or negation. For instance, he supported the extension of the public sector, but was unhappy with its bureaucratisation.

Lohia entered the Lok Sabha in 1963 in a by-election from the Farrukhabad parliamentary constituency. By that time, Nehru’s stature had suffered owing to his miscalculation about China’s intentions and India’s military defeat at her hands. Even within the Congress Parliamentary Party, strongly critical voices had emerged. Lohia had been cautioning the country on the issue of Tibet from 1950 onwards, and did not subscribe to Nehru’s view that, historically, Tibet had been a part of China. These were obviously differences of policy, and there was no personal angle in them. However, it was the 14 anna-teen anna controversy between him and Nehru that must have hurt the adorers of Nehru the most.

Lohia was trained in the Gandhian tradition and followed his Gandhi-follower father’s austere living. He was, therefore, convinced that the rulers in our abysmally poor country should live in a simple manner without pomp and show. Hence, he contrasted the absolutely poverty stricken life of a common man and the expense on the Prime Minister’s pet dog as an illustration of the ostentatious life-style of the ruling class.

Corruption in high places, incidence of black money and the collusion among the political class, the bureaucrats and big business were ascribed by Lohia to the uninterrupted power monopoly of the Congress party. He used to say that the nation was in the grip of a coiled cobra which was sapping its dynamism. He also under-stood that the Congress party had been thriving owing to the division among the Opposition parties. In order, therefore, to end this monopoly of power, he called for no-contest electoral pacts among them. This policy acquired the name of non-Congressism. The Congress-supporting intelligentsia accused Lohia of collaborating with the Right reactionary elements like the Swatantra Party and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. He, on the other hand, recalled Lord Acton’s famous phrase that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. His electoral strategy paid handsome dividends in the general election in 1967 when the Congress party was ousted from power in nine States. Lohia insisted on the Samyukta Vidhayak Dals, which came to power, to give better governance than the party they had ousted. He laid down that each one of them must implement some basic reform within six months of assumption of power. His party, the SSP, was to quit those governments which failed to do so. It is well known that the SVD Government in UP, presided over by Choudhry Charan Singh, fell when the Chief Minister refused to remove land revenue from uneconomic holdings, and the SSP withdrew its support. Thus, Lohia’s non-Congressism was not merely negative but contained a strong positive content.

During the independence struggle, decentra-lisation of political power and empowerment of the village panchayats were being canvassed by Mahatma Gandhi. This programme was included in the Directive Principles of the Constitution. Lohia defined it in his own way by proposing the concept of a four-pillar state, comprising the village, the district, the State and the Union, and advocating that each succeeding tier get lesser powers than the preceding one. He was also a strong votary of the system in which the people themselves would produce bulk of the essential commodities which they needed. Thus, he advocated Gandhian economics but modified it to call for the widest possible use of the small-unit machine.

All this would go to show that Lohia did not possess an obsessed mindset, but carried on the Gandhian traditions of the freedom struggle. This being his birth centenary year, his critics might use the occasion to revisit his teachings.

The author, a leading socialist ideologue, has been a strong votary of Lohia’s approach to society and politics.

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