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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 13, March 22, 2014

Left Unity: Lohia’s Approach

Sunday 23 March 2014

by Ravindranath and Ayub Syed

An encounter with the socialist leader would be rather extraordinary without some rough weather but we were not prepared for the squall we ran into the moment we sat down with him in his well-appointed drawing room. He said he would talk only in Hindi. When we remonstrated that one of us had been in the North for only three years, he said he had learnt German in Berlin in three months: “One learns a language only under compulsion.” Finally, he agreed to let us discuss half the questions in English but the rest in Hindi only. “This is a compromise which I wouldn’t normally accept,” he said. We knew it was useless to press him further.

First we asked him what exactly was his quarrel with the Congress since it too had adopted socialism. He said there was nothing in common between his concept of socialism and that of the Congress. Socialism is a dream as well as a reality. From the dream point of view, the more equality can be achieved, the better. The dream is total equality. But since we are politicians, we cannot go on dreaming alone, though the power which a dream has can be found in no other thing. So, after the dream one must try to realise it and for this keeping in view the conditions of the country and the time, a concrete programme should be evolved. “As I understand it, Congress socialism is formless (Nirgun) socialism; but its capitalism is Sagun (with form). It is rotten capitalism.”

It was rather arbitrary to put hypothetical alternatives before a politician but that is what we did. We asked him what he would do if he had to make a choice between democracy and socialism. Lohia frowned, but then came the answer in measured words—in impeccable English.

“In a certain sense,” he said, “democracy and socialism are only means to an end—human welfare, or shall I say, equality and peace. There is a very fine Hindustani word for it, which indicates both material equality and spiritual equanimity and that is the end.” He did not see any theoretical conflict between the two, but conceded that there might be occasions when there was such a practical conflict. In such a situation he would take “very good care” to see that one was not sacrificed for the other. We wondered whether the redoubtable socialist had been won over completely to the parliamentary way, but Lohia was just coming to the point.

“As I do not wish to evade your question, I would say that my preference would be for socialism rather than for democracy. But I hope such an occasion on which I have to exercise that preference will never arise. Actually, I have been looking upon socialism or equality as a means to the prosperity of my nation. I have quite often thought: if only we could have a national understanding of all vocal opinion in the country, that for the next 20 years we utilised the mode, the method of equality or socialism in order to achieve national prosperity.”

Having achieved national prosperity, he would be prepared to keep the field open for any encounter between socialism, capitalism, mixed economy and the like. But for the next 20 or 30 years, he saw no other way out except socialism. If a good part of the national produce was spent on modernising consumption, in luxury and on attempts to imitate the European and American standards of living, as was being done today, there would not be sufficient resources for productive investment in industry and agriculture. For that matter, he was for a moratorium on all imitation of European and American standards of living.


Can socialism be achieved without regimentation and one-party state? Lohia thought it could be achieve “theoretically”, although he admitted there would be practical difficulties. “Actually, the difficulty begins after the conquest of power. At the moment, we are faced with this great question —it concerns all humanity—is it possible to destroy evil without destroying the evil-doer? I know of no revolution, which has been able to do one thing without doing the other. Mahatma Gandhi tried to achieve that method of operation. I still believe in it. But the more I see human nature, the more I become sceptical about it. Nevertheless, I have not given up that hope; I shall never give it up. That hope shall always stay with me—that is, to have a revolution in India which shall not guillotine people like the French Revolution, which shall not massacre like the Russian Revolution, which will perhaps do a little coercion—may be lots of coercion by way of taking away all such private property as is harmful—and in the process get certain things done however much I may dislike them.”

Lohia said that what he wished with all his heart was that “my country” should be revived somehow. Our people, he said, had been living in a state of stupor and stagnation all these centuries ever since the disintegration of Kannauj. If it could not be ended “through my methods, well, others will come up with their methods”. Lohia often seeks to speak for all mankind but the man’s love for India is something intensely personal. He does not say “this country”. He says “my country”.

Civil Disobedience

The socialist leader has often said that civil disobedience or satyagraha should remain a recognised form of resistance to injustice even in democracy. How could it be ensured that it did not turn out to be a free-for-all method to advance individual and group interests? This is what we asked him. Lohia admitted that in any kind of popular action there was a risk of such things happening—violent, selfish, unorganised action, uprising and the like. But if the popular action was civil disobedience, then the chances of such deterioration were very slight. But then, he said, the use or non-use of violence was not the central issue. The central issue was this: “How does one organise one’s rebellion, organise it over years, over decades?” His point was that a rebellion organised on the basis of civil disobedience presupposed a certain kind of training which in itself would be a guarantee against its misuse, for selfish ends. “In civil disobedience, one invites mischief to oneself. One does not inflict it on others.” He emphasised that it all depended on the quality of civil disobedience. If its leaders were really serious about it, the chances of its deterio-ration were very slight.

But if it did? For instance, we recalled how Mahatma Gandhi confessed his own failure when there was any violence in the civil disobedience movement. Chauri Chaura was a classic instance. But why did Opposition leaders today behave differently? Even if a situation went out of their control and there was violence, they would blame the government, they would not own up their failure. Why? Lohia saw the point. But he had an answer:

Mahatma Gandhi did not do in 1930 and 1932 what he did in 1920. And again, he did not do in 1942—not at all—what he did in 1929... He evolved his action.... With the increase in maturity of his movement... So, this analogy of Mahatma Gandhi... stopping a movement because of its violent eruptions does not hold good. He did not stop his later movements because of those eruptions.

For that matter, he pointed out, very few of the Opposition leaders today had accepted the Gandhian philosophy of civil disobedience; “and if I blame them, I blame the present government even more”.

He said there were three types of Gandhian inheritors today. The first two were the government inheritors who always ridiculed the idea of civil disobedience under freedom and the priestly inheritors who went about “divesting the Mahatma of all political action, of all anger” and seeing only the love element in him. These two classes of Gandhian followers had created a situation in which it was “almost impossible for a person of my type, a heretic Gandhian, to uphold the banner of civil disobedience”. He hoped a favourable turn would come some day.


We wanted to know why the Left Opposition parties, which used direct action against the government for all sorts of causes, were chary of using the same weapon against anti-social elements among the traders, officials and landlords. Lohia was on the defensive for once. He was used to be blamed for making trouble, not for sparing anyone! Hence that slight apologetic note here:

That is not quite true. Sometimes our movement has used it against corrupt thanedars, bad landlords, traders and the like. But then there is one difficulty about it. These classes can easily turn it into some kind of a civil conflict. At the same time, there may be some elements in our own ranks who may be carrying out some private vendetta. So, we have to be very careful.

But the prospects of new frontiers in direct action appeared to warm the battle-scarred campaigner’s heart. He said, having sounded a note of caution: “I grant there is a point that if we were a really organised party, very well organised party, and if all the information could be supplied from the village right up to the central level and if the case against a trader or a bureaucrat or a landowner could be properly investigated, this question can be undertaken.” Again he stressed the need for an efficient, fool-proof machinery for this kind of operation.

When we met Lohia, his party, the SSP, had come to an understanding with the Communist Parties to fight the elections in concert. We asked him whether it meant that his theory of equal irrelevance no longer held good. “My theory of equal irrelevance,” he said, “was formulated in regard to the state of our civilisation, in regard to the conflict between capitalism and communism. I thought—and I still do so—that these two systems and their chief proponents like America and Russia are both equally good or equally bad and therefore irrelevant to the new human civilisation. There is no occasion for me to give up that theory. The automatic carrying over of that theory to the political parties in India is not justified.”


He made a confession which was remarkable alike for its candour and for a touching faith in human relations softening the sharp edges of ideological differences. He was speaking about the Communists:

About twenty years ago, I was opposed both to communism and the Communists. I perhaps was reacting emotionally to what they had done during the 1942 rebellion against British rule. Today I continue to be opposed to the doctrine of communism. And when I say the doctrine of communism, I do not mean equality; I mean the other appurtenances, the modes of action, the evil that goes with it, the identifying of the ultimate human good with a particular country of particular system, cultural situations and so on. I continue to be opposed to that doctrine, perhaps in a more determined way because it is also the cooler way. But towards the Communists, I have changed and I believe they are just as good or bad human beings as any other and just as good or bad Indians as any other. My attitude towards political parties including my own is this: Improve them or destroy them. I hope to effect improvements in the position of the Communist Party, that is, through our association with individual Communists, as I hope they will introduce certain improvements in our position. If either of us does not achieve those improvements, that party will be destroyed. So, instead of carrying on a frontal direct fight against the evils of communism—I would not say instead—suplementary to that fight, I am conducting a flank operation; that is, treat them as human beings as you would like to be treated by them and associate with them, consult with them on such questions as are desirable and hope for the best.

I have in fact suggested that the Communists and we might form one single party, for I am absolutely confident that if we become one new party, it would not for a moment expect to have a priest between India and the world... We just do not want a priest between India and the world, whether this priest may be Russia, China or America... Be done with priests. It is possible of course that the new party may give us in the earlier stages occasions to lament; but, if we can persist in our path, I am more or less certain that the new party will give up the Right Communist approach to Russia and the Left Communist approach to China and once that is done, I hope, up to a point, even those other approaches in regard to violence and evil....would also be given up.

Merger Idea

Was there any chance of a purely Indian Communist Party coming up? “I do not see,” Lohia replied, “why you should call it a Communist Party...we might call it a Socialist Party as well. Anyway these names do not matter.” He then said he was speaking for himself when he projected the idea of a single party. No Communist leader would dare support it publicly, though some of the rank-and-file in both wings of the party, fed up with the continual wrangling, might like the idea. Actually, he would go further: “I do not see why all the Opposition parties...genuinely opposed to the Congress administration should not come together and merge.” He was confident that the “angularities of the Jan Sangh” would be removed in the course of operation of this new party.

“I believe Indian politics will have to be tolerant. There are so many minorities in the country... At the same time, Indian politics will have to be nationalist, however revolutionary we are, however economically radical we are, that is, the frontiers of the country must be fully preserved unless, of course, we have a world government based on adult franchise.”

But there were so many difficulties in the way of a unified Opposition party emerging. “People have always asked me: ‘Why is it that you leaders quarrel among yourselves?’ To that my answer is: ‘Yes, leaders are to blame. They must get together. But then at some point, the people will have to decide as to which set among these leaders has the best policy and has made the best efforts to get together, and then vote for it.’ And then when that party begins growing, I hope other parties and leaders will begin to see reason.”

Ghost and Devil

Lohia thinks that one of the reasons why the Communists have grown strong in this country is the irrational fear others have about them with its corollary, the belief that the Congress Government has to be protected against a Communist attack on the one hand and a Jana Sangh attack on the other. The socialist movement after Independence has “suffered from this kind of unpaid soldiering for the Congress Government.” Fearing “a ghost that might appear in the future, let us not stop seeing the devil that is there in front of us”. What he thought of the devil, Lohia told us answering the next question.

We asked him how he rated the three Prime Ministers the country had had so far. Was the succession for the better? Lohia was outraged. “Better!” he burst out laughing. “How can anything go better under this fantastically evil Congress administration? They have all been evil and I do not blame the individual for it. But there is some kind of a social law in operation. Each successor has got to be worse than his predecessor. Each one of them has been worse than the fellow that preceded him or her...Now, for instance, whoever comes after the present Prime Minister will inevitably be worse because—if I may be forgiven for using an analogy from the plant kingdom—when an old tree rots, nothing, no medicine, no injection, can revive it. And the Congress is an old organisation. Nothing can revive it. No ideal holds it together, no policies hold it together. Most of its time is taken up with problems of ‘who is with whom’, ‘who is fighting whom’, ‘which group is where’ and ‘how my own bread could be buttered’. That being so, you cannot expect this organisation to produce any good Prime Minister. Those fellows are all the time bothered about what will happen to them in case this set-up is disturbed...”

Lohia had been speaking with a vehemence which made you feel that the Prime Minister would receive no quarter from him. But suddenly his voice dropped. There was a hint of compassion in it. “I would say this for the succeeding Prime Ministers: poor chaps, it has been a tragedy for them; each one of them has had a load to carry, the burden of the past, the misdeeds of the past. Each one of them has had the accumulated sins of the predecessors to carry. And so, if the present Prime Minister—this woman who is still pretty—if she has earned the disapprobation and anger of our people more than any other, I would say this for her: It is not only her own sins, it is those of Mr Shastri and Mr Nehru that she has had to suffer for. You know that Indian saying: The jar of sins is now full to be brim—or almost full—I do not know whether it is going to burst soon; but then that stage is arriving.”

When Lohia spoke of Srimati Indira Gandhi, his voice softened and the words dragged a bit. But then even a woman had to pay the penalty if she happened to be of the tribe of Prime Ministers.


When he talked of the failure of the socialist movement in India, Lohia did not show any bitterness to his old colleagues. There was no recrimination, only humility and sadness. “Perhaps there was something lacking in us as human beings. We could not take defeat. The very first electoral defeat in 1952 floored most of us..” What was the reason for this inability to take defeat? He thought it may partly have been due to lack of conviction. “During the fight against British rule, socialism was to most of us a vague aspiration rather than a programme or a plan of action or a dream which needed to be filled out with items of reality and that kind of thing has still persisted. I have tried to correct this state of affairs in my own way. I don’t think I have succeeded very famously.”

This was not the Lohia his critics have made out, the Lohia who makes life miserable for fellow socialists. He reviewed the failure of the movement as a tragedy which did not call for apportioning of blame on the individual plane. Incidentally, he appeared to regret the loss of Jayaprakash Narayan to the socialist movement. He had sometimes been very harsh to JP in the past.

Suddenly Lohia’s bushy eye-brows arched menacingly. He was still talking in English! “Are you pulling a fast one on me, making me answer everything in this foreign language?” he asked in Hindi. We said he was speaking so well—much better than we could ever do—in this foreign language. Why not continue like this? The compliment fell flat. “That only shows I am a better ape than you,” he grunted. The talk continued in English for a little longer.

Many Thrills

What was the most thrilling moment he could recall in his political life? “A difficult question,” he said. Reclining on the sofa, he must have been seeing at that moment the dust of a hundred battles rising in his memory. He paused for a moment and then, with a far-away look in his eyes, said:

There have been innumerable thrills. I don’t know; in a certain sense I am a somewhat immature person, more of an adolescent that an old person because every situation appears to me to be a fantastically novel situation. I am slightly nervous, still so, before making a speech, an ordinary speech—and I must have spoken thousands of times—but then each speech has an occasion and I like each speech to conform to that new occasion. Therefore, there is a novelty in it. But then if you ask me straight off, well, there were Goas, there were Nepals, there were those various peasant marches. Also actions during the Independence movement, of course.... During the 1942 rebellion days, there were occasions when I turned to stone—whether out of a firmness of resolve or paralysis of my faculties, it is not for me to decide. Oh yes, there have been thrills and too many of them.

(Mainstream, October 21, 1967)