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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 8, February 14, 2015

Lohia’s Quarrel with Nehru

Monday 16 February 2015, by Ashok Celly

Not many people know that Lohia was an ardent admirer of Nehru in his youth. In fact, Nehru was one of the two leaders he simply adored—the other being Mahatma Gandhi. So when disillusionment set in, his criticism of Nehru acquired a bitterness, an extremist edge. It was like the reaction of a jilted lover. His hero had let him down. Nehru for Lohia became the God that failed.

As Lohia saw it, the idealist in Nehru had been superseded by the practical politician as India drew close to its independence. For instance, the hardboiled pragmatism with which Nehru and Patel agreed to Mountbatten’s plan to partition India—something the Congress had opposed all along—without even bothering to consult or inform Gandhiji shocked Lohia as it did JP and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Lohia felt that Nehru and Patel, who belonged to opposite camps in the Congress, were keen to taste the fruits of power and had no stomach left for another fight with the British. And if partition was the price of power, they were willing to pay it. Lohia, who was an eyewitness to the distressing spectacle, writes in his book Guilty Men of India’s Partition:

Messrs Nehru and Patel were offensively aggressive to Gandhiji at the meeting.... What appeared to be astonishing then as now, though I can understand it somewhat better, was the exceedingly rough behaviour of two chosen disciples towards their master.... They seemed to have set their heart on something and when they scented that Gandhiji was preparing to obstruct them, they barked violently.

Earlier, in 1936 to be precise, when Lohia was looking after the Foreign Affairs of the Congress party, he had detected a conservative streak in Nehru. In one of his write-ups in the bulletin he brought out, Lohia criticised the UP Government headed by G.B. Pant—the British had, after all, delegated some power to the Indians—for firing on peaceful agitators. Pant obviously did not like it, and complained to Nehru. In the face-off between Lohia and Pant, Nehru was on Pant’s side. He seemed more worried about the reputation of the Congress than the moral propriety or otherwise of the act of firing. Although there was no direct confrontation between Lohia and Nehru, this episode must have taken some sheen off his idol. That Lohia felt very strongly about the whole issue, that is, a democratic government must not resort to firing on peaceful agitators was demonstrated dramatically after independence when Lohia denounced the PSP-Congress coalition government in Travancore-Cochin on this very count.

The feeling that Nehru was not going to depart substantially from the colonial style of governance was strengthened by Nehru’s new-found love for the bureaucracy. Lohia was shocked to find that among his hot favourites were some of the staunchest apologists of the Raj. Also, when Lohia led a demonstration in support of the democratic movement in Nepal—that was in May 1949—an entirely peaceful group of demonstrators was lathi-charged, teargassed and put in prison. Lohia expressed his sense of shock and disbelief to his socialist colleagues in the following words: “Even Stalin didn’t act that fast against his colleagues.” For Lohia and his followers nothing seemed to have changed except the face of oppression.

What finally alienated Lohia from his once-upon-a-time idol was the feeling that Nehru was not seriously committed to socialism. He talked a great deal about socialism but his profession was not backed by practice. It is true that he assigned an important role to the public sector in India’s economic development, but the creation of a public sector didn’t in any way lead to the empowerment of the working class. It only created another set of bureaucrats—industrial bureaucrats with no grounding in socialist ethos.

Also, Nehru had sought cooperation from the Socialist Party to realise the socialist dream. JP was at the helm of affairs in the Socialist Party and had great faith in Nehru even though he had walked out of the Congress. There were others in the party who believed that Nehru would lead the socialist revolution when the objective conditions were favourable, that is, the Right-wingers were out of the way. Eventually, the JP-Nehru talks fizzled out because Nehru was not willing to accept the fourteen-point programme suggested by JP as the basis of cooperation between the two parties. What was most amazing was Nehru’s expression of helplessness:

....it is beyond me both as Prime Minister and President of the Congress to deal with such vital matters and give assurances in regard to them.

Sounds incredible. If something is beyond the Prime Minister of this country, who also happens to be the President of the ruling party, we are indeed doomed and have no right to dream of a better world. In any case, the failure of the JP-Nehru talks must have left the Socialists a little more confused and damaged the socialist movement. It seems to me the two individuals who, knowingly or unknowingly, did the greatest damage to the socialist movement were JP and Nehru—JP by essaying different roles almost at the same time, that is, Bhoodan, joining hands with the Congress and of course organising his own party; Nehru by dangling the carrot of cooperation to the Socialists and thus sowing the seeds of confusion in the ranks of the Socialists who were already demoralised by the electoral debacle of 1952.

Finally, Lohia’s celebrated debut speech in Parliament in 1963 focused the nation’s attention on the condition of the masses and the kind of society that was shaping up under Nehru’s role. It highlighed the glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. In his inimitable style blending hard facts with high drama, Lohia alleged that 60 per cent of the Indian population lived on three annas a day while 300 rupees a month were spent on Nehru’s dog alone. This was not a personal attack on Nehru. Nehru for Lohia had become a symbol of the privileged class, the haves in Marxist terminology. Sixteen years of Nehru’s rule had succeeded in achieving just that—abject poverty on the one hand and incredible riches on the other. Nehru himself admitted that the rich had become richer and the poor poorer. Socialist praxis couldn’t have wrought this miracle, only socialist rhetoric.

Lohia’s view of Nehru was not as eccentric or crazy as is generally supposed to be. For instance, the assessment of noted South Asian historians, Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, is not very different from that of Lohia. To quote,

India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ at the midnight hour on August 15, 1947... has not eradicated the poverty, discrimination and exploitation of which colonialists were accused by nationalists. Neither the Gandhian dreams of self-sustained village reconstruction nor the radical objective of rapid socialist development through the instruments of a centralised state, have been fulfilled by the configurations that have ruled India since 1947.

(Modern South Asia, p. 197)

In any case, the admirers of Nehru must ask themselves: “How could a man of Nehru’s moral sensitivity and breadth of vision allow such a degrading practice as manual scavenging to continue—a practice which violates the most cherished value of mankind and to which we are constitutionally committed—namely, the dignity of the individual? How could an individual as civilised as Nehru show no empathy for the poor rural woman who had to suffer the ordeal and humiliation of defecating in the open. Finding decent alternative jobs for the scavengers or construction of toilets in the countryside, especially for women, didn’t figure in Nehru’s grand Five-Year Plans. Why? Could it be Gandhi’s ’last man’ didn’t form part of his imagination?”

The author, now a freelancer, retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.