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Opening up the socialist space in Indian politics

Harish Khare

In the coming post-George Fernandes era, the socialists will have many opportunities in various parts of the country to tap the alienation of the poor from the mainstream economy.

LAST WEEK the Lok Sabha debated the Volcker Committee Report. Expectedly, George Fernandes intervened. Those who watched him stumble and fumble his way through a 40-minute performance could not help noticing his infirmities. Nor could an observer avoid the inference that perhaps a long inning was coming to an end. No longer can Mr. Fernandes be expected be to the catalyst in national doings and undoings. And just as the Fernandes era is coming to end, so is the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K.Advani phase. Just as Mr. Fernandes has been marginalised by others in the Janata Dal (U) politics, these two stalwarts, too, are no longer in command and are simply happy being used and manipulated by other ambitious forces in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Does the end of the Fernandes era throw up possibilities for opening up the socialist space in the Indian politics?

Undoubtedly the most significant aspect of the recent Bihar vote was the defeat of Lalu Prasad and his kind of politics at the hands of the Janata Dal (U); but of no less significance is the fact that this victory was achieved without Mr. Fernandes' midwifery. The Nitish Kumar-Sharad Yadav duo called the shots in the Janata Dal (U) and kept the party president (Mr. Fernandes) out of the frame just as it forced the BJP to leave its saffron impedimenta back in New Delhi. And though it was a coalition of the Janata Dal (U) and the BJP that got the better of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bihar vote can also be seen as a victory for an old kind of socialist promise of a better deal for the marginalised and the poor. Without romanticising too much the Nitish Kumar turn-around, it is possible to suggest that there is a political life beyond the caste identity. In the post-George Fernandes phase, the socialists do have a chance to rediscover their voice, provided they are able to undertake a course correction. This means, at its minimum, a political divorce from the BJP.

In immediate historical terms, the BJP leadership has reason to be extremely grateful to Mr. Fernandes. Had it not been for Mr. Fernandes' willingness to break bread with the saffron crowd, the BJP would have not been able to overcome its untouchability problem at the national level with centrist/socialist forces. For a long time, except the Shiv Sena, no other political outfit, regional or national, was willing to sign up with the BJP. Then came Mr. Fernandes bringing with him a life-long cultivated anti-Congressism, which enabled the smaller groups to overcome their aversion for the saffron colours. As far as Mr. Fernandes was concerned, his anti-Congressism was topped with a generous serving of the anti-Nehru family animus. This helped the "socialist firebrand leader" become a natural ally of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and all its political offspring. While this convergence of antipathies sustained the Fernandes-BJP love affair, it nonetheless drained the socialist elements in the Janata parivar of their traditional concerns.

In a way the George Fernandes-BJP jugal bandhi was a replay — if only a self-serving repeat — of the Ashok Mehta "thesis" in the early 1950s. Those were still early days of Independence and Ashok Mehta argued that India's inherent social stagnation imposed "inescapable compulsion" on political parties and that rather than act merely as "obstructive factions," the socialists could give "on the basis of programmatic agreement between democratic parties" the ruling party a helping hand in implementing the task of nation-building. For years the Ashok Mehta thesis confused the socialists and reduced them (in Rammanohar Lohia's evocative phrase) to "paralysed socialists." But more than this, the thesis of collaboration with Jawaharlal Nehru's Congress was, as Madhu Limaye was to point out later, "to make the progressive opposition an apologist for the government and let parties like the Communist Party take leadership of the discontented masses."

Just as Ashok Mehta generated confusion and chaos among the socialists in the earlier era, the Fernandes-BJP jugal bandhi hastened the creeping fragmentation of the Janata parivar in the late 1990s. Once Mr. Fernandes shepherded the "Janata" forces into the BJP/RSS embrace, the socialist voice lost out on two counts — a commitment to the secular values and a firm alignment on the side of the poor, the have-nots and the marginalised. Without these two notes the socialist voice lost its moral tenor at the national level; and within the socialist/Janata parivar, the gentle and the sensitive faces — Madhu Dandvate, Surendra Mohan, Kishen Patnaik, Rabi Ray, Mrinal Gore, Ramakrishna Hegde — got pushed into the background; newer, rougher and louder advocates of socialist dreams — Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, and Lalu Prasad among others — set up their private fiefdoms, all in the name of social justice. But with George Saheb so cheerfully playing raj guru to the BJP crowd, be it the Staines murder or the Gujarat massacre, the socialist voice ceased to count cumulatively at the national level. The earlier socialist tradition of debate, arguments, and theoretical formulations gave way to the settling of scores with money and muscle power. Now with the imminent end of the George Fernandes innings, the socialists have a chance to turn a new leaf.

The central compelling fact of Indian politics remains that with the exception of the Left parties, there is no genuine organised platform that seeks to speak primarily and essentially for the poor who still constitute the majority of the Indian society. The poor no longer figure in anybody's calculus either as "vote-bank" or even as a sociological category. Both the Congress and the BJP are consciously committed to the welfare and prosperity of the consumerist middle-classes, which at best account for 30 per cent of the population. It is only natural that the most organised and the most resourceful social segments should have the acquiescence of the two most organised political formations in the country. The top and middle level leadership of these two parties is content to get its approval from the foreign investor and the middle-class controlled media. Though these two parties are not averse to talking of the aam admi and the "poor" whenever expediency so demands, they are unwilling and incapable of working for the betterment of the majority of people in Indian society. In particular, in the post-Advani era, the BJP's vulnerability to corporate interests would become institutionalised.

Coalition politics

Worse, these two major parties have mesmerised themselves and others with the "coalition era is inevitable " rhetoric. This mostly flawed argument of "coalition" politics induces smaller parties to perforce align with either the BJP or the Congress and in the process deprives these junior partners of any say in the national policy-making. Whatever be its electoral usefulness, the "coalition mantra" has produced "coalition dharma" as the working style, which in simple terms means a negation of the idea of socialist concerns. What is even more unappetising is that this type of "coalition" has become an arrangement in which the supposedly pro-poor faces are made to preside over privatisation and corporatisation of the public sector undertakings. The Paswans of this world have their usefulness. On their part, these self-proclaimed friends of the poor and the marginalised learnt how to use the "coalition" umbrella to their personal advantage.

Now, if the Nitish Kumar victory has to have a manifestation beyond Bihar it stands to reason that sooner than later the "socialists/Janata" crowd must begin the process of linking up with the Left, based on a progressive agenda. This is a very different proposition from the "third front" stratagem that the Mulayam Singh Yadav-Amar Singh duo keeps suggesting from time to time. The onus of course would be on the various Janata outfits to de-link themselves from the sangh parivar before there can be any reasonable chance of the pro-poor forces coming together and gathering enough strength and efficacy to roll back the rapacious economic "reformers," whether local or global. This way the socialists would help disabuse the sangh parivar of the silly fallacy that "Ram and roti" can go hand in hand.

In the coming post-George Fernandes era, the socialists will have many opportunities in various parts of the country to tap the alienation of the poor from the mainstream economy. Not only will they have to reject the Fernandes' type of collaborative impulses, they will also need to find ways of rescuing socialist politics from the politics of social justice entitlements. A new beginning is possible.

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