The Bihar Chief Minister is the inheritor to the historical logic that constantly brings the Congress, socialists and the Left parties together at various junctures
Most interpretations of why Nitish Kumar parted ways with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have focused on narrow electoral calculations the Janata Dal (United) leader might have based his decision on but there are deeper historical factors at play as well.
The record of Indian politics in the decades after Independence shows a dialectical pattern in the relationship between the Congress and socialist stalwarts like Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Ashok Mehta. It was Nehru who encouraged JP to form the Congress Socialist Party in 1934 which would act as a force within the Congress to bring about a more egalitarian social order. There was an intense struggle within the Congress, before and after independence, in which the likes of JP, Lohia and Acharya Narendra Dev wanted far-reaching socialistic reforms, which were opposed by conservatives within the party who were pressured by the big landowning class which was also part of the broader Congress led movement.
The dialectical pattern derives from the fact that the same socialist group led by JP and Lohia, which Nehru had helped create, walked out of the Congress after Independence and launched several movements against the Congress’s status quoist approach. But the vestiges of an umbilical cord remained as most of the leaders who led anti-Congress movements in the subsequent decades were from the Congress stable. This is what makes the current day interplay between the Congress and the many JP-Lohia legatees like Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav so interesting.
It is this historical logic which constantly brings the Congress and socialists, and even the communists, together at various junctures — either through third front experiments or other coalition combinations. True, these formations are driven by the pure logic of power in the short run. However, the ideological DNA of these formations also plays a role, albeit in a somewhat unconscious manner.
The Congress also, from time to time, seeks to blunt opposition from the socialists and communists by adopting policies which are strongly welfare oriented. In recent years, the prime example of this would be the first legislatively mandated employment guarantee programme at the national level.
The socialists within and outside the Congress have played a huge role in shaping the political economy of this country. At one point, after the 1952 general election, Nehru actively sought JP’s help in crafting a socialist agenda for the Congress. JP had then suggested a 14-point programme which included abolition of privy purses, nationalisation of banks and encouragement of cooperative farming after doing land reforms. Of course, Nehru could not implement these policies as he was strongly opposed by conservatives from within the Congress. However, JP’s ideas never died. A few years later, Indira Gandhi implemented some of them.
A superficial reading by the right wing of Indira Gandhi’s move to nationalise banks and abolish privy purses was that she did it to consolidate her power. The truth, however, is that these ideas were in the system, endorsed by JP and Nehru, from the time Indira was still a teenager.
The larger point is that the tradition of socialist politics within and outside the Congress is too strong and has had a historical momentum which cannot be simply wished away. Added to this is a tradition of secular politics which the Hindu right describes as “pseudo secular.” This “pseudo secular” politics, too, has had a historical momentum of its own.
The first time the sangh parivar got significantly enmeshed in the long-standing dialectical interplay between the Congress, socialists and communists was during the Emergency when the larger anti-Congress formation included the Jana Sangh. JP, who was a staunch secularist, got somewhat attracted to the disciplined cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which he thought would help lift the anti-corruption movement against the Congress and the Emergency. To some extent he legitimised the Jana Sangh and its successor organisation, the BJP. But eventually, the socialists saw the dangers this association brought and split the Janata Party on this issue.
Today, the rise of Narendra Modi may have stirred a similar ideological guilt within the legatees of the JP-Lohia tradition. Mr. Kumar may well have decided to move out of the alliance with the BJP for this reason. As Mr. Modi progressively tightens his grip over the BJP, with guidance from the RSS, as is now quite evident, the decades old dialectical interplay between the Congress, JP-Lohia socialists and communists will kick in again and possibly produce a new ideological chemistry against the rising sectarian and divisive politics of the Hindu right.