INDIA has probably produced more variants of socialism than all of Europe. And as you’d expect, these varying ideological strains often end up arguing with each other. So, today, our pure-bred Kolkata Marxists would sit under giant portraits of Mao in their offices and dismiss Naxalite-Maoists as “leftist degenerates”. The Congress has lately perfected another socialist variant, much preferred by its establishment jholawala chic. It is povertarianism—poverty is my birthright and I shall make sure you have it. But nobody invented a strain of socialism as quaint as Ram Manohar Lohia, the great Nehru-baiter, who infamously described in Parliament Indira Gandhi, then a new prime minister still finding her way, as goongi gudia (dumb doll). If you have a fundamental disagreement with socialism, you would see Lohiaism as its worst manifestation: it combines the most retrograde Left economics with the worst of the Right’s xenophobia. But like most other socialist thinkers, Lohia was a genuine and original intellectual. Unlike Indian communists of that era who were so starry-eyed about China, he was the first to warn the country of an inevitable conflict with China, in 1946! Much before the rise of the saffron Jan Sangh, he was the first national leader to oppose the Congress in the 1950s and ’60s. He built a formidable array of parliamentarians, from Nath Pai (who famously offered Nehru his bald head when he made light of the Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin saying not a blade of grass grew there) to Madhu Limaye and Madhu Dandavate, George Fernandes, Raj Narain and, of course, not to forget JP, later hailed as “Loknayak”.
It is a tribute to the genius of Lohia that even today the anti-Congress forces in the Hindi heartland are all led by his ideological offspring: Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, even to an extent Ajit Singh whose father Charan Singh first broke the Congress stranglehold on Uttar Pradesh. Many of the socialists in Indira’s Congress too drew inspiration from Lohia. Not surprisingly, some of them were members of the so-called Young Turks group led by Chandra Shekhar (the