Turning Lohiaji on his head

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Feb 29 2012, 06:10am hrs
INDIA has probably produced more variants of socialism than all of Europe. And as youd 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 povertarianismpoverty 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 Rights 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 Indiras 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 seven-month prime minister in 1991) that broke away. Indira Gandhi, indeed, administered this new ideological formation the trial by fire it needed by jailing its entire leadership during the Emergency. Almost all of todays Lohiaites, who now squat on political space that was the Congress Partys bequest for half a century, were in Indira Gandhis jails. Mulayam, Lalu, Nitish, Paswan all served time there as Lohiaite student leaders. As did Naveen Patnaiks father, Biju, a socialist of his own kind, but essentially a Lohiaite.

You see Lohiaism written on the walls of Mulayam Singh Yadavs Lucknow home. There is an entire gallery of portraits, including of Mama Baleshwar Dayal (who organised Bhil tribals in socialist revolt), SM Joshi, the founder of Socialist Party, JP and Lohia himself. But you also find portraits of Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar sharing the same space on the wall. They were not in the Socialist Party but Mulayam sees them as political comrades worthy of honour. Because, with all its ultra-Luddite and xenophobic failings, Lohiaism was an extremely tolerant, inclusive and democratic faith. Lohiaites also tend to be the simplest, most austere and accessible folk. You could walk into Fernandess home through an open, unguarded gate even when he was defence minister and be told to wait as George Saab was washing his clothes. Which, if you ventured deeper into his Lutyens bungalow, you found he really was, under a tap, with a cake of soap, not pushing buttons on a washing machine. Lohiaites made great parliamentarians as they were willing to engage and were gifted with self-deprecatory repartee. Welcoming him to our newsroom once, I suggested to Defence Minister George Fernandes it was better he did not shake hands with me as I had an awful flu. Nothing will happen to me, Shekhar, he said, I am not pedigreed. And, mind you, this was when no newspaper was more at odds with him than this, and no commentator more viciously critical of him than its editor. But Lohias economics and overall worldview were not particularly liberal, which is why it is so remarkable when his progeny now talks of PPPs, allowing English-medium schools and, the biggest horror of all, computers. They have been faster than the others in reading the writings on the heartlands walls.

Until the other day, Mulayam opposed English and computers as a true ideological legatee. Now, he has made a concession to the times and probably to his Australian-educated engineer son and political successor. You want to know just how strong that suspicion of English was, and how difficult it must have been for Mulayam to make this shift Listen to this Lohiaite doggerel that Paswan chants with such panache:

Samajwad ne baandhi gaanth, pichhda paave sau mein saath,

Raj-paat hai kiske haath, angrezi aur oonchi jaat,

Oonchi jaat ki kya pehchan, git-pit bole, kare na kaam,

Chhoti jaat ki kya pehchan, kare kaam or sahe apmaan...

And then it goes on:

Angrez yahaan se chale gaye, angrezi ko bhi jaana hai,

Angrezi mein kaam na hoga, phir se desh ghulam na hoga

Rashtrapati ka beta ho, ya chaprasi ki ho santaan,

Birla ya garib ka beta, sabki shiksha ek samaan....

Briefly, it says 60 per cent of Indians are backward and oppressed by upper castes only because they know English. So the solution is to throw out the English language and schools that teach in that medium so that the son of the president of India and a peon, of a Birla and a pauper, get the same education. This should put the shift in Mulayams anti-English stance in perspective. I am not against English, he says, but only against doing government work in English because the poor then cannot understand what is going on. He is far too much of a political animal to not have noticed the convent education evolution sweeping his state, the desperate hunger among parents to teach their children in English medium, whatever it takes. That is why a man who was promising to banish computers five years ago is now offering them free to senior students. As Maynard Keynes would have said, I change my mind as facts change.

This change of heart is also part of the larger realisation that if their Samajwadi Party (SP) wants to come to power today, it must expand its formidable but limited MY (Muslim-Yadav) coalition, particularly when it is evident that at least some Muslims, especially the younger ones, are looking at Rahul. This accounts for Mulayam junking that Lohiaite invocation against English, and his son extolling the need and virtues of PPPs, while on a walk with me, where else, but in Lucknows Lohia Park. He also tells me how he is expanding his caste coalition, drawing in talented young people, even an IIM Ahmedabad professor,

a Brahmin (Abhishek Mishra) who

is now contesting from Lucknow North. Akhilesh knows the SP is tipped to

be the single largest party and is good-humoured about it. Driving back from Lohia Park, he points to the paving work going on feverishly around it, even at 7 am. You can see how cynical the bureaucracy is, he says. For five years, they ignored the park. Now they see the change coming, so they are here 24 hours. The greatest tectonic shift

in Indias political heartland has been the modernisation of the Lohiaite mind. This is the single largest factor in denying the Congress, and even the BJP, political space in UP and Bihar. The BJP has made its peace by joining Nitish as his junior partner. The Congress has flirted with Lalu and Paswan, but has not quite accepted this reality and, under Rahul now, has decided to take it on. This is the most fascinating twist in the unfolding politics of India leading up to 2014.

The sudden rediscovery of Lohia Park may underline the Lucknow municipal bureaucracys reading of chunawi hawa. But the history of creation of public places in Lucknow will tell you something about the states broken politics. When the SP got power, it built a park named after Lohia, then Mayawati more after Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. The BJP too did not lag behind. There is a large and very well-maintained park named after Deendayal Upadhyaya on the outskirts of Lucknow. But besides these, nothing has been added to the city, and notably almost nothing was in the Congress decades. But, howsoever broken, UP politics seems to be mellowing a bit. Akhilesh is saying nice things about Rahul (a good human being... hard-working), Rahul, in turn, tells you how he respects Kanshi Ram and Mulayam, and even Mayawati talks up her own achievements and promises rather than the old gripe over Manuwadi excesses on Bahujan Samaj. The change is most strikingly evident in Mulayams tone. Till recently, he had talked of taking the bulldozer to Mayawatis memorials. He still mocks them as parks made of stone, but when asked what he would do with them if he comes to power, merely says: Ab kya karein, patthar to lag gaye, lage rahenge. If there are empty spaces inside them, he still says he will build medical colleges and schools there, but chances are he will do nothing of the sort. The states four major parties are now learning to respect each others space because, come March 6, who knows who will have to knock at whose door

Mayawatis message is simple, but spoken from a 50-page script over 45 minutes (in very large type). She doesnt need to say any more on Mulayam than remind people of the mafia raj in his reign. Her main target is the Centre and the Congress which, besides other things, she charges with having blocked her most ambitious PPPs. Her reference is probably to the Ganga Expressway and the international airport at Jewar, near the capital. Her audiences of true believers, however, need no convincing. They are also larger than any you have seen in elections anywhere in recent years. While the opposition, particularly the BJP, has often accused Sonia and Rahul of being readers (of written texts) rather than speakers, the description fits Mayawati more than any other leader in India. Public speaking is not her strong point. She is also the stillest speaker, rarely raising even a finger. In fact, the only time she does it, with a smile to describe how a full majority the last time was like the master chaabhi of power in her hands and how we must not let go of it, the crowd responds with delight. Otherwise, she is still, emotionless, so still in fact that if you view her from backstage she looks uncannily like the silhouette of one of her statues. But in her own, most original way, she exudes the aura of power. She loves to tell you that when her mentor Kanshi Ram first saw her, she was preparing for the IAS. Manyawar Kanshi Ramji told me, bhool jao (forget) IAS, tere mein itni pratibha hai (you have so much talent), work with me and you will have IAS officers at your beck and call. Along with Narendra Modi, Naveen Patnaik, Jayalalithaa and, even to some extent, Nitish, Mayawati is a leading light of

the new generation of tough and effective Indian chief ministers who exercise power through the bureaucracy rather than ministers or fellow partymen. And their followers seem to appreciate it. But unlike others on this list, she has never got re-elected yet defying anti-incumbency, even though she has been chief minister four times already, still at a very youthful age of 56 in Indian politics.

Can she crack anti-incumbency, particularly with the recent spate of corruption charges that are widely believed to be true in UP She won power because she got a critical mass of upper-caste and Muslim votes in 2007 and is struggling to keep that coalition intact. In 2007, the upper castes voted for her for a reason similar to why Muslims vote for the party most likely to defeat the BJP. The upper castes were the worst victims of Mulayams lawlessness and ransom-raj and she looked the most likely to beat him. Today that threat seems to have passed, and a resurgent Congress under Rahul is threatening to take away some of that aspirational Brahmin-Bania vote. The only thing I would say for sure is, she is not losing any of her Dalit vote. Over five days in the state, we would haveamongst the 20 or so of usmet maybe a 100-odd Dalits and the score would have been Mayawati 100 and the rest zero, if not for some of the families in Rae Barelis Dalit basti of Kalupuruwa speaking appreciatively of the Robin Hood style of the local bahubali (with 44 criminal cases against him). Many Dalits are disappointed with her government; many, lower on the caste hierarchy, accuse her of favouring her Jatavs. So, who will they vote for then, you ask. They blush, fidget sometimes, and say, vote to Behenji ka hi hoga.

I am no good at estimating crowds, and frankly, nobody is. But all I can say is that the crowd we saw at her rally on the outskirts of Kanpur was bigger than the rallies of Rahul, Akhilesh and Rajnath Singh (in order of size) that we saw on this visit, put together. It was also entirely voluntary as people, a vast collection of our poorest underclass, said they had paid their own fare to listen to Behenji. In fact, you couldnt miss the presence of women (and a few men) in white and blue uniform keeping the order. On closer examination, the badge they wore on their caps and shoulders said BVF (Bahujan Volunteer Force). The real eyecatcher, of course, was Shivani Sharma. Tall, built reed-like, like a ramp-scorching clothes-hanger, and striding with the elan of one, loose, long tresses flowing from under her officers hat to her waist drawn even slender by a trendy duffel belt. She came from Kalyanpur, a part of Kanpur and an old BJP stronghold. The one pip on her shoulder, she said, was the local pradhans acknowledgement of her commitment and education (Class 12). She was just 18, yet committed to Behenji. And who gave you this uniform, I asked her and she said, with a hint of indignation, that she bought it herself, of course. This hat too, she said, mocking me cheekily by pretending to doff it. But you are a Sharma, I asked an atrociously Manuwadi question shamelessly. Shivani laughed and threw back her tresses, in amusement more than disdain. Sharma pe mat jaiye, dhobi hain hum, lekin pitaji badhai (carpenter) ka kaam karte hain.

Uniformed volunteers, database and cadres down to booth level, centralised allocation of campaign funds and a totally dictatorial distribution of tickets make BSP the most brutally scientific election machine in the country. More than any other party in the country, the BSP can take its core voter for granted. Ask Mayawati why she never enters a pre-poll alliance with anybody and she tells you, bhai sahib, it makes no sense because all my vote is transferable, nobody elses is. What that means is that her core voters, the Dalits, would vote for anybody she asks them to. This enables her to play the game of caste and religious combinations better than anybody else. Taking the Dalit vote for granted, she fields a very large number of upper-caste and Muslim candidates, hoping they would get some votes of their own. After all, just 30 per cent or so give you a victory in UP and her Dalits are nearly two-thirds of that already. But this time, only her legacy is intact. Her science and engineering will be tested. Her mentor Kanshi Ram had signalled his arrival in national politics rather dramatically in the summer of 1988 by contesting, as an outsider, the game-changing Allahabad by-election caused by VP Singhs revolt against Rajiv Gandhi. This is when, reporting on that contest, I first got to know him. I asked him to explain his favourite slogan, vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahin chalega, nahin chalega. He said if you add up the numbers of Dalits, minorities and OBCs, it was nearly 80 per cent of India and and that is what he wanted to bring together. But now, 24 years later, the biggest failing of the political force he unleashed, and his successor Mayawati, is in not being able to reach out and convince the OBCs.

Tomorrow: An election as trench warfare, three smirks that speak, and a doctor who diagnoses well but writes no prescription.