Qurban Ali


AT A PUBLIC MEETING IN DELHI, on 2 February 1948, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of India, Jayaprakash Narayan, reacted to the recent assassination of Mohandas Gandhi. Narayan demanded a ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha, believed to be behind the plot to kill Gandhi.

“The people should give no quarter to communalists in the society,” he said, calling the RSS and the Mahasabha “forces of evil,” even as he cautioned against violent reprisals. “If any organisation thinks that it can set up a government based on communalism and capitalism, it is mistaken. All governments set up on these lines will have to surrender to the popular demand for democracy and freedom.”

In a joint statement with his SPI colleagues Rammanohar Lohia and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, issued the following day, Narayan argued that the assassination had triggered a crisis of both the state and Indian culture. “The assassin is not one person, not even a team of persons,” the socialist leaders said, “but a big and wide conspiracy of a foul idea and of organisations that embody it.” They asked the state to “crush” all communal organisations—and the people to “deny them every kind of support or sympathy”—as a first step towards resolving the crisis. “Too long have evil men been permitted to preach civil strife.”

Addressing the annual convention of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the electoral wing of the RSS—on 5 March 1975, Narayan sang a very different tune. He gave the BJS a ringing endorsement. “If you are a fascist,” he told the delegates, “then I, too, am a fascist.”

Narayan’s shift in attitude towards the RSS reflected the meandering trajectory of his politics. When he helped establish the Congress Socialist Party, in the 1930s, he was a committed Marxist. He was an active participant in the Quit India Movement, denouncing the Communist Party of India—which had chosen to cooperate with the colonial government after Germany invaded the Soviet Union—as “Russian patriots” who had “stabbed the country in the back in her time of need.” During the 1950s, having spearheaded the CSP’s exit from the Congress and the establishment of an independent socialist party, he dedicated himself to Vinoba Bhave’s Sarvodaya movement, which sought to reform society through “constructive” work rather than through electoral or agitational politics. Narayan was never arrested between 1946 and 1974, the socialist politician Madhu Limaye writes, “because he neither preached nor actively participated in any mass struggle.” Now, in 1975, nearly three decades after he had denounced the RSS as evil and asked the Jawaharlal Nehru government to crush it and deny its members voting rights, he needed its cadre for his “total revolution” against Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.

“How can any party which had lent its support to total revolution be called reactionary or fascist?” Narayan said at the BJS convention. He added that he owed a debt of gratitude to the party and to its general secretary, Nana Deshmukh, for their role in the Bihar Movement, which had tried, the previous year, to overthrow the state government. Deshmukh had been instrumental in coaxing Narayan back into active politics. Four months earlier, while leading a march to the Vidhan Sabha—in order to compel the legislators to resign—Narayan had lost consciousness due to teargas fired by the police. Deshmukh organised a cordon to protect him from a lathi charge, even injuring his own arm as he warded off a blow meant for Narayan.

VP Dutt, a former Delhi University vice-chancellor who was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1970s, accused Narayan and other opposition parties of giving “respectability to those forces which had all along spread prejudice and hatred against the various minority communities inhabiting India and which symbolised the Indian variety of fascism.” Dutt noted that leadership of the Bihar Movement had passed into the hands of the RSS, “which provided the organisational muscle to the movement. Neither Jayaprakash Narayan nor the other opposition parties in this new combination had any well-knit organisation or cadres to carry out their strategy.”

In a previous essay for this magazine, published in October 2023, I explained how Indira legitimised the Sangh’s communal politics, tactically wielding the Hindu card during and after her return to power after the Janata Party interregnum. However, before the Congress could mimic its majoritarianism in the 1980s, the Sangh itself needed to be legitimised. The ban imposed on the organisation following Gandhi’s assassination—repealed by the home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, after it adopted a constitution that complied with his directions—had pushed the RSS to the margins of Indian politics. Moreover, its ambiguous attitude towards the freedom struggle, which had mostly involved collaborating with the British, made it an easy target for ridicule for nationalist politicians.

The Sangh’s rehabilitation, through the BJS, was enabled, in large part, by a section of the socialist movement, which had broken away from the Congress at the time of Independence and was seeking to mount a national opposition. Narayan and Lohia—who took over the mantle of leading socialist ideologue during his mentor’s drift into Sarvodaya politics—went out of their way to work with the BJS, including it in various alliances and coalitions, despite their past condemnation of the Sangh and the resistance of their comrades. Having to negotiate an electoral system that favoured large parties or alliances, as well as the internecine factional strife within the socialist movement, Lohia was desperate to find a way to unite the opposition. “It has become a perception in the country that no one can remove the Congress from power,” he said at the party’s 1963 conference, at Calcutta, “so I am willing to join hands with the devil to crush this snake.”

Even as it adopted some of the shibboleths of nationalism and socialism that were necessary to remain in respectable politics, the BJS refused to compromise on its core principles while entering these alliances. Unlike the socialists, who relentlessly sought avenues to immediately seize power, it focussed on long-term goals such as building the party—the BJS was unique in Indian politics for never undergoing a split—and gaining influence in New Delhi. Once the Congress split, and its conservative wing joined the opposition alliance, and then the Janata Party government, the BJS and the Congress (Organisation) were able to block socialist initiatives wherever they had sufficient strength.

The Janata Party collapsed over the question of the influence wielded by the RSS. Out of its ashes emerged the Bharatiya Janata Party, which again used tactical alliances with socialist factions, as well as the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, to emerge as the principal opposition party and, between 1998 and 2004, lead a coalition government. That coalition was cobbled together by the socialist firebrand George Fernandes. In 2014, riding on the popularity of Narendra Modi and the unpopularity of the Congress-led government, the BJP was able to win a simple majority on its own. As Modi campaigns for a third term as prime minister, the socialist movement is fractured to bits—most of the splits occurred over aligning with the ruling party at the centre—with various sections either bending the knee or scrambling to form yet another opposition alliance.

THE CONGRESS SOCIALIST PARTY held its first conference at the Bombay session of the Indian National Congress, in October 1934. It was meant to function as one of the several factions competing to determine the priorities and tactics of the nationalist movement, while expanding the mass base of the Congress. In 1947, Narayan wrote that the CSP’s aims had been, “firstly, to link the programme of the Congress with the economic struggles of the exploited classes and to put the organization of labour and the peasantry in the forefront of that programme; secondly, to check all drift towards constitutionalism and weakening of the struggle for freedom; thirdly, to define Swaraj in terms of the urges and needs of the masses. The last aim, naturally, was to bring the whole Congress ultimately under the influence of socialism, i.e. to convert it into a socialist body.”

Narayan was born, on 11 October 1902, to a Kayastha family in the village of Sitabdiara, located, at the confluence of the Ganga and the Ghaghara, in Bihar’s Saran district. (Parts of Sitabdiara fall in the Uttar Pradesh district of Ballia.) His father, Harsu Dayal Srivastava, was a district revenue collector in the irrigation department. Narayan belonged to the social milieu—described by the historians SK Mittal and Irfan Habib as a “democratic petty-bourgeois intelligentsia”—that had, a generation earlier, produced the “extremists” who pushed the Congress grandees to move from drafting petitions to mass action, as well as the revolutionary terrorists who formed secret societies to free India by force.

After completing his matriculation, Narayan earned a scholarship to study science at the prestigious Patna College. Around this time, Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. In January 1921, the Congress leader Abul Kalam Azad visited Patna, telling students about Gandhi’s call to boycott educational institutions run by the colonial government. “Intoxicated by Azad’s fiery speech and the heady possibilities of Swaraj,” his biographer Sujata Prasad writes, “Jayaprakash cut his teeth in student politics by quitting college twenty days before his exams.”

After Gandhi called off the Non-Cooperation Movement, in February 1922, Narayan’s fellow students returned to government colleges. He refused to join Banaras Hindu University because it received grants from the colonial regime. Instead, he went to the United States, where he studied at the universities of California, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio, paying his bills by working in farms, factories and hotels. He joined communist groups on campus, enrolling in colleges where his comrades found teaching jobs. Narayan, Prasad writes, “went through almost all the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Plekhanov available in English. He was addicted to the Daily Worker, a newsletter that carried articles of Marxist scholars like John Spivak, Davis Karr, Peter Fryer, and the politically charged songs of Woody Guthrie.”

A communist organiser in Chicago offered Narayan the chance to pursue a fully funded course at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies. Narayan asked his father for travel expenses. Prasad writes that Srivastava, who had not been keen on his son studying abroad, “was aghast at the idea. He wrote to him immediately, advising him to complete his studies and return home without getting involved in the Russian adventure.” Narayan then appealed to Rajendra Prasad, the doyen of the Bihar Congress and future president of India. However, Prasad, an anticommunist and early supporter of the Hindu Mahasabha, agreed with his father.

In 1929, as Narayan considered pursuing a doctorate in sociology, his mother fell seriously ill. He hitchhiked from Chicago to New York. A friend helped him reach London, where Srivastava sent him money for a passage to India. On 11 January 1930, Narayan wrote to Gandhi from Arrah. “I am eagerly looking forward to your civil disobedience movement,” he said. “If at all I could gather enough strength, I hope to make my humble contribution to the movement.”

Gandhi was a reluctant leader of the Civil Disobedience Movement. His hand had been forced by the Young Turks of the Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, who had, in his absence, pushed through a resolution demanding complete independence at the Madras session of 1927. Gandhi repudiated the Madras resolution and, upon returning as Congress president at the Calcutta session of 1928, delayed its implementation by a year. Forced to compromise at the Lahore session of 1929, he had Nehru elected president and agreed to launch a mass agitation for complete independence. However, Bose writes, “no plan was laid down for reaching that goal—nor was any programme of work adopted for the coming year. A more ridiculous state of affairs could not be imagined.”

Narayan met Nehru at Lahore. It was, he later recalled, “love at first sight.” Nehru had recently returned home from Europe, where he, too, had been active in Marxist circles. He had even visited the Soviet Union, in 1927. “His vision of socialism was romantic, undogmatic, deeply personal and even poetic,” Sujata Prasad writes. “Jayaprakash and Nehru spent hours brainstorming socialist ideas and seemed to agree on most of its succinct tag lines. Specifically, they spoke about challenging existing power relations and were convinced that economic struggle was destined to form the core of the national movement.” Nehru asked Narayan to join the All India Congress Committee as labour secretary. This responsibility, and his parents’ failing health, meant that Narayan could not participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

In the absence of a centralised plan, the movement was driven by local factors, with Gandhi unable to prevent, or even control, violent uprisings in Chittagong and Peshawar, labour militancy in Bombay and rent strikes in the United Provinces. Gandhi had signalled a willingness to compromise with the British at the very outset. On 30 January 1930, four days after the Congress celebrated the first Independence Day, he published a list of 11 demands—including prohibition, a better exchange rate for the rupee, a tariff on foreign cloth and a reduction in land revenue—that “served to intimate to the other side that the claim for independence was to be regarded as only a bargaining counter,” the British communist Rajani Palme Dutt writes.

The viceroy, Irwin, refused to consider even Gandhi’s limited proposal and instituted a harsh crackdown on protesters. The industrialists who funded the Congress were also opposed to a long agitation. Their priority was securing protections from British competition, and they did not want to lose business in the name of seeking independence. On 5 March 1931, Gandhi and Irwin made a deal. Gandhi agreed to abandon the movement in exchange for a vague promise of constitutional reform and the release of some political prisoners. Even though the agreement was unpopular among the rank and file—“Were all our brave words and deeds to end in this?” Nehru despaired—it was unanimously adopted at the Karachi session of 1931. Nehru, unwilling to break with Gandhi in public, proposed the motion.

“Outside the Congress, sharp criticism of the Agreement was expressed from the youth and from the working-class movement,” Dutt writes. “This was shown in numerous resolutions from youth organisations and conferences, and in the hostile demonstrations of Bombay workers against Gandhi on his departure for the Round Table Conference.” In London, the new Conservative government did not grant any of Gandhi’s 11 demands. Moreover, once he returned to India, the colonial authorities banned the Congress.

With the senior leadership in jail, Narayan fled to Bombay. He helped keep the AICC functioning and, Sujata Prasad writes, “began work on building an extensive illegal underground network.” On 8 September 1932, he, too, was arrested. He “was taken secretly to the Arthur Road Jail in Bombay, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and sent to the Nasik Central Jail.”

Narayan spent most of his time in prison, Prasad writes, with a “group of educated, progressive, young Congressmen who dreamt of a socialist revolution,” including Achyut Patwardhan, Minoo Masani, Asoka Mehta and NG Gorey. They wanted “to radicalize the Congress and develop it into a real anti-imperialist organization.”

On 17 May 1934, a day before an AICC meeting in Patna, delegates from Bihar, the United Provinces, Kerala, Madras and Bengal founded the CSP. Upon reviewing the CSP programme—Narayan had been secretary of the drafting committee—the Congress Working Committee reminded the socialists that the Karachi session of 1931 had ruled that property confiscations and class war violated the principle of nonviolence. “To hell with the CWC passing a pious and fatuous resolution on a subject it does not understand or perhaps understands too well,” Nehru raged in his prison diary. The socialist leaders issued a statement calling the CWC resolution “shocking beyond words. It shows how reactionary the present leadership of the Congress has become. For us Socialists it can mean only one thing—the redoubling of our efforts to overthrow that leadership.”

At the first CSP session, in Bombay on 21 and 22 October 1934, Narayan was elected general secretary—a position the 32-year-old would hold for the entirety of the party’s existence. His 1936 book Why Socialism? helped shaped the party’s ideological line. The future Kerala chief minister EMS Namboodiripad, a CSP joint secretary at the time, later wrote that the book “showed us, the young Congressmen of Kerala, that the path mapped out by Socialism was superior to Gandhism, the parliamentary path as well as individual terrorism—three ideological approaches which were then contending for ascendancy in the Congress.”

Prasad estimates that leftist groups could count on the support of between a quarter and a third of the Congress membership. The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot writes that “the Congress was not merely the party of a progressive middle class. The intelligentsia certainly exerted a strong influence over it but it was recruited from the elite of the upper castes, a social group which often went hand in hand with Hindu traditionalism. Furthermore, these conservative elements kept close links with the notables of the landed aristocracy and the merchant castes.”

Narayan first tried to create a united Marxist party. Namboodiripad was one of several communists who joined the CSP around this period. The ban on the Congress had been lifted in 1934, just as one was imposed on the CPI. The rise of Hitler in the face of a divided German Left prompted the Third International to recommend the creation of united fronts, reversing a policy of mistrusting bourgeois parties that had been imposed after the Kuomintang’s betrayal of the communists in China. The Indian communists, who were “more active in the field and more dedicated to their ideology,” Limaye writes, “were able to win gradually a large number of CSP men, chiefly in the South.”

“The weakness of the Socialist position lay in the fact that, as a focus for opposition to the ‘official’ Congress leadership, the CSP attracted a bundle of disgruntled elements not necessarily bound by a common ideology,” the historian Gyanendra Pandey writes. “The party’s anomalous situation was highlighted by Nehru’s refusal to join it, in spite of his well-advertised socialist sympathies. It was also revealed by the numerous entrances and exits of Congressmen at all levels through doors that the CSP had opened to all Congressmen who were not members of communal organizations.”

THE CSP WAS OPPOSED to the Congress forming ministries after its success in the provincial elections of 1937. While moving an amendment to the AICC resolution providing for Congress governments in seven out of the 11 provinces, Narayan said that he was convinced that accepting ministerial office was a blunder. “We can acquire strength only by wrecking the constitution and carrying on the struggle.”

The Congress manifesto for the election had been based on a resolution passed at the 1936 Faizpur session, with Nehru as president. It promised extensive agrarian reforms, though the demands for land redistribution and zamindari abolition were dropped. In parts of the United Provinces, the historian Visalakshi Menon writes, peasants who voted for the Congress burnt pieces of dried cow dung outside polling stations, “symbolizing the destruction of bedakhlis”—eviction orders—“once and for all.”

In an article for the Congress Socialist, Narayan compared the Bihar election to the recent flooding in the province. The Congress, he wrote, had swept “everything before it—big landed magnates who have the cruel audacity to seek the mandate of those whom they have beaten, badgered and bled white; ministerial candidates who constitute formidable combines of wealth and borrowed power; communalists and weighty frauds.”

However, Gyanendra Pandey writes, the Congress’s ticket distribution was constrained by “a need to find candidates who could largely pay their way and exercise a degree of traditional influence in their localities.” Its legislators were far less radical than the CSP leadership, and its provincial governments—which were, in any case, constrained by the governors’ veto powers—failed to bring much meaningful change to the masses who had given it the biggest electoral mandate in Indian history to that point.

In the United Provinces, socialist organisations launched an agitation for tenancy reform, resulting in legislation that did not end evictions but, Menon writes, “was instrumental in bringing about a realignment of class forces in the countryside. The landlords lost the privileged position they had enjoyed since the advent of British rule and the tenants became more powerful in the rural areas.” Pandey writes that the United Provinces Tenancy Act, “in any case a compromise, might easily have emerged from the Congress councils indistinguishable from British reforms that preceded it but for the resistance of the Socialists.”

When the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha pushed for similar legislation, the working committee of the Bihar Congress, headed by Rajendra Prasad—for whom zamindari “as an institution was as sacrosanct,” the historian GP Sharma writes, “as the rights of peasants as tenants”—banned members from participating in BPKS activities. Prasad also accused the socialists of instigating violence, citing as evidence the slogan “Malguzari loge kaise, danda hamara zindabad”—How will you collect land revenue, long live our stick.

Narayan issued a long rejoinder, arguing that the BPKS had prevented, rather than instigated, violence against zamindars. If they actually wanted to overthrow the zamindars by force, he assured Prasad, “the Kisan Sabha workers have sufficient influence over the peasantry to have caused a violent civil war in the province.” As for the slogan, Narayan said, “we must credit the masses with some sense of humour and inventiveness.” In any case, he added, whenever the slogan came to the notice of the BPKS leadership, “it was discouraged. I even make bold to say that the slogan is hardly used in the province now except perhaps by agent provocateurs.”

During the Second World War, Narayan led efforts to turn public opinion against Indian participation, in keeping with the CSP’s party line of “active opposition to all imperial wars and the utilization of such crises for the intensification of the national struggle.” He was arrested in Jamshedpur, on 7 March 1940, after making a public appeal for workers at the Tata Iron and Steel Company, which was manufacturing munitions for the British war effort, to go on strike. “A slave has no obligation to defend his slavery,” he said during his trial. “His only obligation is to destroy his bondage.”

After completing his nine-month sentence at Hazaribagh Central Jail, Narayan was arrested again in Bombay and sent to a prison camp in Deoli. He tried to get his wife, Prabhavati, to smuggle letters to his comrades, but they were eventually caught in the act. The government had Narayan’s letters published in most Indian newspapers, “with the aim,” Sujata Prasad writes, “of tarnishing his image and driving a wedge between him and Congress leaders,” but “the publication of the letters won him the admiration of the public.”

A hunger strike by inmates at Deoli resulted in the camp being closed and the political prisoners being relocated to their home provinces. Narayan returned to Hazaribagh. On 8 November 1942, amid Diwali celebrations, he escaped, after some inmates distracted the guards with amusing anecdotes and others formed a human ladder to help him scale the five-metre-high perimeter wall. Suffering from sciatica, he made his way to Delhi and Bombay, working to keep the Quit India Movement, which had been launched three months earlier, running in spite of the arrest of the top Congress leadership.

The communists had been purged from the Congress at the 1939 Tripuri session, with Rajendra Prasad taking over the presidency from Bose, who was forced to resign after defeating Gandhi’s chosen candidate during his re-election bid. They had initially organised strikes against Indian involvement in the war—several communist leaders were arrested around the same time as Narayan—but, once the Soviet Union joined the Allies, the CPI decided to cooperate with the colonial government, which legalised the party. In a letter to “All Fighters for Freedom,” on 1 September 1943, Narayan called the communists denouncing Bose, who was collaborating with the Axis powers in order to liberate India through an invasion, “quislings of Britain.”

Under the constraints on peaceful protest imposed by the British, Narayan found it “meaningless” to debate about the means for the struggle, which Gandhi had agonised over in previous agitations. “Every fighter for freedom is free to choose his own method,” he wrote. “Those who believe in similar methods should work together as a disciplined group. And the least that those who follow a different path should do is not to come in the way of one another and waste their energies in [mutual] recrimination.” Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence was too well established to be tarnished by their activities while he was in jail, Narayan added, and British politicians would lie about their methods no matter what they did. “Remember also that if there is violence in India, no one but the British Government itself is responsible for it.”

Narayan himself had gone to Nepal to set up the Azad Dasta, a guerrilla movement, in the jungles of the Terai. “Their training encompassed learning how to blow up roads and bridges, disrupt railway signal cabins and telephonic communication, and attack factories, mines and docks,” Sujata Prasad writes. “They were also trained in incendiarism, the burning of enemies’ offices, stores, etc. Jayaprakash hoped that they would become leaders of mass insurrection.” The Nepali government arrested Narayan, Lohia and four associates, in May 1943. The Azad Dasta and local sympathisers attacked the prison where they were lodged. They escaped to Delhi, but Narayan was again arrested, near the Amritsar railway station, on 19 September. He was detained in Lahore and Agra for the rest of the war. After Gandhi made a personal appeal to the viceroy, Narayan and Lohia were released, in 1946, to a hero’s welcome.


GANDHI’S ASSASSINATION, on 30 January 1948, made the question of how to deal with the communal elements in independent India an urgent national issue. The violence of Partition was still occurring, but nationalist leaders were more prone to blaming the Muslim League than the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha. Three weeks before the assassination, Patel, the home minister—who had boasted to Rajendra Prasad, in September 1947, about giving licenses to Hindu arms dealers—delivered a speech in Lucknow, inviting Sangh and Mahasabha members to join the Congress.

In the Congress, those who are in power feel that by virtue of authority they will be able to crush the RSS. You cannot crush an organisation by using the danda [stick]. The danda is meant for thieves and dacoits. They are patriots who love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen with love.

In their joint statement on 3 February, Narayan, Lohia and Chattopadhyaya demanded that the government resign, “in symbolic atonement of the evil deed,” and reconstitute itself with a new home minister. Patel, they argued, was too old to be handling two ministries while also overseeing the annexation of principalities. His successor, they demanded, should “be able and willing to curb and crush the organizations of communal hate. In the reconstituted government, there should be no place for communalists and for those who stood on the other side in the battle for freedom.”

The socialist leaders said that the home ministry “must push through at top speed the programme of purifying government services of all communal elements and of educating them into a national citizenship.” (The smuggling of a Ram idol into the Babri Masjid, the following year, was aided by such elements.) They reminded the people about the “eternal war that has taken place in the long history of the Hindu faith between narrow bigotry and factions of caste and province on the one hand and broad sunlit levels of vigorous democracy and expansive governance on the other.” They clarified that they were not seeking a ban on “cultural or religious bodies,” and added that the SPI would be willing to cooperate with the government in this regard.

After they were accused of “trying to make political capital out of the national calamity,” Narayan insisted, at a public meeting in Patna on 17 February, that he did not covet a cabinet berth, and that they had not called for Patel’s resignation from the government—they only wanted a home minister who did not have additional responsibilities. Moreover, he said, fighting “communalism wherever it may exist is not wrong.” He called upon the legislatures “to enact laws for depriving people of obstinate communal views of the right to franchise, because those who do not believe in democracy have no right to democratic privileges. Communal Raj is the high road to fascism, and I strongly condemn the murder and arson gangs, which are financed by reactionary princes and business magnates.”

At an AICC meeting, four days later, Narayan took the government to task for failing to prevent the assassination. “Why was it that the government realised the danger of communalism only after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination?” he said. “Where was the secret police?” He noted that the nature of the Sangh’s work and propaganda “was a matter of common knowledge. But, instead of taking any action against them, some of our responsible ministers attended their rallies and even praised their work”—an apparent reference to Patel. Narayan demanded that the Constitution “include a specific clause disallowing communal organisations from contesting elections.”

The assassination, and the recriminations that followed, came at a time when the socialists were debating whether to set up an independent party. At its Cawnpore conference, a year earlier, the CSP had resolved to drop the “Congress” in its name. “We have taken this step,” Narayan told the Hindustan Times, “in order that those elements of our political life who are sympathetic to the socialist movement but do not want to be associated with the Congress may not be captured by reactionary or communal bodies.”

Upon Narayan’s insistence, the CSP had boycotted the Constituent Assembly, on the grounds that the British must leave India before any discussion could take place over the nature of the postcolonial government. Nehru managed to get Narayan to join the CWC, but the socialists refused to endorse the transition plan prepared by the British cabinet mission, which involved Nehru heading an interim government. They eventually abstained, allowing the resolution to be adopted.

The interim government soon lost legitimacy after the Muslim League pulled out and, in August 1946, launched direct action to force Partition. Communal violence spread throughout the nation. On 8 November, after a Hindu mob had massacred Muslims in Bihar’s East Patna district, followed by police firing that killed Hindus, Nehru and Narayan visited the area. Nehru tried to address students at Patna University, but the students, incensed at the police firing, would not let him speak. Narayan took to the podium, and the crowd heard him in silence.

“The action of these lawless people could not be countenanced by any civilised government,” Narayan said. “There was no reason why they should not be shot down.” After all, in “Stalin’s Russia, people had to be shot down in hundreds and thousands because they retarded the country’s cause. There was no reason why people who had helped in retarding the cause of freedom by creating these disturbances, killing and maiming people of another community, should not deserve the same fate.” However, he blamed the Muslim League for the state of affairs, and the British for “using the Muslim League as a pawn in their nefarious game of holding India in bondage.”

Narayan urged the Congress to work among “nationalist” Muslims rather than negotiate with the League. He denounced both the Congress and the League for their role in Partition and said that the socialists’ “endeavour must be to direct the whole attack on the British authority, scrupulously avoiding all issues leading to communal strife,” and emphasising economic issues that affected both Hindus and Muslims.

IN A LETTER TO NARAYAN, from the International Socialist Conference at Antwerp, on 30 November 1947, Limaye wrote that everyone was asking him whether the SPI would contest elections independent of the Congress. “I quite agree that we have to stem the tide of communal reaction; that we must strengthen Jawaharlalji’s hands, but could we not cooperate with him as an independent Party?” he asked. “If we fail to take early decision on this vital question we shall forfeit, I am afraid, our claim to lead the Socialist Movement in Asia.”

Lohia was one of the CSP leaders most reluctant to break with the Congress. He was born, on 23 March 1910, to a Marwari Bania family in Akbarpur, in the United Provinces’ Faizabad district. His father was an active member of the Congress who had participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement. During the Civil Disobedience Movement, Lohia was at Berlin’s Humboldt University, working on a doctoral thesis about salt taxation. When he returned to India, the industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj introduced him to Gandhi. He helped set up the CSP, and, in 1936, Nehru named him the AICC’s foreign secretary. He followed Narayan to the Terai and back, and also set up and operated a secret radio station in Bombay, before being arrested in May 1944.

Unlike Narayan, Lohia had remained a Gandhian during the 1930s and was suspicious of the communists’ motives in joining the united front. “Among the leading intellectuals,” Limaye writes, “Bertrand [Russell] in the West and Lohia here did not allow themselves to be swept off their feet by this phenomenon of Soviet Communism. Even Minoo Masani”—who led the purge of the communists from the Congress and later founded the conservative Swatantra Party—“recorded sharp shifts from pro-Sovietism to violent anti-Sovietism, from socialism to free enterprise capitalism.”

“No greater disaster could befall socialism,” Lohia said at the SPI’s Pachmarhi convention of 1952, “than if the historical peculiarities of its career in Europe were sought to be universalised and reproduced in the other two-thirds of the world.” The political scientist and activist Yogendra Yadav writes that Lohia considered communism and capitalism to be “two faces of this modern civilisation that had reached a dead end.”

While he rejected European modernity, he was not, unlike the RSS, a revanchist. His idyll lay not in the past but in a “modernity unknown to Europeans.” He rejected what he called the bagaldekhu—side-looking—mentality of cosmopolitan Indians, including Nehruvians and the communists, which, Yadav writes, “involved no independent thinking but simply imitating and replicating the modern civilisation of Europe and the US all over the world.” Real modernity, according to Lohia, meant accepting the notion that the world had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Lohia refused to engage in the communists’ historical debates, rejecting all teleological theories of change. Following his months of torture at the hands of the British, he had developed what Yadav describes as a “politics of the present moment.” The present was always more bearable than an uncertain future, so he did not see much point in worrying whether that future would conform to a theoretical teleology. He lived by the “principle of immediacy,” which, he wrote in his book Wheel of History, “ordains that each single act contains its own justification and there is no need to call upon the succeeding act to justify what is done here and now.”

For Lohia, whose political base was Allahabad, there was no immediate need to disaffiliate from the Congress. “The general ethos of the UP Congress was radical and the democratic tradition was well-entrenched there,” Limaye writes. “Further, the Socialists held important positions in the Congress organization.” The nation, Lohia believed, needed to both implement socialist policies and build state capacity. “A serious continuing split may render our people frustrated and ineffective,” he argued, “for they may see in the Congress their instrument for state building and in the Socialist Party their instrument for Socialism.” Instead of splitting, he added, it made more sense to transform the Congress into a socialist organisation that worked from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

“The rank and file, however, was impatient,” Limaye writes.

The official Congress leadership, too, had grown intolerant. They had no use for Lohia’s ideas. Nehru dismissed the Lohia proposals as academic. Neither Patel nor Nehru wished to make any radical changes either in the organization or in the personnel of the Congress. They wanted to push it in the direction of a parliamentary party, a mere election machine. For changing society Nehru relied on the administrative machinery.

On 11 January 1948, Narayan wrote to Nehru. It was time to decide, he said. “The decision, I am afraid, is likely to be that we leave the Congress.” Socialists were finding it increasingly difficult to work in provinces with Congress governments. “In Bihar, for instance, nearly 500 of our workers are either under arrest or wanted by the police,” Narayan added. “The distance between us and the Congress is becoming wider every day.”

Four days later, Narayan wrote in the National Herald about his “vacillation” on the question of leaving the Congress. There were still elements within the Congress that could turn it into a socialist party, he said, citing the CSP and other leftists, socialist sympathisers such as Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad, and Gandhi himself, who, Narayan said, “is a socialist in his own original way.” However, he added, the Congress had metamorphosed into “a source of power and personal advancement,” leading to a “rising tide of selfish politics.” That was the greatest obstacle towards a socialist Congress.

“In view of these basic considerations, it seems futile for the Socialists to continue longer within the Congress,” Narayan concluded. “It seems more desirable to go out and create a real socialist party, both ideologically and structurally grounded in the toiling masses of this country. Such a party is also necessary to function as a [constructive] opposition party, which is so sorely needed in view of the complacency and ineptitude of the party in power and for the success of democracy.”

In a letter to Narayan, two months later, Nehru wrote that, while he did not want to offer unsolicited advice—the constitution committee of the Congress had already banned groups with separate constitutions, making the separation all but certain—he hoped that, “whatever the decision may be, it will be taken in a friendly spirit to others and with a desire to co-operate to the fullest extent possible.”

Narayan received the letter, later in March 1948, during the SPI conference at Nasik where the split was formalised. At the conference, he summed up the CSP’s contribution: “we acted as a check on the politics of compromise; we strengthened the organisation as an instrument of struggle, and we were able to produce a climate of Socialism within the Congress. The fact that every Congressman today is anxious to describe himself as a Socialist, whether or not he is actually one, is a tribute to the work of our Party.” In his reply to Nehru, a few days later, he noted “what a personal wrench it has been to most of us to separate from old friends” but said that there had been no political alternative. “I, together with many other senior members of the Socialist Party, do fervently hope that we will continue to receive inspiration and guidance from you and that the personal bonds and loyalties will endure.”

Lohia was not one of those members. He did not look back on the Congress with nostalgia or seek avenues for cooperation. Once the decision was taken to leave, the break was final for him. His objectives, Limaye writes, “was not to woo or be wooed by the Congress, but to destroy it as a party so that a new party system could be raised after its demise.”


AN UPSTART SOCIALIST PARTY looking to succeed in postcolonial India’s first-past-the-post electoral system had four options. It could cooperate with the Congress and attempt to have the government implement socialist policies. It could seek to become the primary opposition party on its own. It could unite the parties of the Left by forming an alliance with the CPI and other socialist parties. Or it could work with the parties of the Right to oppose both the Congress and the communists. India’s socialists never united behind one strategy. Different factions employed different tactics from time to time, in accordance with their leaders’ own “selfish politics,” and denounced each other for not following the one true path to socialism.

The first option was anathema to Lohia, but Narayan and other leaders pursued it from time to time. Nehru was eager for the socialists to work with his government, writing to Narayan, on 19 August 1948, about how distressed he was at “the wide gap which is growing between many of us and the Socialist Party.” Nehru argued that the SPI was “making itself rather ineffective [at least] for some time to come,” reminding Narayan about the socialists’ “most unfortunate” attitude towards the Constituent Assembly. “Whatever the merits of the Socialist Party’s programme may be, I do not see how, standing by itself, it can hope to be in a position to give effect to it for a considerable time to come,” he wrote. “The result will naturally be that it will try to ally itself with various groups which, generally speaking, are undesirable and which will bring no credit to the SP.”

In a subsequent letter, on 22 December, Nehru chided Narayan for trying to organise a nationwide railways strike, accusing him of adopting a policy that would induce chaos and weaken the country. Such chaos “may well result in pushing forward far more reactionary groups,” he warned, citing the rise of the Nazis. “This is not an impossible development in India, for the reactionary forces in this country are strong,” he said. “If these reactionary forces get the sympathy of the middle elements which are not politically advanced, but which are normally sympathetic with progressive and socialist elements, then the strength of the reactionaries becomes great. That is how Fascism has come on the scene in other countries.”

At that time, like most other socialist leaders, Narayan favoured the second option, hoping to set up the Indian version of the British Labour Party or the German Social Democratic Party. “The rapid disintegration of the Congress is creating a political vacuum,” he wrote, in August 1951, a few months before the first general election. “That there should be a vacuum in the political life of the country is dangerous, for it will lead to chaos and anarchy. The vacuum must be filled up.” There were three groups seeking to do so. “In one group are the forces of reaction; in the second those of democracy, social revolution and peace; in the third those of totalitarianism, civil war at home and war and world domination abroad.”

Among the “forces of reaction,” Narayan counted the conservative parties, including the BJS and the Hindu Mahasabha, that were “trying to take the country backwards, that is, towards fascism; towards feudal rule; towards a non-secular and communal state; towards national disintegration.” He added that the “popular forces that are mixed up with these movements are there merely as a façade and are bound to drop off as success approaches nearer.”

The centre ground was occupied by the Gandhians and the socialists, who viewed each other with mutual suspicion. “The names of Marx and Gandhi often act as barriers,” Narayan wrote, “and the issue of violence—even theoretical violence—confuses all other issues.” The third group, meanwhile, referred to the communists, who “believe in totalitarianism or party-dictatorship as a part of [people’s democracy,] that advocate civil war as the only means of accomplishing the social revolution, and further, that advocate international war by seeking to line up India behind Soviet Russia in the present struggle for world mastery.”

It was not difficult, Narayan wrote, “to see that all the three cannot join together in replacing the Congress. Reaction and revolution cannot join hands.” The point was not to simply replace the Congress but to replace it “with something better, healthier, more constructive.” As for joining hands with the communists, the assumption that the CPI and the SPI could find common ground had “no foundation in fact.” The socialists rejected the communists’ stated aim of a dictatorship of the proletariat, their violent methods, the “spurious theory of world revolution” and attempts to make India a Soviet satellite.

“The Socialist Party is the second biggest party in India, that is, it is the principal opposition party in the country,” a pre-election pamphlet, written by Asoka Mehta, proclaimed. Mehta heralded the party’s recent victory—as part of an alliance with the communists—in Travancore–Cochin. In the only state “where by-elections have taken place on the basis of adult franchise the Congress Party has been beaten by the Socialist Party,” he wrote. “Adult franchise is likely to prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the Congress.”
In a circular issued on 19 October 1950, Mehta, who had recently taken over from Narayan as the SPI general secretary, laid out the party’s internal targets for the election. Only if the socialists “win the second position, nationally speaking, and the first position in at least some of the States, can our Party hope to become a dominant political influence,” he wrote. “That, however, demands of us contesting as large a number of seats as possible. Unless we fight a majority of the seats we shall fail to inspire confidence in the public.”

In the general election, the SPI eschewed alliances with all parties, barring BR Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation and Jaipal Singh’s Jharkhand Party. It put up 254 candidates, 101 of whom forfeited their deposits. With 10.57 percent of the vote, it won 12 seats—making it the third largest party in the first Lok Sabha. It turned out that there was no political vacuum to fill. The Congress won 364 out of the 489 seats, with nearly half the vote. The CPI won 16 seats out of the 49 it contested, with its allies winning a further 11. No party won enough seats for a leader of the opposition to be named, and the Congress formed governments in almost all the states.

The SPI had contested 61 out of the 69 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, winning two. One of the few seats in which it did not put up a candidate was the multi-member constituency of Allahabad District (East)–cum–Jaunpur District (West), where Nehru was contesting. Instead of fighting the prime minister in their home constituency, Lohia left the field open to Prabhu Datt Brahmachari, a sadhu who had been enlisted by the RSS sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—MS Golwalkar, to run on the planks of cow protection and opposing the Hindu Code Bill. Both Congress candidates were comfortably elected. Brahmachari won less than ten percent of the vote.

As another marginal party, formed a few months before the election, the BJS also had to decide on its strategy. In his biography of the party, Craig Baxter writes “that the Jana Sangh resulted from a combination of a partyless leader, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and a leaderless party, the RSS.” Mookerjee was a former president of the Hindu Mahasabha, having resigned from the party in December 1948. He “wanted to challenge Congress rule without delay,” the political scientist Bruce Graham writes, “but the young men of the RSS acted as though they were a brotherhood for some future time, in which a new élite, imbued with Hindu values, would sweep aside that which had been formed under the British Raj.”

The BJS formed alliances with the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal, and with zamindar groups in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, while supporting right-wing independents such as Brahmachari. “Mookerjee had hoped for a substantial number of defectors from the Congress conservative wing,” Baxter writes. However, the conservatives, “seeing the disappearance from the Congress of much of the left,” decided to stay, since “their chances of capturing the party were good.”

 THE DEFEAT OF 1951–52, Limaye writes, “was a shattering blow to the hopes of the Socialist leadership,” which had looked forward to winning at least a couple of states. “There was some discussion in Bihar about who should be the next Chief Minister!” The SPI had won 23 out of the 266 seats it contested in the Bihar assembly, with less than a fifth of the vote. “The results proved that the leadership moved in a dream world,” Limaye adds. “A searching review of the Socialist Party’s functioning and work was in order.”

Mehta, the general secretary, used the defeat to advocate for giving up the SPI’s anti-Congress stance. “It is possible that in some States, at least in certain areas, the Congress is fighting the reactionaries,” he wrote in his report for the party’s special convention at Pachmarhi, in May 1952. “Because we are an opposition party we need not run down the ruling party. There are the paramount claims of the people, and where avenues of work, beyond party lines, are possible, they should be explored.”

Narayan was also greatly affected. The defeat was “enough to shatter JP’s belief in parliamentary democracy and the party system,” Limaye writes, even though he “neither defined the structure of his partyless democracy nor the mechanism of bringing it into existence as a replacement for India’s Constitution.” In the summer of 1952, he embarked on a “self-purificatory fast,” during which he “underwent a kind of ‘conversion.’” According to the socialist leader Narendra Deva, Narayan’s politics turned towards “mysticism” and “spirituality.” He completed his transition from Marxist to Gandhian, renouncing his faith in dialectical materialism, spending increasing amounts of time working with the Sarvodaya movement and merging the SPI with the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, a group of dissident Gandhians, led by JB Kripalani, who had broken away from the Congress. After he pledged his life to Sarvodaya, in 1954, Narayan “carried on a crusade against parliamentary democracy, the constitution, the party system and pursuit of power,” his longtime colleague Balraj Puri writes.

Lohia, meanwhile, was disappointed by the result but not perturbed. He described the election as “a temporary reverse,” which required the socialist movement to strengthen its “base and doctrine,” and “further train the spirit.” Like many young socialists, he was dead set against cooperating with the Congress, though he welcomed the KMPP merger, since he believed that the party’s senior leaders would bring prestige to the PSP’s working committee. He hoped that Narayan would continue to lead the party. “There is an emotional bond between you and the country,” he said in a 1954 letter to his mentor. “You alone can be the nation’s leader and can further the cause of socialism.”

The PSP was soon riven by factional disputes. Narayan chafed at Lohia’s “extraordinary vanity” and propensity for ad hominem attacks. On 21 July 1955, he moved a resolution expelling Lohia from the party. Lohia set up a new Socialist Party. This was “the most puritanical phase of his political career,” Limaye writes. “Not only was he the most articulate spokesperson of principled politics, but he was also creative. Yet his organizational principles and norms were completely alien to the Indian ethos.” Based on what he had seen in European social democratic parties, Lohia introduced a number of strict rules meant to enforce probity, transparency and party discipline. However, these rules were often more honoured in the breach, including by Lohia himself.

At the first conference of the new party, Lohia had raised the slogan of capturing power in seven years. As the SPI had done, the Lohiaite Socialist Party refused to align, or even conclude seat-sharing agreements, with parties other than the SCF and the Jharkhand Party during the 1957 general election or to form a government in a state unless it was the largest party in the legislature. This was meant to provide a check against the Congress luring away its leaders with the promise of power—a tactic it frequently employed whenever it was unable to form a government on its own. Lohia wanted the socialist movement to “stand on its own legs without aids and crutches either to the Left or to the Right.”

“India’s traditional socialists have chiselled their policy of looking for crutches into a fine art,” Lohia wrote, calling it a “selfish pursuit for office and seats in legislatures by a bunch of despondent men.” There was reason for despondency. Narayan wrote to Nehru that his objective in the 1957 general election was to deflate the Congress, a task that “was absolutely necessary for the country and which would have been good for the Congress itself.” However, the Congress returned to power with an increased majority and vote share. The PSP won 19 seats. The Socialist Party won eight. The BJS hardly made a mark, winning just four seats in the Lok Sabha and 46 in the assemblies, as compared to 1,893 state legislators from the Congress.

Reviewing the results, Lohia believed that the PSP had been punished for its lack of principles—it had aligned with the CPI and the BJS in Maharashtra, even as it helped the Congress attack the communists in Kerala. The BJS, meanwhile, did not seem to have “any future.” He congratulated his own party for avoiding alliances, claiming that “parties which preserve their principles emerge again and live to achieve ultimate victory.” He preached patience. “I would not bother whether we achieved power or not,” he wrote. “It would make no difference if we were beaten; we would continue on our path. Even if we were beaten again and again, we would march on.” The trouble with the socialist movement, he added, was that it “gets easily disheartened and sets out to change its principles and programmes.”

BY THE 1962 GENERAL ELECTION, Lohia had changed his principles and programmes. He had been frustrated for a while at the failure of his party to grow, Limaye writes, even though “the bulk of the Party workers remained with the PSP” and “the Lohia rules prevented Socialist Party’s rapid growth such as the expansionist policy pursued by the Socialists during 1948–52 had made possible. Not only the Party had become a small affair, it had become something of a cult built around Lohia’s personality rather than a movement.”

Lohia decided that it was time to reverse the prohibition over alliances. “It was not as if there was no resistance to the new Lohia orientation,” Limaye writes. “Had he not only six years ago imperiously asked the Party units to shun alliances with other parties even at the cost of electoral isolation and defeat, had he not poured ridicule on the PSP’s alliances in the second general election and had he not stressed the need of standing firm in the face of adversity?”

Before the third general election, Lohia tried to set up one-issue conferences on subjects such as inflation, replacing English with vernacular languages, the destruction of caste. His hope was that these conferences would lead to the formation of political fronts, involving a number of parties, that would put up single-issue candidates in constituencies where those issues were salient. “But practically nobody expressed desire to contest elections on behalf of these one-issue organisations,” Limaye writes, and the “Socialist Party therefore fielded its own candidates without alliances in 1962.”

Lohia entered the fray this time, standing against Nehru in the Phulpur constituency. BN Mullick, the director of the Intelligence Bureau, prepared a report about Lohia’s campaign that was eventually sent to the prime minister. Lohia, Mullick wrote, had been “assured the fullest support” by the BJS and by Brahmachari, who was planning to use “his own ‘kirtan’ technique and religious approach” to the campaign.

During a speech in Delhi, on 31 January 1962, Lohia speculated about the emergence of “a new party that will create a new socialism, that is as revolutionary as it is nonviolent, that is as immersed in world events as it is in nationalism.” While he hoped that the PSP would be wiped out—“because it is a bad party, but most of its members can be reformed”—he could see potential in working with the CPI and the BJS, despite all the invective he had hurled at the parties over the years.

“I believe that Indian communists, at least in the realm of property relations, are partly revolutionary,” Lohia said. “If they could shed their bias towards the upper castes, their directionless internationalism, their preference for English and their attitude towards violence, and instead begin believing in individual autonomy and civil liberties, they can work under the leadership of the Socialist Party.”

As for the BJS, Lohia said that he had befriended Brahmachari during a visit to Badrinath, two years earlier, and, through him, met Nana Deshmukh and the future RSS sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh. “I was shocked at their maturity on several matters but still believe that, whatever their motives or declared intentions, their work advocates for business interests and promotes Islamophobia. If they can remove these tendencies and improve their position on the question of nationalism—which I have appreciated in the past but also criticised for being limited—they can make a valuable contribution to the new socialist party.” If the people made the Lohiaites the primary opposition party in that February’s general election, he promised to provide an alternative to the Congress by December.

Nehru won the Phulpur election by over sixty thousand votes. The Congress won 361 seats in the Lok Sabha, with the Socialist Party winning only six of the 107 seats it contested. Far from being wiped out, the PSP won twice as many seats, while the BJS increased its tally from four to 14. The big gainer was the Swatantra Party, a classical liberal party that had been founded, three years earlier, by Minoo Masani and C Rajagopalachari. With the support of several former princes and zamindars, as well as unprecedented campaign spending, it won 18 seats and became the principal opposition party in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bihar and Orissa.

Narayan, Masani’s former CSP colleague, had endorsed the party when it was founded, arguing that the country needed a “conservative alternative” to the radical Congress. “Only sometime back JP had expressed the view that Nehru had done nothing to introduce socialism,” Limaye writes. “Now he apparently thought that the Congress had gone too far on the path of socialism.” He adds that it was “absolutely baffling” to see the founder and leader of the socialist movement, who “had withdrawn from a party which relatively was full of idealistic young men and women, offer justification for the creation of a reactionary party of rajas, zamindars and capitalists.”

Lohia found, Limaye writes, that the opposition was “divided on the basis of fancied categories such as left versus right, democratic versus totalitarian, patriotic versus anti-patriotic, advocates of free enterprise versus champions of collectivist economic order.” His strategy was to de-emphasise these differences in order to pool together the opposition vote. Lohia, “who had once opposed the Ruling party’s unprincipled ‘politics of (internal) adjustment and consensus,’” Limaye writes, was forced, by his “overwhelming impulse to displace the Congress, to work out a policy of opposition adjustment and consensus.”

Yadav defends Lohia’s policy of non-Congressism as “a temporary shift in political tactics.” He argues that opposing the Congress was “no religion” to Lohia, citing his reluctance to break away in the 1940s and his aversion to alliances in the 1950s.

This shift was prompted by many factors, largely non-ideological. There was undoubtedly an element of political fatigue and frustration, especially among middle-level workers. The effect of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which systematically and vastly over-represented the largest party, must have contributed to the sense of being cheated and accentuated the need for a strategy to deal with it. Finally, the steep degeneration in the Congress, especially after Nehru’s death, may have convinced Lohia that an unaccountable and unresponsive ruling party posed more of a danger than a small and ineffective communal party like the Jan Sangh, especially if it could be checked by the presence of other parties, including the communists.


THE FIRST STEP towards non-Congressism was taken during the 1963 by-elections to the Lok Sabha. Four seats were in play, and four of the most prominent opposition leaders contested them. In Uttar Pradesh, Kripalani stood for the Amroha seat; the BJS general secretary, Deendayal Upadhyaya, for Jaunpur; and Lohia for Farrukhabad, in violation of his party’s rule prohibiting defeated Lok Sabha candidates from contesting by-elections. In Gujarat, Masani stood for the Rajkot seat. “Since the object was to prevent division of opposition vote and to stress the common purposes, opposition differences were put in cold storage and the fire was concentrated solely on the Congress,” Limaye writes. “It was a great psychological turning point for the ideologically oriented rank and file of the Socialist Party, and Jan Sangh and Swatantra Party workers.”

Upadhyaya, a Brahmin outsider in a seat that had been won by Rajputs in all three general elections, was the only one of the four to lose. But the BJS campaigned for the other three candidates. Following Lohia’s “resounding victory” in Farrukhabad, the Hindustan Times speculated that the socialists “may lose their leader as the next Jana Sangh Fuehrer.”

Earlier that year, Deshmukh had invited Lohia to attend an RSS camp. Asked by the media why he had gone, Lohia replied, “Main in sanyasion ko grihastha banane gaya tha”—I had gone to turn these ascetics into householders. The political scientist Ritu Kohli writes that Lohia “was a combination of pragmatism finally rooted in the Indian values. Golwalkar slowly got friendly with [him] and appreciated his thinking, though he strongly criticised Lohia’s negative approach and iconoclasm.”

Lohia soon struck a friendship with Upadhyaya after the future BJP president LK Advani, who was a journalist at the Sangh mouthpiece Organiser at the time. After anti-Hindu violence in East Pakistan, in April 1964, “Lohia and Upadhyaya published a joint communiqué,” Jaffrelot writes. “They appealed for calm, and later declared in favour of a confederation reuniting India and Pakistan.”

These overtures to the Sangh were opposed by several of Lohia’s party colleagues. During the Farrukhabad campaign, Limaye writes, Gopal Gowda, a socialist leader from Karnataka, “perceptively called the new passport to electoral victory as an end to policy conflicts: neeti-viram.” Objections to joint campaigning were also raised by Indumati Kelkar, Lohia’s biographer, and by Mrinal Gore, a socialist leader from Maharashtra. Following the election, Limaye wrote to Lohia’s partner, Roma Mitra. While he was happy that Lohia had won—and that the PSP candidate had forfeited their deposit—he confessed “to a feeling of certain unease” over the campaign.

I must ask was it necessary for Doctor to make the Farrukhabad victory a tainted thing? Why did he go to Jaunpur to campaign for the Jan Sangh candidate? Do we have any fixed principles or is it all a matter of expediency? To say that the present political labels are meaningless, that all parties must split and radical elements belonging to various organizations should band themselves together into a new revolutionary force is one thing. To seek to unite the existing opposition parties and their leaders into a hotch-potch coalition is another.

Limaye argued that Lohia was “trying to ride two horses: he wants to preserve the SP as an instrument for executing his policies and at the same time he has lost faith in its capacity to deliver the goods.” Moreover, if the point was to defeat the Congress, why had Lohia campaigned for Kripalani? Limaye noted that Kripalani was in Bombay at the time. When someone had asked him why he was not cooperating with Nehru, Kripalani had replied that he was “dying to cooperate,” but Nehru had not realised that he was his real friend.

In July, the Socialist Party’s national executive accepted Lohia’s directive that the party must support opposition candidates and form alliances. Limaye resigned from the committee. The resolutions were “against the principles, policy and 1962 manifesto of the Party as well as the Party’s actual practice,” he wrote in a letter to the party president, Raj Narain. Even after winning the by-election, he added, “when opportunities for further advance had opened and the politics had begun to get radicalised,” Lohia, “contrary to his own teaching hitherto, had begun to advocate a policy of offering and securing support to and from other parties.”

Until then, Limaye wrote, the socialists had “maintained that only that Party which combined the virtues of nationalism, democracy and revolutionary change would be able to defeat the Congress. Now we will discover seeds of revolution in Communist, of nationalism in Jan Sangh and of democracy in Swatantra candidates, and, with their help, would seek to defeat the Congress.” A few days later, he again wrote to Mitra. Contrary to Lohia’s “doctrine of hundred years’ resistance,” he said, “he has started attaching far too much importance to elections now. I have no doubt that Doctor will soon regret the new shift in his policy.”

He did not. Until his death, on 12 October 1967, bleeding out after doctors at Delhi’s Willingdon Hospital—now named after him—botched a stitch following prostate surgery, Lohia remained committed to non-Congressism. Having compromised with his secular principles, he had no reason to change course. Non-Congressism as a tactic was a major success in his lifetime, finally breaking the Congress monopoly over political power. In the 1967 general election, the Congress, under Indira Gandhi, was reduced to 283 seats in the Lok Sabha and lost power in nine states.

THE MOMENT within which Lohia practised his politics of immediacy casts a long shadow over Indian history. He brought the agrarian middle castes—the beneficiaries of the CSP’s struggles for tenancy rights in Bihar and the United Provinces, who had been neglected in the Congress’s “coalition of extremes”—to the centre of north Indian politics for the next four decades by demanding an expansion of affirmative action to include the Other Backward Classes. He also brought to an end India’s first party system, closing out an era of dominant Congress governments and beginning a long slide to the present, when the party has just 47 seats. However, in the process of dethroning the Nehru–Gandhi family, he also laid the foundation for the rise of Modi.

When Lohia had predicted that the BJS had no future, in 1962, the party had truly been on the fringes. If Narayan or Lohia had been able to set up the socialist alternative to the Congress that they had wanted, a decade earlier, the Sangh, being located to the right of the conservative party in a parliamentary duopoly, would have struggled to remain relevant. Their failure to do so made it possible for a party to thrive by attacking the Congress from the right. The BJS and the Swatantra Party were the big winners of the 1967 election, making a net gain of 47 seats.

The split in the Congress helped the consolidation of the Right. Keen to strike a contrast with the party bosses who ran the Congress (Organisation), Indira presented herself as a populist, promising to eradicate poverty, nationalising private banks and ending the former princes’ privy purses. This earned her the loyalty of the CPI. The Samyukta Socialist Party—formed after the Lohiaite party merged with the PSP—found itself isolated in the opposition among the three right-wing parties and Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal. It was able to implement reservations in some of the state governments that filled the vacuum caused by the Congress’s loss of a majority. However, these governments’ perennial instability made them unpopular, and Indira was able to bring down most of them within a year or two.

Indira’s increasing centralisation of power, and the inflationary spiral triggered by the petroleum crisis of 1973, inflamed popular anger against the government. The Sangh’s students wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, played a leading role in agitations in Gujarat and Bihar that demanded the resignation of the state governments—and often descended into rioting. Sanjeev Kelkar, who chronicled the Sangh during this time, writes that it was an “open secret” that the sarsanghchalak, Madhukar Deoras, had encouraged the ABVP’s participation in Gujarat’s Nav Nirman movement, the group dominated the Bihar Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti. “The need for a leader with credentials was felt,” Kelkar writes. Narayan, whose Sarvodaya work was based in Patna, was approached, with Deoras deputing Deshmukh to shadow him. On 6 April 1974, Narayan agreed to lead the Bihar Movement.

“We are now entering a revolutionary situation,” Masani said, eight days later. “For a time, extra-constitutional forces will take over.” He added that would prefer “a patriotic army rule, which takes a pragmatic economic line, gives the people a good life, stops population growth.” When the army eventually enlisted civilian politicians to rule, he hoped, it would call him or Narayan, “people of that kind.” Narayan had himself fantasised about military rule, in 1967.

“The RSS and the leaders of the Sarvodaya movement in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh had already been in contact with each other for a long time,” Jaffrelot writes. Deshmukh had participated in the bhoodan—land donation—carried out by the movement. He told Jaffrelot that, since 1962, he and Narayan had not been “working together but discussed often about rural development.” Narayan had worked with the Sangh during drought relief in 1967. A year before the Bihar Movement, he had presided over a condolence ceremony for Golwalkar. In December 1974, Deoras placed Narayan in a pantheon of “noble leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Guruji Golwalkar.”

Jaffrelot writes that the figure of Gandhi was invoked for tactical reasons, “but also because he represented a political tradition that was presented as genuinely indigenous: in this tutelary figure the RSS and ‘JP’ found a symbolic resource to oppose modernism imported from abroad.” He adds that the two sides “had a shared interest in emphasising their points of agreement rather than their differences—the Hindu nationalists in order to profit from the patronage of an eminent leader and ‘JP’ to benefit from the network offered by the Hindu nationalists.” Narayan became even more dependent on Sangh support once Bhave’s Sarva Seva Sangh began withdrawing from the movement.

A month after the 1975 BJS convention, speaking to his own Everyman’s Weekly, Narayan denied ever having “described the RSS as fascist or non-fascist. Though I do not know much about it I feel that it has also been changing like so many things in the country.” He did not, however, see any reason to change his view on the BJS itself not being fascist. In a speech, he reiterated that the organisation had changed. “The list of great men whom the Sangh volunteers remember every morning includes also the name of Mahatma Gandhi,” he said. He claimed to have tried to “de-communalise” the RSS by allowing it to join the movement. “The young activists of these two organisations have worked in close cooperation with our Muslim students and youths, and this working together has removed misunderstandings and generated mutual faith.”

Narayan gave the RSS the biggest certificate it could ask for when he said that it did the same work that the Bihar Movement was doing. “Both are aimed,” he said, “at complete change in the entire society through a process of evolution of thoughts and actions of the people for the betterment of the whole nation.” In an interview with the BBC, he recalled a version of history that was convenient to the Sangh. “The movement started under my leadership and the RSS-Jana Sangh offered its support,” he claimed. “To have refused that support would have been stupid. It would also have been an injustice to the people; as if one was trying to break its strength.” Moreover, he did not want to turn the Sangh into “an ogre,” as the Congress did. “In my talks with people from the Jana Sangh, I have advocated that they should come into the mainstream. By doing so, the mark that the Sangh is for Hindudom, or ‘Hindutva’ and against the Muslims, will be washed away.”

Shortly before Narayan died, in 1979, he wrote to Prime Minister Morarji Desai about communal violence in Aligarh and other places, revealing his private feelings about the Sangh. “Some persons have again raised the phantom of the RSS,” he wrote. “We can brush aside Indira Gandhi’s accusation against the RSS as motivated by politics. However, it is a serious matter if any member of the Janata Party, whether belonging to the RSS or not, participates in communal riots. There should be no place for him in the Janata Party.” Given the Sangh’s history of communal violence, both before and after this moment, it would stretch credulity to argue that he put this principle into practice.

In their book India’s First Dictatorship, Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil write that “perhaps the development of greatest importance during the Emergency was the legitimacy that the regime accorded Hindu nationalism, a process that the JP Movement had already initiated.” The Sangh was able to maintain a vast underground network despite the mass arrests of its members.

These efforts rendered it the bona fides that had been denied it since the early years of the republic, when its political “untouchability”, as some of its leaders used to quip, had been plain to see. … Long excoriated in the Nehruvian period for their ambivalence towards colonial rule, this epigonic “second freedom struggle” was to be one of their own. By emulating the Gandhian techniques of the first freedom struggle, then, the RSS hoped to make up for lost time by quickly amassing a prestigious repertoire of nationalism from which it had heretofore been excluded.

Lohia had removed the taboo that had previously existed among mainstream politicians on working with the BJS. Now, Narayan fully embraced the Sangh, including it among the forces for total revolution who came together to form the Janata Party and finally remove the Congress from power. He did so despite the protests of his subordinates in the socialist movement. Having been included in the leadership running the party and the country, the BJS played the Janata leaders Morarji Desai and Charan Singh off each other, threatening to switch sides whenever it did not like the direction of government policy.

Although the Janata Party fell apart over the split loyalties of Sangh members in the party, most prominent politicians of the post-Janata era had no qualms about aligning with the BJP when convenient. With a few honourable exceptions, almost every political party in India has joined hands with the BJP at one time or another. When George Fernandes brought together the National Democratic Alliance in the 1990s, many of the socialist leaders who joined cited Lohia’s non-Congressism as justification. Upon taking office as prime minister, Modi cited Lohia and Upadhyaya as his government’s inspirations.

With the BJP now in the position of defining the repertoire of nationalism and deciding whom it excludes, it is worth reflecting on how much the Sangh benefitted from the Gandhian imprimatur of the man who had once demanded that it be crushed for its role in killing Gandhi.

Qurban Ali is a trilingual journalist who has covered some of the major political, social and economic developments in modern India. He is currently documenting the history of the country’s socialist movement.

https://caravanmagazine.in/history/socialists-enabled-hindu-rashtra has pictures.

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