Do India’s Socialists have a future, after all?

FROM a thundering beginning in Bombay to a whimpering end in Bihar after three stints in power in New Delhi. That sums up the career of George Fernandes, one of India’s most colourful politicians. Fernandes looked distinctly off-colour after losing the election to the president’s post in the Janata Dal (United). He received only 25 votes against his one-time protégé Sharad Yadav’s 413.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sat 22 Apr 2006, 10:10 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

Fernandes is a bitter, lonely old man without a future. He’s too deeply compromised with the Bharatiya Janata Party to be respected by his colleagues. Yet, he’s not in the Sangh’s core, despite having rescued it countless times. He gave a clean chit to the Bajrang Dal for the burning alive of Graham Staines, and rationalised the Gujarat pogrom. He may at best get a decorative Parivar position.

Fernandes began as a dynamic leader of Bombay’s dockworkers, and later of taxi-men and bus-drivers. Control over the city’s arteries made him the Uncrowned King of the Bandh. He vanquished the powerful Congress boss, S K Patil in South Bombay in 1967.

He led the 1974 railway strike, one of the biggest struggles in India’s history, which frontally challenged Indira Gandhi. The railway strike gave the opposition a national character. But it exposed serious flaws in Fernandes’ leadership: he vanished when thousands of arrested railwaymen needed help.

The railway strike marked the peak of George the Giant-Killer’s career. When the Janata Party came to power following the Emergency, Industry Minister Fernandes was in search of gimmicks —like throwing out Coca-Cola and IBM while imposing German multinational Siemens upon the public sector BHEL. He also advocated nuclear cooperation with Libya.

Fernandes’ trajectory since has been erratic and calculated to shock, but was always guided by blind opposition to the Congress and the Communists. In 1974, he condemned India’s first nuclear test: so long as Indians lack "enough food, clothing and shelter", even thinking of nuclear weapons is ‘obscene’. But he became hawkish as the number of Indians without enough food swelled. By 1998, he was a votary of nuclear weapons. Fernandes became Hindutva’s greatest apologist outside the BJP and moved close to the RSS. Tehelka and the coffin-import scam showed him deeply compromised.

Fernandes’ is the latest case of a Socialist turning a traitor to his cause. Alas, he’s not the only one. Recently, H D Deve Gowda supported his son in forming a defectors’ government with the BJP in Karnataka. Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav have also been Hindutva collaborators.

Today, the Socialist movement, which emerged as an independent current in 1934, is in danger of dissolution. Most veteran Socialists are in regional groupings like the Samajwadi Party, or in one-person outfits. The movement lost its organisational identity long ago. It could soon lose the ideological affiliation many of its leaders shared.

The Indian Socialists’ history is regrettably a story of splits. Thus, in the first 17 years after Independence, they underwent four splits, driven as much by personality considerations as by ideology. Socialist politics has been largely reactive. The worst disintegration of the movement came in 1978 when the Janata Party split over its Jana Sangh component’s dual membership issue. The split was initiated by Socialist Madhu Limaye. But the Socialists themselves got divided. They briefly regrouped under the Janata Dal, but that too underwent fission.

The Socialists’ history of disorientation is doubly tragic. They once formed an important current representing the poor. In the Hindi heartland, they provided a counterweight to social conservatism and Right-wing politics and became the sole progressive alternative for millions of idealistic youth.

Secondly, the Socialist movement threw up brilliant leaders, from Narendra Dev and Ram Manohar Lohiya to Ashok Mehta, Jai Prakash Narayan, H V Kamath, Madhu Limaye, S M Joshi and N G Goray. Some (e.g. Lohiya) were original thinkers who developed a sophisticated understanding of Indian society based not just on class, but also caste. The Indian concept of affirmative action owes much to Lohiya. Lohiya went politically astray after his 1967 strategy of forming anti-Congress governments indiscriminately. But his contribution to the understanding of the importance of Dalit and OBC empowerment, secularism, women’s equality, and radical social reform is undeniable.

The Socialist movement was marred by three great flaws: obsessive anti-Congressism; Cold War-style anti-Communism, which prevented joint actions with the rest of the Left; and personality politics. For instance, Fernandes’s erstwhile Samyukta Socialist Party had no qualms in joining hands with Right wing groups against the Communists.

A pernicious role was played in this regard by JP, who bestowed respectability upon the RSS through the Bihar agitation. Without him, the Jana Sangh couldn’t have found a place in the Janata, nor acquired the influence in the post-Emergency government that it did. The Sanghis consciously infiltrated the government apparatus and the media —a key to their urban middle-class influence in later years. The Socialist movement is today at a crossroads. Either its remnants will regroup as a Left-wing secular current with a progressive agenda. Or it will sink without a trace.

Fortunately, four years ago, leaders like Kishan Pattanaik, Madhu Dandavate, Surendra Mohan and Mrinal Gore floated the Socialist Front, to regroup Socialists outside the National Democratic Alliance and the Congress.

The Front started a dialogue with people’s movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan, Samajwadi Jan Morcha, and other grass-roots groups working on human rights, and Adivasi and Dalit empowerment. They also opened a productive conversation with the Communists and proposed a merger of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha with the CPI-led AITUC. The merger didn’t materialise. But there is greater coordination between the Front and the rest of the Left —as evidenced by the recent remarkable solidarity campaign around the Narmada issue.

One can only wish the Front well. There is room in India for progressive groups and movements that take up grassroots issues with tenacity. If it succeeds, it can put behind itself the Fernandes legacy and make a positive contribution to politics.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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