In 2017, we heard three knocks from the past. It was the centenary year of the great Bolshevik revolution that spawned communism in India. This year also marked the centenary of the Champaran satyagraha, the event that began the Gandhian era in Indian politics. These two currents shaped the course of 20th century India. Their remnants are occasionally visible and still available for the 21st century.
The Russian Revolution not only triggered the Communist Party of India and its various offshoots, but also introduced an egalitarian strand in our national political life. Besides the communists, the Naxalites and the Maoists, the left stamp was visible on the socialist parties as well as the Congress, including Nehru himself.
The idea of equality informed the Periyar-Ambedkar stream of social justice, and the feminists as well. Some form or the other of the egalitarian ideology informed the best of art, literature and cinema in the 20th century.
While egalitarian revolution never arrived in India, socialism became the ruling ideology in the post-independence era. Equality and social justice formed the centrepiece of our Constitution and were the reigning ideas of that time. From Nehru to Indira Gandhi, socialist rhetoric was used extensively, with some attempt to replicate Soviet-style public sector and planned economic development. That model had collapsed in India before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Inequalities have persisted, indeed accentuated, after the new economic regime came into being in 1991. Yet this stream faces exhaustion, with the left already on its way out from West Bengal and various ‘socialist’ parties walking into oblivion.
The Gandhian current lived beyond Gandhi. The official Congress-style Gandhism was already a farce by the 1950s. But Gandhism lived through the constructive work of Bhoodan and Sarvodaya movement. The new social movements since the 1980s—ecological movements for community control over Jal-Jungle-Jameen—also draw upon the Gandhian stream. There has been a revival of Gandhian critique of modern western civilisation, at least among the intellectuals. Yet this stream has not had its political vehicle. In the absence of organisations to take this forward, the Gandhian legacy faces extinction or appropriation. So much so that the BJP does not fear invoking the Mahatma’s name. His critique of western civilisation is used to defend jingoist nationalism.
In the 20th century, both these streams ran parallel to each other. In fact, a good deal of their energy was spent in opposing each other. At the end of 100 years, when the Indian republic faces the worst onslaught on its foundational values, two of the most powerful ideas that could shape India in the 21st century lie abandoned. Now is the moment for fusion of the egalitarian with the indigenous stream of thought. This is imperative for defending the idea of India.
This is where the third knock becomes relevant. This year was the 50th anniversary of the death of Rammanohar Lohia. Mostly remembered for his personal attacks on Nehru or his opposition to English or his advocacy of OBC reservations, Lohia needs to be remembered as an intellectual giant who attempted the first fusion of both these currents of thought in the 20th century. In Marx, Gandhi and Socialism, he proposes that the idea of equality needs fresh doctrinal foundations in the non-European context. Much of his life was an attempt to create a new vision for nonviolent revolution; egalitarian but not limited to class struggle; deeply rooted in our cultural traditions, yet universalist.
Today the idea of India faces an unprecedented challenge. The version we inherited from the freedom movement lies in shambles. We desperately need to reinvent and refurbish this idea to save the republic. That is why the three knocks we heard in 2017 are critical to the future of India.
Let 2018 be the year to redefine the idea of swaraj for the 21st century.