A small plaque lists seven deadly sins identified by Mahatma Gandhi. Next to it is a framed portrait of socialist ideologue Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. The corner on the big glass-top table at his official residence, 1 Aney Marg, in Patna perhaps best captures what has gone into the making of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.
For some, Kumar, one of the few idealistic socialists around, is the hero of a lost cause. Socialism has had its day in the Indian political sun. His Janata Dal (United) is among the few still wedded to the ideology, but it, too, has failed to make an impact beyond Bihar. As India gets ready to vote for a new government, a healthy dose of socialism is being peddled in the form of poll promises. But this is as far as it will go.
However, for the 68-year-old Kumar, socialism has and will continue to be his guiding light, his moral compass, along with the seven sins that Gandhi warned against.
“I have made it mandatory for every government office in Bihar to have these principles inscribed boldly on a board,” Kumar told Firstpost in an interview. He was referring to: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice and politics without principle.
Rivals have thrown the same Gandhian principles back at him, accusing him of following “politics without principle”. They accuse him of shifting allegiances to ensure his survival.
The seasoned politician that he is, Kumar has taken it all in his stride, as he opens up about his ideology and politics.
“I was drawn to Lohia ji while working along with my father who was a vaidya (ayurvedic medicine practitioner). I used to prepare pudia (small bundles for medicine) for patients when I heard about Dr Lohia,” he said. Lohia was critical of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and the Congress and Kumar would devour everything that was said or written about Lohia.
During a visit to Bihar in 1967, Lohia stressed on consolidation of backward classes. Kumar heard him at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan and found his ideological space.
It was also the time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Jana Sangh were gaining popularity. “But the charm of socialism was seductive. There were many bright leaders who followed Lohia’s subversive political ideology with human touch,” Kumar said. When socialists came to power in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Lohia asked them to do work for the people. “But, the problem with socialists was that though they were individually bright, they could not work as an organisation,” the chief minister said, referring to clashing interests that have been the undoing of socialist politics in India.
Idealism has little space in the cut-throat world of politics. The socialism that emerged as the fulcrum of anti-Congressism in 1974 against Indira Gandhi and in 1989 against Rajiv Gandhi, too, got distorted. Kumar acknowledged that the Sangh Parivar, with its tight organisation and strong network, stole the march.
“You see the devotion of pracharaks from the RSS, BJP and other constituents and you will realise the difference,” he said. The socialists have often been accused of ceding space to the Sangh Parivar in their battle with the Congress. “People coming from distant parts of the country used to spend their lifetime in working for the organisation with selfless devotion. Most of them are ordinary people but their commitment is extraordinary,” Kumar said.
The heady years of the 1960s and 70s are a faraway memory. So, what does Kumar, one of the few practitioners of the ideology, has to say about withering away of Indian socialism?
“This is the most relevant ideology and will never wither away. Don’t equate failures of individuals with the failure of an ideology,” the chief minister said, launching a stout defence.
There was no doubt, he said, that those who claimed to be Indian socialists have failed. “Look around and you will find those claiming themselves to be socialist have reduced it to a family fiefdom or are promoting casteism,” the Bihar leader added.
The reason for Kumar’s angst is not too far to find. Lalu Prasad, who like him, was seen as an inheritor of Jayaprakash Narayan’s socialist legacy has battled charges of nepotism and corruption.
“In the name of socialism, we have offered political alternatives beset by corruption, criminality, casteism and nepotism. For instance, Lohia was an ardent supporter of OBC consolidation but he was never a casteist,” Kumar said.
Bihar, he said, was the cradle of Indian socialism. In his last speech at Patna, Lohia urged his followers not to get distracted by power. “ ‘Let your work speak for yourself’ he said but, that was not to be,” Kumar said.
The Bihar leader has tried to stay true to his ideal. His model of governance and development has some classical features of Lohia’s brand of socialism. His lifestyle is austere and he has kept his family and friends away from politics.
But, that hasn’t stopped him from making some Faustian bargains, which supporters sees as political pragmatism and rivals call rank opportunism.
Kumar walked out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance ahead of the Lok Sabha 2014 election after Narendra Modi was projected as the prime ministerial candidate. The election didn’t end well for him.
Cornered, Kumar tied up with Lalu Prasad, the man he had accused of being corrupt and criminalising politics, to revive his fortunes. The honeymoon, as expected, was short. As corruption charges piled up against Lalu and his deputy chief minister son, Tejashwi Yadav, Kumar, in 2017, again switched sides. He was back being friends with the BJP, two years after calling it communal.
Kumar finds nothing amiss in this shifting stance. “Though I have been called names for my political alliances, I can say with confidence that we are governing Bihar on the moral compass of Gandhi and Lohia. Look at the manner in which politics is creating hatred and divisions,” he said.
Economic inequality also worries him and he thinks Bihar has managed to beat the trend. “We have tried to evolve a model of governance which has robust growth of nearly 11 per cent with a human face. Migration for work has declined as there are more opportunities within the state,” he said.
Given Kumar’s history, his political conduct and his defence of it is almost hypocritical. But, he has an explanation for that as well. “As I told you earlier, we socialists were handicapped by lack of organisation. Similarly, some leaders pursued a perverse casteist approach that was also a limiting factor.”
Kumar said he was firm on not compromising on corruption or communalism in Bihar and had stuck to it, irrespective of his allies. “The moment I face difficulty in upholding my commitment, I will call it a day. In my view, political power has to be used for welfare of people and I am totally committed to it,” said Kumar.
Recently, Bihar made it to the Guinness World Records for the longest human chain—around 14,000km—against social ills like liquor, dowry and child marriage. He pushed these social issues to the centre stage, as opponents ridiculed him for pursuing non-political issues.
They were wrong; people responded well. It was unfortunate that these issues didn’t get adequate political attention, Kumar said. “I am surprised at the reaction of those who equate alcohol consumption with fundamental rights. You do not have a fundamental right to consume liquor,” said Kumar, who won over women voters when he promised a dry Bihar. Prohibition had done a world of good in rural areas. he said. Money was being spent on family and “women are extremely happy”.
But, isn’t liquor still freely available in the state? “Despite the Indian Penal code, crimes including murders have not stopped. You cannot stop crime altogether through enforcement but you can certainly check prevalence of social ills arising out of consumption of liquor,” Kumar said.
He is convinced that a dry Bihar is a better Bihar and he plans to keep it that way. “Initially I was told about the loss of revenue but I am least interested in getting revenue through liquor sale,” he said.
Just like prohibition, his initiatives to make Bihar free of ills like dowry and child marriage, too, had gone down well with the people, he said. “This politics perfectly conforms to the principled politics envisaged by Gandhi and Lohia,” he said.
In India, like in the developed world, the younger generation is calling for a more equal society, where all citizens get a shot at a better life. In the United States, the United Kingdom and France, millennials are tilting Left, in response to a widening economic gap and rise of the right-wing.
In India, too, the two national parties—the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress—are desperately trying to outdo each other in welfare measures, or the promise of them. So, is there some hope for socialism in India? “That is the only way for future,” Kumar said.
He, however, was dismissive of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s promised of Rs 6,000 per month to the poorest of the poor.
“It shows his clear lack of understanding of ground situation and how the government functions,” he said. The scheme would not only by unimplementable but also create the worst kind of distortions. “Those who are rich would get the benefit while real beneficiaries would be excluded,” he said, adding that such schemes weren’t socialist. “The Congress ignored Gandhi’s emphasis on making villages prosperous and relied on heavy industry, big capital, and later returned to socialist sloganeering. That is hardly socialism,” he said.
He, however, described as a step in the right direction the Modi government’s programmes to provide electricity and cooking gas connections for the poor, the Rs 5-lakh health cover to 30 crore people and the Swacch Bharat campaign. “These steps deserve appreciation,” he said, adding that these measures were intended to benefit people and create a better society – just what socialism aspires to do.
By all counts, Kumar fits into a classical socialist mould and can claim to be the last of the “true Lohiaites” leading a government. Is he sticking to an ideology that is dead in a country which is the world’s fastest growing major economy and harbours ambitions of being the world’s biggest powerhouse? But, socialism was for all times and would always be relevant, Kumar shot back. “It will bounce back one day in the most powerful form. A new generation will come and take it forward sooner than later. The attraction of this idea is such that all parties irrespective of their ideological moorings still swear by it.”
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