Even two years ago, the very idea of a dyed-in-the-wool Lohia-ite such as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar openly calling on Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for political consultations would have seemed absolutely preposterous. Till September 2013, Nitish and his Janata Dal (United) was in a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar, and had been so since George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav had forged an alliance to counter the “jungle raj” of Lalu Prasad Yadav in the mid-1990s. Indeed, when Nitish broke the long-standing alliance after the BJP appointed Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election, Sharad Yadav was, in fact, the convenor of the National Democratic Alliance, a position he secured after Fernandes became too ill to continue in public life.
In India’s ever-changing politics, the idea of strange bedfellows is no longer all that strange. As the most spirited and noisy crusader against Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors, Ram Manohar Lohia had contributed most significantly in making anti-Congressism a viable political platform. Although the Communist parties stayed away from such an arrangement — a schism that had its origins in the Quit India movement, the Cold War and, most notably, the visceral hatred of the socialists for China — Lohia had absolutely no inhibitions in forging a working relationship with the then Jana Sangh and Swatantra parties.
In ideological terms, the Lohia wing of the socialist movement was different from the other tradition that included stalwarts such as Asoka Mehta, who ended up in the Congress after Nehru embraced socialist planning in the mid-1950s. More than any other leader, Lohia gauged the importance of caste as a forum of political mobilisation, an approach that had hitherto been confined to the splinter groups of the Ambedkar-ites. The emergence of a “backward caste” identity that was formalised after the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in the 1990s has a direct link with the political approach of Lohia and his disciples. This caste-based mobilisation, however, really took off after kisan activist Charan Singh came together with socialist leaders such as Karpoori Thakur to form the Bharatiya Kranti Dal after the 1967 election.
There were good reasons why, after Lohia’s death in October 1967, the old anti-Congressism plank remained a viable option for the socialists and kisan populists. First, despite the setback in 1967 and the split in 1969, the Congress’ position as the dominant party was intact. India’s politics were determined by where other parties stood in relation to the Congress and its domineering leader Indira Gandhi. The Communist movement was split between those who wanted an accommodation with the Congress as part of a “progressive” combination and others who were attracted by the charms of a peasant-led uprising, as had happened in China. The free-market Swatantra Party was hobbled by its identification with industrialists and the erstwhile princes, and ceased to be a viable force after the 1971 election. Its adherents either drifted into the new Charan Singh-led Bharatiya Lok Dal or associated themselves individually with the Jana Sangh or even the Congress.
Secondly, the period between 1967 and 1989 was marked by tussles between different shades of Left socialism. There was Indira Gandhi’s statist socialism, the kisan populism of Charan Singh and the quasi-revolutionary peasant activism of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Socialism was so much in the air that even the old Jana Sangh, that re-established itself as the BJP in 1980, claimed adherence to “Gandhian socialism.” The old socialists occupied a very distinct political space as fierce opponents of socialist cronyism, corruption, dynastic politics and authoritarianism. After the Janata Party experiment collapsed in 1979, the most effective challengers to the Congress were those who operated within the Lohia-Charan Singh mould, with the CPI(M) providing a different model in West Bengal and Kerala. It is worth remembering that the BJP variant of politics centred on Hindu grievances and aspirations didn’t become a major factor until 1989.
Finally, after Indira Gandhi’s comeback in 1980 and Rajiv Gandhi’s resounding triumph in 1984, most of the effective opposition to the Congress became regionalised. Apart from Fernandes, who had a national perspective, the inheritors of the old socialist mantle found solace in regional politics — Karpoori Thakur and then Lalu Yadav in Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Biju Patnaik in Orissa, Devi Lal in Haryana and Ramakrishna Hegde and H.D. Deve Gowda in Karnataka. The BJP was perhaps the only party that even kept up a national pretence. However, its support was patchy and it was always a poor third party in areas where the outfits of the erstwhile Janata Parivar constituted the main challenge to the Congress. As such, the regional leaders had little hesitation in associating the BJP as a junior partner in electoral alliances. The mental image of the Congress as the dominant party was to prove quite enduring till the three general elections of the late-1990s.
It was only after the Ayodhya mobilisation and the emergence of the BJP as the alternative pole of politics that sections of the old Janata Parivar began replacing anti-Congressism with anti-BJPism. Mulayam and Lalu were first off the mark and shed their earlier antipathy to the Congress, not least because the old dominant party had been reduced to a shell in the Ganga belt after the 1991 polls. Nitish Kumar’s break with Lalu in the mid-1990s was not over ideology; it was centred on leadership styles — an issue that hasn’t died yet. Broadly speaking, the principle of one leader per state was adhered to, except in Bihar where the weight of Nitish as a charismatic leader far exceeded the JD(U)’s social influence. It is this mismatch that will continue to plague the Janata Parivar in Bihar.
There’s an additional reason, apart from the waning appeal of the dynasty, why the Congress has shed its untouchable status for the old Lohia-ites. After the Mandal Commission controversy, the Janata factions assumed that the backward caste vote would come their way en masse. A caricatured view of the BJP as a party of the rich, middle classes and upper castes held sway among the Janata Parivar ideologues for a very long time. Increasingly, however, this is not being borne out by electoral behaviour. The BJP has made significant headway among peasant castes such as Jats in Uttar Pradesh and non-Yadav backward castes throughout the Hindi belt. Indeed, in many ways the BJP — as opposed to the RSS — is fast becoming an OBC party, a trend that gathered momentum with Modi’s successful 2014 campaign.
The Bihar election later this year will be all about which political formation — the two Janata parties or BJP — can secure the bulk of the “backward” vote and replenish it with the votes of dalits. In this game, the Congress is a bit player, the reason why its importance stands so severely diminished.
The writer is a senior journalist