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Socialist republic: A success at 50? / Dr Shiv Visvanathan
In recent years celebrations of democracy have varied inversely with the hosannas to socialism. Today, Democracy is in and Socialism is officially out. Fortunately, Indians are a contrary society. We celebrate what seems outworn elsewhere. Somewhere in our hearts, we believe socialism as an ism is dead. But that it is also time to reinvent it again. So let us begin with the obituary first and discuss the rebirth later.
Socialism in India operated at three levels—State, civil society and individual. Socialism in the fifties was a popular and pluralist imagination enacted at every level from Raj
Kapoor to Lohia, Nehru and Vinoba. But as an element of the Constitution and as an official ideology, it was an add-on. It was a top-down creation, a consequence of Indira Gandhi’s populism. It was introduced with the 42nd Amendment in the heady years of nationalisation and the abolition of privy purses. Socialism as an official ideology was a bore. It was inefficient, bureaucratic and spoilsport. Officials and businessman alike enjoyed the “reservations” it created. Linguistically, the word licence referred more to wanton freedom, or at the most to an accessible permit. But in India licence referred to restrictive practices: the licence-raj. The sad thing was that our democracy was open and inventive while our socialism was restrictive and repressive. As a bureaucratic ideology, it destroyed innovation and fetishised the State. As an idea of personality, socialism was a romantic imagination more creative in the hands of Raj Kapoor but lethal in the files of a civil servant. What the Japanese sociologist Yamaguchi said of Trotskyism as an adolescent imagination is truer still of Indian socialists. Socialists as “Young Turks” were fine but fat and forty, they became terrible bores. Narcissistic, egoistic, dishonest, they were also ungenerous to their Marxist counterparts. They were mere agitators fascinated by power and politics but ignorant about governance. They have virtually abandoned the ascetic lifestyle of the older generation. Worse, World Bank speaks the rhetoric of socialism better.
But there is a different socialism which like Pepsi has nothing official about it. There is socialism as an imagination which fortunately does not belong only to socialists. Such an imagination produces politically a Lohia, and culturally, an Anantha-murthy. The search for equity and affirmative action has diffused through society. It does not need the philistinism of post-Mandal politics to make the point. Unfortunately, socialism today is a lumpenised consciousness. Its chief exponents are Laloo and Mulayam Yadav. It is a politics that is illiterate about gender, ecology or peace. It is precisely in the age of globalisation that we need socialist ideas but not as an ideology. We need a socialism that guarantees equity to marginals, tribals, the old and the displaced. We need a socialism that recreates the idea of the commons. Socialism reinvented has to compensate for the moral emptiness of the market. Such a socialism must be invented outside the official domains of ideology, beyond Laloo or the Fab India socialists of Delhi who are so illiterate or amnesiacal that they probably think Mrinal Gore is the name of a new fast food.
Chandrababu Naidu is a good start. He bought socialism to cyberspace. Mother Teresa is another. She talked of the socialism of the old and “useless”. Medha Patkar and Baba Amte insisted on the socialism of the displaced reminding us that there are lepers and outcasts in the development process. If socialism is dead or moribund, it is time to reinvent it, with care, with love, with concern and laughter.
(Dr Shiv Visvanathan Senior Fellow, CSDS)