Challenge and chance for socialists

It was on May 17, 1934, that socialists like Acharya Narendra Dev, Jayaprakash Narayan, Asok Mehta and Nanasaheb Goray, having just been released from prison, met at the Anjuman-e-Islamia Hall in Patna and decided to organise a socialist party within the Indian National Congress which was a broad political platform fighting for freedom. On that day, the socialist movement in India was born with its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

In its life of 82 years, the movement has seen many ups and downs. Freedom being the prime value of socialism, independence from the British was naturally the core objective of the socialists who were also devout nationalists.

They participated in each of the freedom movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi, in spite of their sharp political differences with him. Due to the imprisonment of all Congress Working Committee members in 1942, the socialists led the ‘Quit India’ movement from underground. In fact, the words ‘Quit India’ were coined by Yusuf Meherally, a socialist mayor of Mumbai.

When democracy was threatened by an authoritarian regime in 1975, socialists fought for restoring it and people’s civil liberties even at the cost of their political identity by merging the Socialist Party with the Janata Party launched by Jayaprakash Narayan. But all through these struggles they did not allow their commitment to socialism dim.

In independent India, they struggled to take the country towards an egalitarian social order. They fought for the abolition of the zamindari system and for redistribution of land to the tillers. They advocated cooperative farming to ameliorate the conditions of small farmers. They organised industrial workers into trade unions and fought for their rights and advocated their participation in the management and ownership of the industries in which they worked. They fought against the social evils of the hierarchical caste system and advocated equality among castes and for women. If India has become more egalitarian than it was at the time of independence, socialists can certainly claim a major part of the credit for it.

Today, though the socialists are scattered in several political parties, the movement continues to influence the polity and society. In these 82 years, the whole world has seen a paradigm shift in every aspect. The advancements in the fields of science and technology and the advent of globalisation, while throwing up new challenges, have also opened up new opportunities and possibilities.

Socialist alternative

Today, the giant multi-national corporations are slowly but surely occupying the space hitherto engaged by the state resulting in its slow withering away. Socialists all over the world are contemplating methods of democratising these corporations and building socialist alternatives. Leslie Sklair, professor at the London School of Economics speaks of replacing capitalist globalisation with socialist globalisation through a network of cooperatives working on a global scale. Will the socialists oppose these developments blindly like the communists do or will they manoeuvre them to the advantage of socialism?

In India, the stage is set. With a large section of the people like Dalits, minorities and women thirsting for equality, the mind is also set. Having stabilised freedom and democracy in the last 60 years, what is needed now is the thrust for an egalitarian social order.

It appears today that the difference between the `etat and the economie’ (state and economy) is evaporating. Once socialists had tamed the etat to serve the cause of socialism and had constructed wonderful welfare states as a step towards an egalitarian social order. In the changed milieu, will they be able to manoeuvre the economie to serve the cause of socialism?

There is need for the jaded socialist policies to make way for new ones to engage with the new challenges while keeping the core values in focus. From 1979 to 1997, the Labour Party of the UK had four consecutive elections. In 1997, Tony Blair became the leader, abandoned the old policies and advocated what he called ‘New Labour’ and won three consecutive elections for the party, unprecedented in the history of the UK.

Socialists from all over India are again meeting on May 17 at the Anjuman-e-Islamia Hall. The home returned prodigal son of Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘Total Revolution movement,’ Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, is inaugurating the meeting. Will Indian socialists learn from history and evolve to ‘New Socialism’? That is the challenge and the opportunity.

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