Book Review: Ram Manohar Lohia by Indumati Kelkar

Dr. Lohia remains a fascinating personality for me. I have known people who ‘worship’ him and also people who ‘deride’ him. Even as I was reading this book, a close family friend (who is of course in his 70s) said ‘kaun pagal ka kitab padh rahe ho?’. He of course remained a pucca Congressi for long, though is now reassessing his pol preference…

Love him or hate him but you can’t deny the influence of this man on national politics. He remained the ideological mentor of the samajvadis who dominated the national polity as well as the politics of the Hindi heartland in the era when the one party dominant system (Congress) started straining till the BJP rose as a major factor and then the main pole of national polity The rise of identity politics in the 90s as well as the subalterization of politics in India had much to do with the brand of politics which Lohia professed and advocated post independence.

He was the perpetual outlier, the relentless and some would say ‘cussed’ critic of the Congress and the Gandhi Nehru family. While much is written today about PM Modi’s talk of a Congress Mukt Bharat, it was actually Lohia who said so in Jallundhar, “The target of the SSP is not merely defeating Congress..but the very liquidation of the Congress.”. While the PM is accused today of speaking ill of the opposition while he travels abroad(in his public meetings), and that such statements are not a part of the Indian political culture before, a study of Dr. Lohia reveals that he was was unrelenting in his critique of Nehru (and his govt) during his trips abroad.

Dr. Lohia was relentless in exposing the hypocrisies and shortcomings of Nehru’s govt. His argument that while an average Indian survived on 3 annas a day the govt was spending 25000 Rs. per day on the PM is widely known. Nehru contested the figure of 3 annas but finally Lohia was proved right.

I have read his works in some detail and I must confess that while I disagree with many of his formulations especially on his economic policies, however his stress on economic and political decentralization (he was a true Gandhian in that sense) does merit serious consideration. It needs to be understood however that his thrust was not on cottage industry of the Congress variety (very low productivity) but what he called ‘small tool’ industry. He was sharply critical of the planed economy with its thrust on large PSUs as the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. It was for this reason that he was sharply critical of the Communist too. He also abhorred them for constantly looking at and defending USSR and China, sometimes at the cost of Indian national interest. Similarly his thrust on promotion of Hindi and other national languages, affirmative action for weaker sections were all calls of breaking the then prevailing status quo.

Reading the book also makes one realize how volatile and restless India was in the early years of Independence and the slow progress that we made. Social and economic unrest was rife and police firing on protesters was routine. In fact Lohia was sidelined by his party when he asked the CM of Cochin, Pattam Thanu Pillai who belonged to his party to resign as police had fired on peaceful protesters.

I am intrigued as to how Dr. Lohia would have reacted to the lifestyles and politics of the present Samajwadis. A person who never craved for any luxury (once on being told that he should get a cooler installed in his room, he angrily brushed it aside saying that such luxuries were not for him), and who insisted that ceiling of 1500 Rs should be set on the expenditure of all Indians, what would have been his reaction on seeing his fellow samajwadis driving cars worth crores? While many of the then politicians traveled abroad for their treatment, Dr. Lohia for his prostate operation got himself admitted to Wellington hospital where he lost his life as he caught acute infection during surgery. This was the quality of public service that the pro poor left of the center govt had given to this country after 20 years of independence, a legacy which continues till date.

He was also in favour of the uniform civil code and also sought to hold a Ramayan Mela in Chitrakoot. This however could never materialize for the then Congress govt refused to provide concessionary tickets to delegates. While an atheist he believed that politics without religious morals is doomed.

This book written by his colleague Smt Indumati Kelkar is slightly hegiographic but is a very good read. Of course, it could have done with some better editing. Lots of typos and also spelling mistakes can be seen in the book.

It is sad that many in India do not know much about these figures of national life. In fact the writing of Indian history has been completely unfair to anyone who was either not a Congressi or a leftist. The leftist historians who monopolized history writing under government patronage have systematically sought to undermine their contribution to nation building and worse also perpetrated lies about them.

High time such historiography is corrected.

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