A faded group photograph one chances upon shows the faces of the earnest members of the first national executive committee of the Congress Socialist Party formed exactly 75 years ago, in 1934. The CSP was put together within the folds of the Indian National Congress as a kind of ginger group to push the lugubrious juggernaut of the great parent party towards a more radical direction. The elderly caretakers of the Congress listened — half-mockingly, half-patronizingly — to the new breed who talked of such exotic things as happenings in the Soviet Union and the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Italy as direct spin-offs of economic depression and mass unemployment. Even in the United States of America, capitalism was said to be malfunctioning, the ranks of hunger marches swelled every day, extensive public works under State auspices were somehow saving the system. The dedicated crowd milling within the CSP were grappling with the significance of these events for India.
The nation must of course be freed, here and now, from foreign shackles, but that was not enough. What sort of free India was it to be, what would be the contours of its social and economic order? India belonged to its masses: the overwhelming number of dispossessed peasantry and underpaid workers and artisans of various descriptions as well as the mute castes and tribes at the receiving end of exploitation over centuries. The Congress must adopt concrete programmes for a total reconstruction of the economy in post-independent India so that a proper kisan-mazdoor raj emerged. The CSP was going to see to all that.
Its first national executive committee, the faded photograph attests, was a curious mélange: Farid Ansari, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Dinkar Mehta, Nabakrushna Choudhuri, Narendra Deva, P.Y. Deshpande, S.M. Joshi, Soli Batlivala, S. Sampurnanand, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Jayaprakash Narayan, N.G. Goray, Achyut Patwardhan, Purushottam Trikamdas, Charles Mascarenhas. It was too improbable a combination to last long; it did not.
Communists like Namboodiripad, Batlivala and Dinkar Mehta left this clandestine shelter by 1941. Nabakrushna Choudhuri, the devout Gandhiite, also soon detached himself, and later became Congress chief minister of Orissa, and subsequently joined Vinoba Bhave in his bhoodaan mission. Sampurnanand too, at some point, became Congress chief minister of India’s largest state; by then he was an arch-social conservative leaning towards Hindu orthodoxy. Minoo Masani, a great admirer of Soviet collectivization in the 1930s, somersaulted, ending up as a foaming-in-the-mouth anti-communist and co-founded the Swatantra Party. Narendra Deva, the gentlest of souls, gradually withdrew from active politics and remained satisfied with his role as an ideologue of socialism, a slice of Marx, a slice of Gandhi, mostly Rousseau. Jayaprakash Narayan, the underground hero of the 1942 Quit India movement, mellower with the years; most of the time he was with the Praja Socialist Party — the CSP’s direct legatee — but was also with Vinoba Bhave. He finally led the nava nirman struggles in the 1970s to emerge as the father figure of the Janata Party, which demolished Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. He was lucky to die before his handiwork broke into smithereens.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was always a rebel of a woman in search of a cause, which at the end she discovered in cottage crafts and the theatre movement. Of the rest, S.M. Joshi, Achyut Patwardhan and N.G. Goray clung for long years to the Praja Socialist Party and its later incarnations, walked into the Janata Party when J.P. put it together, then migrated to the Janata Dal or one of its innumerable factions. Some of them had developed pockets of influence among a number of caste groups, ‘other backward classes’; innate feudal instincts, however, drove them to waste their strength in endless internal squabbles until it was disaster time.
The Indian National Congress, it would seem, was both the curse and the ultimate provider of shelter for several of those rebels who loved to talk socialism in their calf days. It supposedly represented ‘the stream of national consciousness’; its cloying charm was almost impossible to resist. For quite a few of them, the expression, ‘national consensus’, would have a bewitching effect: yes, engage in debate, let arguments and rhetoric have free flow, yet, at the end of it, it would be gross lack of patriotism not to fall in and join the national mainstream.
Others had disappeared; for the past few decades it is, therefore, only the communists who could claim the socialist inheritance. The Left and the communists became synonymous. Given their ideology, the communists, many had expected, would not get caught in the trap of ‘national consensus’. Were not they the quintessential Left, the other side in the class war, where there could be no scope for compromise with adversarial forces? Their failure to tackle satisfactorily the class-caste dialectic was, however, a major problem. Equally ticklish was the issue of whether the global brotherhood of the working classes transcended national priorities.