Since politician Ram Manohar Lohia died on this day 55 years ago, Indian politics has taken a course fundamentally different from his vision for the country.

Born on March 23, 1910, in Akbarpur in Uttar Pradesh, Lohia went on to write his doctoral thesis on the national economy at the Humboldt University of Berlin between 1929-’33, before returning to India to plunge into the freedom struggle.

After Independence, Lohia led factions of the Socialist Party of India and formulated his own variant of socialist philosophy. He soon emerged as one of the most articulate spokespersons of India’s political Opposition before his death on October 12, 1967.

Are there any lessons for today’s struggling Opposition to learn from Lohia?

Ideology and alliances

With the next Lok Sabha elections due in 2024, the first cue the Opposition can take from Lohia is unity. While Lohia was opposed to coalitions, after the return of the Congress with a majority for the third time in 1962, he felt that only by uniting would the Opposition have some hope of succeeding.

The Opposition today already appears to be making such an effort, but Lohia could help it bridge two crucial gaps through which current attempts at unity are slipping.

First is the charge of ideological compromise. Like Lohia, today’s Opposition too faces this accusation. Lohia’s approach could help the Opposition evolve a confident response to critics, by placing the ideological question more reasonably in the hierarchy of issues faced by India. Lohia was aware that the Opposition parties, like today, were too weak to single-handedly impose their ideologies. Besides, he seemed to have realised that ideologically opposed parties would keep each other in check.

The other gap is that many parties looking to forge a nationwide alliance are opposed to sharing space with prospective allies in their own boroughs. Symptomatic of this problem are the Indian National Lok Dal or Telangana Rashtra Samithi talking of unity without the Congress, or the Trinamool Congress’s refusal to join hands with the Left parties in West Bengal. They could learn from Lohia, whose Socialist Party united with the Jana Sangh and Communists despite the three parties eyeing the same non-Congress space.

Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav with and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. Credit: Tejashwi Yadav @yadavtejashwi/Twitter.

Social coalition

If the brute majority of the Congress was to be countered by uniting all parties, Lohia wanted to challenge dominant groups too by advocating a broad social coalition. His coalition included Dalits, Other Backward Cases, Muslims, women and backward castes within minority groups. He also included the upper-caste poor, whom he labelled as “false high castes”.

The Opposition parties have often been cornered by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party into choosing between polarising alternatives – from issues of caste and social justice to religion.

They frequently have to grapple with advocating social justice for Dalits or articulating the anxieties of the upper-caste poor, to siding with Muslims or Muslim women’s rights. Do they voice the identity concerns of the dominant ethnic communities in the North Eastern states or talk of the vulnerable position of Muslim minorities there? Building a broad social coalition could be the Opposition’s best bet to dent the Hindu consolidation shored up by the BJP.

Cultural politics

Lohia also offers interesting possibilities to evolve an alternate cultural politics. Religion is one of the fundamental planks of the BJP’s cultural politics and a difficult terrain for the Opposition. While Lohia would have agreed with the Opposition that political parties should not weaponise religion to create strife, his approach to the broader question of the relationship between politics and religion was more nuanced.

Neither did Lohia advocate a complete negation of religion – like some progressives – and nor did he share typically liberal prescriptions of keeping it separate from the state or equal treatment by the latter.

Instead, Lohia felt politics could never be unconcerned by religion. He suggested that politics take an exploratory attitude towards religion and inculcate messages of an ethical life, compassion and contemplation. In a deeply religious polity like India, this could be the basis of developing a more effective bulwark to communalism.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Congress Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and BJP leaders LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj pay tribute to Ram Manohar Lohia on his birth anniversary in March 2010. Credit: Prime Minister's Office, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons.

The BJP’s other key plank is cultural nationalism. Against the BJP’s exclusivist thrust, the Opposition has posed alternatives from pluralistic to developmental nationalism. Lohia may have also emphasised India’s common cultural heritage. In fact, he painstakingly tried to corroborate the country’s shared cultural roots by demonstrating similarities in monuments and letters of the alphabet in various parts of India.

While this might appear similar to what the BJP does, Lohia’s cultural nationalism is not revivalist. For the past is not accorded an unquestionable priority, nor was it exclusive. This is because instead of being rooted in a communal identity, Lohia’s cultural nationalism included all those who entered the fold of Indian civilisation.

A matter of ethics

Finally, the Opposition could benefit greatly by inculcating the socialist leader’s commitment to ethical politics. When the BJP stormed to power in 2014, the Indian electorate saw it as a more credible alternative.

With the Congress heading for a much-hyped internal “democratic election”, even though the democratic credentials are itself in doubt, how far does it conform to Lohia’s dictum of having an honest political policy? As another example, it does not take much to realise where Opposition leaders who accuse the BJP of extravagance (“Suit Boot Ki Sarkar”) may themselves stand on Lohia’s call for altruism and restraint.

It will take much more than cold calculations to enable the Opposition to effectively take on the BJP’s vast, committed cadre. The Opposition can only regain trust when it manages to project itself as a genuine alternative through sincere and committed involvement with its agenda.

But this is undone by Opposition members effortlessly switching sides with bitter critics becoming the most vocal spokespersons for the ruling dispensation overnight. Perhaps, the biggest cue the Opposition and its leaders can take from Lohia is his commitment to a politics of truth.

October 12 is Ram Manohar Lohia’s 55th death anniversary.

The writer is a doctoral student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.