/, Politics and Current Affairs/In Praise of Madhu Dandavate, The Telegraph

In Praise of Madhu Dandavate, The Telegraph

The Indian socialist tradition is now moribund, but there was a time when it had a profound and mostly salutary influence on politics and society. Yet few people now know of its past vigour and dynamism. The Congress, the Communists, the regional parties, the Ambedkarites, and (especially in recent years) the Jana Sangh and the BJP—all have had their chroniclers and cheerleaders, who have traced their respective ideological lineages and written biographies, and sometimes hagiographies, of their major leaders. Not so the Indian socialists, who, for the most part, have been ill-served by Indian historians.

This is as good a time as any to remember the socialists, not least because the centenary of the birth of one of their finest representatives falls later this month. This is Madhu Dandavate, who was born on 21st January 1923. As a student in Bombay, Dandavate was deeply inspired by the ideals of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), and by its charismatic leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia, and Yusuf Meherally.

The CSP thought the mainstream Congress too conservative on questions of economic justice and women’s rights. At the same time, it also distanced itself from the Communist Party of India, who were tied to the apron strings of the Soviet Union. The Socialist/Communist divide starkly surfaced during the Quit India movement of 1942, which the Socialists supported and the Communists opposed.

Ideologically speaking, the Socialists radically differed from the Communists on three counts. First, Communists worshipped Stalin and Russia whereas the Socialists (rightly) saw Stalin as a dictator and Russia as a dictatorship. Second, the Communists exalted the role of violence whereas the Socialists preferred non-violence in settling political disputes. Third, the Communists believed in the centralization of economic and political power whereas the Socialists advocated decentralization in both spheres.

In marking themselves out from the Communists, the Socialists were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. As Madhu Dandavate wrote in his book Marx and Gandhi: ‘Gandhi’s opposition to violent methods was based on his respect for human life. For the follies of the system, the individuals who act as the limbs of the system, must not be penalised or destroyed was his insistence. … Gandhi had learnt from experience that in violent revolutions there is no real involvement of the widest sections of the people: a minority participates in a revolution and the microscopic minority that wields power installs a dictatorship in the name of the people’.

In the same book, Dandavate further remarked: ‘Gandhi’s political and economic perspective grew out of his desire to usher in a genuine non-violent democratic society in which there was no room for coercion and for man becoming an appendage of [the] State or of technology. It was for this reason that he was not much enamoured of communism that borrowed for production the technology of capitalism but strived to change only the relations of production’.

After Independence, the Congress Socialists left the parent Congress and started a party of their own. This underwent several splits and reunifications in subsequent years. Whether divided or united, whether in power or out of power, whether at the Centre or in the States, the Socialists played a significant role in enriching political debates in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Their leaders such as Lohia and JP were known and admired all across India. Among the party’s notable features was their strong commitment to gender equality. Indeed, as compared to the Congress, the Jana Sangh, and even the Communists, the Socialists stand out for the number of remarkable women leaders they produced—among them Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrinal Gore and Madhu Dandavate’s own wife Pramila. The Socialists were also very active in the cultural sphere, in theatre and music especially, and in the civil rights and environmental movements.

Like his early hero, JP, Madhu Dandavate was a person of moral and physical courage. Like Lohia, he was a scholar. Like N. G. Goray, S. M. Joshi and Sane Guruji (all icons of his), he seamlessly blended his love of Maharashtra with his love for India. Yet, even among his fellow socialists, Dandavate stands out for one reason, namely, that he left an enduring practical legacy, by helping to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians.

This was through his work as Union Railway Minister in the first Janata Government. In a brief tenure of two years, Dandavate had a profound impact. He rebuilt the trust between the state and the railway unions (that had been eroded by the strike of 1974 and its suppression by Indira Gandhi’s Government), began the process of computerization, and, perhaps, most significantly, elevated the second-class section of passenger trains by having a soft foam topping placed on its hard wooden slats. This last innovation has by now made billions of railway journeys far more comfortable than they would otherwise have been.

The first train with these safer and more comfortable seats was flagged off on 26th December 1977. It ran between Bombay and Calcutta (and back). The Railway Board wanted to call it the Eastern Express. It was the Minister who chose the inspired name, Geetanjali Express, and had portraits of Rabindranath Tagore hung inside the train.

Dandavate was without question the best Railway Minister the country has had. Indeed, only a handful of Cabinet Ministers have had a comparable transformative impact, for the good of India and Indians. They include Vallabhbhai Patel as Home Minister between 1947 and 1950, C. Subramaniam as Agriculture Minister between 1964 and 1967, and Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister between 1991 and 1996.

In a later Janata Government, Dandavate served as Finance Minister, when, in his budget speech of 1990, he paid particular attention to the environmental challenge. ‘The threat to our environment can no more be ignored’, he remarked: ‘It has been estimated that around 139 million hectares of land is degraded through soil erosion, salinity, total loss of tree cover, etc. Our forests are under pressure from a variety of sources. In urban areas, air and water pollution from industry transport and other sources is widespread. A healthy environment is part of the quality of life and a productive environment is the basis for development. Our emphasis on rural development and decentralisation will allow us to integrate environmental considerations into the design of development.’
Sadly, these warnings have been ignored by later Governments, whose emphasis on unbridled capitalism and obsession with mega projects have wreaked devastation on our environment, burdening present and future generations with dangerously high levels of air and water pollution, depleting aquifers, degraded forests, toxic soils, and more.

Let me offer one last Dandavate quote, likewise with a markedly contemporary resonance. This comes from the introduction to his memoirs, and is dated 1st July 2005, when he was in his eighties. Here he says: ‘The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and arson, murders and looting in Gujarat during the recent communal holocaust struck a heavy blow to secularism. The spirit of religious tolerance, which was nurtured with great care during India’s freedom struggle, lay in shambles. However, from the ashes of these shambles will one day arise the edifice of harmonious India. Passion is momentary but compassion is more enduring’.
Now, with Hindutva so hegemonic in our politics, those who stand for compassion and fraternity must work ever harder to justify Dandavate’s optimism of the will.

I began my column by observing that, as compared to the attention paid to the Congress, the Communists, and the Hindutva-wadis, the Socialists had been neglected by scholars. This may be because their recent history has been less noble, with one set of self-described socialists providing legitimacy to Hindutva and another set founding dynastic parties handed over from father to son. Nonetheless, for a decade before Independence, and at least for three decades afterwards, the socialists represented a political trend characterized by intellectual innovation as well as by personal courage.

We still await a proper history of Indian socialism, of its rise and maturity, of its manifold contributions to intellectual and public life, and of its descent and degradation. However, at least in terms of biographical studies there are now promising signs. In 2022, Rahul Ramagundam published a well researched study of the incident-filled life of George Fernandes. I have been reading in manuscript Nico Slate’s compelling biography of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, due to be published later this year. I know that Akshaya Mukul is deep into what will surely be a substantial biography of Jayaprakash Narayan. I hope that some talented and industrious scholar may be encouraged by these green shoots to work on a biography of Dandavate too, perhaps even a joint biography of Madhu and Pramilla together.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 13th January 2024)