S.V. Raju has been waiting since 1994 for the Bombay high court to hear his case. He approached the court after failed efforts to convince the Election Commission of India to register his party, the Swatantra Party.
Raju says that his friend and fellow litigant L.R. Sampat died without the case coming up. “I sometimes joke that the courts are now waiting for me to go,” Raju says.
Even if the court hears his case, it is unlikely it will rule in his favour. That’s because a 1989 amendment to the Representation of the People Act says that only political parties that swear their ideological allegiance to secularism, democracy and socialism can be registered. And the Swatantra Party was set up in 1959 to oppose Nehruvian socialism. Since 1989, when the amendment took effect, Raju has fought to register his party, a champion of free enterprise, without having to declare itself socialist. A party can’t contest elections without being registered.
The amendment and the fact that all the members of Parliament, who represent India’s 1.03 billion population, belong to parties that have sworn their allegiance to socialism mean that everyone is a socialist in an economy that is discovering the benefits of free enterprise and capitalism.
“We are hypocritical,” says Suresh Prabhu, a member of Parliament who belongs to the right-wing Shiv Sena party. “What we say we do not mean and what we want to say we never ever truly do. This is best manifested in our swearing by socialism,” he adds.
Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister of a Congress government with absolute majority, had said in Parliament when the amendment was being discussed that any party not willing to “submit itself” to the Constitution of India “does not deserve to be recognized as a political party”. That rule would seem to apply even today. Historian Ramachandra Guha says this could be because with millions of poor in the country, no party wants to be identified as pro-rich.
Guha adds that each party professes socialism only when or where it is out of power, such as the communists outside West Bengal or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ever since it lost the 2004 general election. “That is also why,” he says, “the Congress, despite wooing the market, plays up the aam aadmi (ordinary man) rhetoric.”
“Socialism will remain relevant so long as it is in the Constitution. Those who don’t like it should get it replaced by capitalism,” quips Devendranath Dwivedi, a former additional solicitor general and chairman of the Congress party’s Vichar Vibhag, or think tank, in Delhi.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as a “political and economic theory or policy of social organization which advocates that the community as a whole should own and control the means of production, capital, land, property, etc.” It adds that in Marxist theory, it is “a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of Communism.”
Subhash C. Kashyap, an expert on the Constitution and a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, says: “By no stretch of imagination or any dictionary definition can the policies of the present government, for instance, be called socialist.” The legal requirement to attest to socialism, he adds, is “fraud” and “poppycock”.
Nevertheless, all parties pledged themselves to socialism. The BJP, in a vision document for the 2004 polls (that it lost), advocated a judicious mix of globalization and state support for the poor.
Even the party’s original philosophy, what it terms “integral humanism”, tries to balance individual aspirations with industrial progress. A treatise on history and philosophy, the document setting forth this philosophy says: “Similar difficulty arises in reconciling socialism and democracy. Democracy grants individual liberty but the same is used by capitalist system for exploitation and monopoly. Socialism was brought in to end exploitation but it eliminated the freedom and dignity of the individual.”
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a national spokesperson of the BJP, says the Constitution of India has left socialism open to interpretation. “Historically, from Stalin and Pol Pot to Gandhi, socialism has embraced an array of approaches. To us, socialism means equity above all else. While the Congress debates how to distribute the bread, we want to increase the quantity of bread available for distribution,” he says.
“What else would you like in place of socialism?” asks Gurudas Dasgupta, the Communist Party of India’s leader in the Lok Sabha, who said he is not aware of the 1989 amendment.
In 1988, when the amendment was still being debated in Parliament, CPI member of Parliament Indrajit Gupta had said: “What is there to prevent any representative of one of the big business houses declaring that he believes in socialism? They are doing it every day. These things have no meaning in actual practice.”
A vast majority of leaders today seem to believe that socialism is a fluid concept that loosely translates into social welfare and massive state-funded creation of infrastructure. “Each term is dynamic. Meanings change and evolve over time. Socialism, in the Indian context, primarily means welfare of the poor. And that’s what the Congress’ commitment to the aam aadmi reflects,” says Dwivedi of the Congress party.
Asaduddin Owaisi, a Lok Sabha member from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimmen, says both the BJP and the Congress need to “introspect” as they had strayed from the Constitution.
“The Constitution reminds us that India has to be a welfare state. There is too much focus on urban industrialization, while the fact is that India is surviving as a democracy because of the vast majority living in the rural areas and urban slums. These are the people that mainly come out to vote,” he says.
The words “socialist” and “secular” were not part of the Constitution until 1976. An amendment during the 22 months of the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister, had introduced these terms.
With time, this amendment became fertile territory for the 1989 amendment that still shadows the political landscape.
Raju isn’t the only one complaining. S.K. Mendiratta, a legal counsel with the Election Commision, confirms that complaints are regularly received about the declaration parties have to make swearing their allegiance to socialism.
Meanwhile, Raju, who scarcely hopes his petition will be heard, runs the Indian Liberal Group, a circle of like-minded individuals who stand for what the Swatantra Party would have asked people to vote for: state funding of only important social sector schemes, no government presence in industry, and minimal administrative machinery.
“A lot is happening in the economy today that the Swatantra Party would not have liked. Much is being passed off incorrectly as the play of market forces. We would have liked to hold a mirror for society at such a time, but cannot. Not without the court’s ruling,” says Raju.
The Swatantra Party had won 18, then 44 and eight Lok Sabha seats in the general elections of 1962, 1967 and 1971. It was the principal opposition party between 1967 and 1971.
“It would be marginalized (if revived today),” says historian Guha. “Not because of its frank anti-socialism but because parties appealing to region and caste have long overshadowed ideology-based parties.”