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Socialism after Gore and the old guard

There is no dearth of citizens’ movements for rights today. But do they have the ideological frame, the vision of society, economy and politics that Mrinal Gore and her generation of socialist leaders had, which could weave disparate struggles into a larger transformative force, asks Rajni Bakshi

Mrinal Gore socialist and women’s rights leader

Mrinal Gore’s death last month has widely been described as the passing of an era. Gore was among the last few socialist and women’s rights leaders who emerged soon after Independence and spent the last half-century working tirelessly for the public good.

Does the passing of leaders like Gore leave behind an ominous vacuum? What is the future of struggles in favour of the under-privileged?

On the basis of media coverage it would be fair to say that there is certainly a live culture in India of citizens asserting their rights – either as individuals or in groups. But Gore’s generation was trained to do much more than assert rights. They were conditioned by social and political movements that had a broader vision of society, economy and politics.     

This was partly reflected in how they conducted themselves in public life. Sharad Pawar was reported as recalling the fine values that Gore brought to the fore when she served as leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly. Gore’s life was devoid of any form of mudslinging or unparliamentary language.

These were partly personal traits but they were also a consequence of the political culture in which Gore was conditioned. Like many highly regarded political activists of Maharashtra Gore spent her youth in the Rashtra Seva Dal, a mass-based cultural and political organisation with a socialist-Gandhian orientation. Simplicity of both attire and conduct, along with transparency, were the hallmarks of most RSD workers. Though she continued to be associated with the Rashtra Seva Dal, Gore also joined the Socialist Party and later the Janata Party.

Her passionate participation in the anti-price rise and anti-corruption agitations in the early-1970s made her a prominent opponent of Indira Gandhi. This resulted in Gore spending 18 months in prison during the Emergency.

As much of the media coverage on her demise has reminded us, Gore was best known as the ‘Paaniwali Bai’. This is largely because she played a key role, since the early-1960s, in ensuring water supply to the slums and other working class communities in Mumbai.

It was also through Gore’s efforts as an MLA in the early-1970s that Maharashtra enacted a Slum Improvement Act. Till then there had been only a policy to eradicate slums. The Keshav Gore Trust, which Gore founded in memory of her husband and fellow activist, became the hub for a wide variety of both welfare projects and movements for changes in policy.

As the feminist scholar and activist Vibhuti Patel has written in a tribute to Gore: “She was a woman of vision, ideas and praxis and a gifted and electrifying orator. At the same time she was warm and hospitable. She followed an open door policy, listened to everyone patiently and adopted best practices wherever she noticed. She is one public figure whom I never saw basking in the past glory. Instead she was eager to learn from the youngsters. Her speeches served as tonic to young activists like us in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Both through the Keshav Gore Trust and her continuing association with the Rashtra Seva Dal, Gore influenced and groomed thousands of young minds to serve society. Perhaps the best-known activist of the next generation is Medha Patkar, whose parents were closely associated with the Rashtra Seva Dal and the socialist movement.

The question of whether Gore’s passing leaves behind a vacuum needs to be addressed in its historical context. When leaders like Gore were in their prime the term ‘socialism’ was a living ideal. It posed an organised challenge to capitalism in many societies which had not chosen the communist path as the USSR and China had. Socialism, in contrast to communism, was a democratic worldview with a firm commitment to equity and dignity for all.

Today the term ‘socialism’ is commonly associated with an anti-market ideology that retarded India’s progress in the first 50 years after Independence. However, most socialist leaders were not actually anti-market. They were simply opposed to a market culture that was driven by the brutal pursuit of profits regardless of their social costs.

The general impression currently is that socialism is no longer relevant. The dominant idea of our times is that markets can and should be regulated in favour of fairness and this along with democracy will deliver social justice. Clearly that does not happen in practice. If it did indeed work this way activists like Medha Patkar would not be compelled to engage in desperate struggles to save the lives and livelihoods of communities that are disempowered.

Therefore struggles of the kind that made Gore famous – to fight injustices of different kinds – will continue to intensify. For example, seven years ago a massive citizen mobilisation succeeded in preventing the privatisation of water supply in Delhi. Now the Delhi government is reportedly renewing plans for privatisation of water services.

This triggers fears that those who cannot afford the tariffs set by a private company will be left without water supply. So citizens groups in Delhi are gearing up to oppose the Delhi Jal Board’s plans for privatisation. Among the questions they are posing are the following: Can water, being a basis of life, be equated with any other commodity or service? Is privatisation the answer to our water woes?

So struggles in favour of the under-privileged will continue. The bigger question is – is there an over-arching ideological frame, a vision, which could weave these disparate struggles into a larger transformative force?  There is no shortage of vision statements among groups engaged in these struggles. But for the moment an over-arching framework that would foster a transformative strategy is missing.

These are matters that Gore’s generation of leaders and activists have agonised over for at least the last three decades. Efforts have been made to give a new form and energy to the socialist agenda – but with extremely limited success.

To some extent, however indirectly, this task is being taken up by those who question and challenge the inequity and unfairness that is inbuilt in the prevailing market culture – including those who oppose ‘crony capitalism’.

For those who had the privilege of working side by side with Gore there will undoubtedly be a huge vacuum. But for others who are now engaged in struggles, and will do so in future, the inspiration of Gore's personality traits and political culture might be more powerful than any specific definition of socialism which defined her career.

Karl Polanyi, the great economic historian, wrote that socialism is the natural and inherent tendency of an industrial civilisation. By socialism he did not mean the dissolution of markets and the takeover of industry by government. Socialism in its truest sense is a conscious subordination of the self-regulating market to a democratic and free society – committed to fostering not mathematical equality but fairness and equal opportunity.

Striving for socialism in this sense is necessarily an on-going process with perhaps no final point of arrival.

(Rajni Bakshi is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear and Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi)

Infochange News & Features, August 2012