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Socialism is not about keeping the poor alive, but about removing poverty: Dipankar Gupta

After an advertisement issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting carried an older version of the Preamble to the Constitution that did not have the words “secular” and “socialist” in it, the Shiv Sena has demanded a “permanent deletion” of these terms from the Constitution. Dipankar Gupta, sociologist, distinguished professor and director at Shiv Nadar University’s Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, speaks to Manavi Kapur about whether India still needs socialism

Is socialism still relevant in the current political and economic context? Does India still retain its socialist character?

Firstly, it is important to understand that socialism is not the same as communism. Our Constitution will never pass muster in a communist society, and neither is a communist society as democratic. Socialism, on the other hand, is an option that is available within capitalism. It is closer to the concept of welfarism, with a left of centre mindset. This means that there is greater government expenditure on welfare activities, an emphasis on controlling market volatility and privileging certain norms that are essential for democracy. Issues and agendas such as the welfare of the poor, ensuring proper healthcare and access to education get greater prominence within a socialist paradigm. Socialism is not anti-capitalism, it is merely a means to regulate the markets’ volatility and allow all citizens to live with dignity.

Globally, is socialism considered to be dead?

No, this is not the case. Here too, socialism is confused with communist regimes. Socialism and market forces swing back and forth, just like a pendulum. It is the same as an ongoing debate between the conservatives and the democrats. Socialism may often take a back seat when it is less relevant, just as market forces have good days and bad days.

In Britain, the same socialism is called labour, and other countries too have different names. The prime minister of Greece is left-oriented and has been an admirer of Che Guevara. With his focus on healthcare, even United States President Barack Obama is somewhat socialist, despite being the leader of a capitalist economy. Socialism sees a revival whenever the normative element comes into the policy-making arena.

India, as other democracies, should allow the play of market forces as long as the principles of democracy are not violated. Our country will not do well within a communist framework since it will be at odds with the basic principles of democracy and freedom of speech, among other things. Even Jawaharlal Nehru was clear that communism brings a certain totalitarianism and violence with it, but he did lay emphasis on socialism.

Why is it that some political parties in India still consider socialism as their core character?

In India, socialism is basically understood as being pro-village and anti-West. No manifesto or mission statement from political parties spells socialism the way it should be. Ram Manohar Lohia had a fair idea about the correct definition of socialism, but he was influenced by his bitterness against the elite.

Has the socialist term outlived its relevance and should be taken out of the Constitution?

Indira Gandhi added the word “socialist” to the preamble of the Constitution through the 42nd Amendment, and yet one can’t even call Rajiv Gandhi, her own son, a socialist. I don’t think socialism should be a part of the Constitution. The Constitution spells out what a country must follow, without compromise. That is why terms like democracy, freedom of expression and secularism have a place in it. These are principles that are essential to protect our social fabric. But socialism is an option, it is a negotiable ideology that may or may not be relevant at a particular time. It is not correct to put socialism in the Constitution. For example, you can be absolutely democratic, but it can be a choice to be market-oriented or not.

Unlike how political parties understand it, socialism is not about keeping the poor alive, but about removing poverty. There is a subtle difference between nationalising banks and providing basic amenities like healthcare and clean water. Even market forces focus on removing poverty, but don’t want the government to intervene. Here, socialists say that the markets should play a role, but they do not help those who cannot afford to enter the market. The government owes it to its citizens that they be brought on a par, where they can be equal players in the market.

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