Young Turk and polymath

Mohan Dharia represented the middle-class activist sensitive to concerns outside his class.

The late Mohan Dharia was a polymath freedom fighter, politician, trade union organiser, Padma Vibhushan, lawyer, and, finally, environmentalist, with his Pune-based NGO Vanarai. His name was synonymous with the so-called Young Turks of the Congress party. The phrase originates from a set of politicians in Turkey in the pre-World War I phase who fought for a more liberal approach within the Ottoman framework.

In India, these so-called Young Turks within the Congress party were led by former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, and eventually became part of the Congress when the Praja Socialist Party under Asoka Mehta merged with it in 1964, citing rightwing parties like the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra Party as emerging threats which, in their view, were best opposed by strengthening the Congress.

Dharia's journey, from a student at Fergusson College training to be a doctor who changed tack to study law after getting involved in the 1942 Quit India Movement to founding an environmental NGO, Vanarai, 50 years later, represents an important aspect of Indian politics: the middle-class politician/ activist with concerns outside his immediate class. He was a leader who gave up his professional pursuits to be part of the national movement, then municipal politics and later mainstream politics, and finally activism, where he continued to engage with politics, but from outside the fold of the political party.

Dharia served as an MP in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, from 1964-79, a significant phase in independent India. He was passionately involved in developing villages, rural economies and the cooperative movement, and also served as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission during Chandra Shekhar's short premiership. Before that, Dharia was a minister of state for planning, works, housing and urban development under Indira Gandhi from 1971-75. He authored a report in the mid-1970s that discussed ways to provide producers with remunerative pricing, regulating prices and "stabilising" them, which never quite found favour with the higher-ups in the party. His recommendations were accepted only by the Janata Party, in whose government too he served as a minister, after his exit from the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency.

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