To many Indians of the younger generation, the popular Sampoorna Kranti Express running between Patna and New Delhi remains the only visible imprint of one of the most storied political clarion calls this country has heard — that of “Total Revolution”. The call came on a hot summer’s day in 1974 at a rally in Patna — made by an ageing freedom fighter, socialist, and friend of Jawaharlal Nehru’s, Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP.
JP, born in Sitabdiara, Bihar, would have turned 115 today. He was fired by the ideas of Karl Marx when working and studying in Berkeley, California, 1922 onwards. On returning to India in 1929, JP, invited by Nehru and drawn by a speech by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad seeking participation in the freedom struggle, joined the Congress. A few years later, JP became one of the founding members of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP).
Following Independence, JP took the CSP out of the Congress and formed the Socialist Party, which he merged with J B Kripalani’s Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party to form the Praja Socialist Party. Soon afterward, after turning down Nehru’s calls to join the union ministry, JP decided to walk away from electoral politics entirely, and involved himself with Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, which aimed to persuade the landed to voluntarily give up a part of their land to the landless.
More memorable than JP’s departure from electoral politics was his return to it in 1974 and, despite not being “in the fray”, his becoming the pole around which so much of the time’s politics came to revolve. To see him merely as the “counter” to the increasingly authoritarian face of Indira Gandhi around the time of the Emergency is to miss the point. The stirrings of the restless 1970s began well before the declaration of Emergency in June 1975. Students are usually the canaries in the deepest coal mines, and in Gujarat, their restlessness was the result of food scarcity and price rises that led to soaring mess bills. When they started their protests in 1973, students of L D Engineering College, Ahmedabad, did not realise the spark they had lit. Workers, teachers and several other groups joined in, and JP was to write of the Navnirman Andolan as having given him ideas: “I saw students in Gujarat bring about a political change with the backing of the people… and I knew this was the way out.” This way out was to search for and make the most of, routes other than the directly electoral.
Navnirman, the movement that JP rode and steered, was the tip of the iceberg of exhaustion with the system. By 1972-74, the immediate afterglow of Independence had dimmed and several groups and communities had begun to feel a sense of having been deprived of their due. As these groups became increasingly assertive, the droughts of the early seventies often turned disappointment into anger — some of this zeitgeist was captured by the historian Bipan Chandra in his 2003 book, In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency.
Despite being somewhat “woolly”, and despite his truisms and perhaps “hazy, naive, and unrealistic thinking”, JP, Chandra wrote, could become the centre of gravity for all discontent. Pioneered in Gujarat (then ruled by Chimanbhai Patel of the Congress), a series of successful student-led agitations provided a replicable and scalable idea that was sought to be transplanted in Bihar, where students approached JP.
Emerging from his self-imposed exile of 20 years to lead the change that he felt India needed then, JP made the dramatic leap from being the bridge of conciliation between contesting forces to an advocate of Total Revolution. A decade earlier, in April 1964, JP had said that the ideals of the freedom movement must guide the resolution of the Kashmir issue. And in 1966, in a letter to Indira, he had called for “full internal autonomy, i.e., a return to the original terms of the accession”.
What intrigues about JP today is the manner in which the persona, slogan and exhortations of a frail old man struggling against the autocratic daughter of his friend, offered legitimacy to the Jana Sangh, a space for Socialists, and a voice to all those feeling left out in an India increasingly dominated by the personality of one individual. His contribution to modern-day politics, as those who watched the heady Anna Hazare images from 2012-13 would possibly realise, lay in battling elected governments with success and righteousness, even as his goal or slogans remained largely unworkable and fuzzy.
In the 1950s and 60s, India had defied predictions of Balkanisation, bucking the trend of collapsing democracies in newly liberated countries. Its Constitution and democratic traditions, rooted in a deep accommodation of various interests, and an able and skilled leadership, had allowed almost all sections of society to trust democracy to help them improve their situations. In the 70s, as Indira ascended to political supremacy and economic issues gravely impacted lives, Socialists and the Jana Sangh appeared to present an opportunity to the unaccommodated to seize a degree of control in the chaos. JP would be the charismatic leader who could counter Indira’s power and appeal. He was the unique agent who would be able to represent democracy, the people, their aspirations and their anger — even as he rejected the democratically elected government of the day.
In large part, the star of the struggle against the Emergency was also a leader who was present at the right place at the right time. The Congress domination of the system was at its peak, but beginning to break down; Indira offered olive branches occassionally, but mostly jail sentences. The Socialists were naturally drawn to JP’s credentials as a senior, untainted by electoral politics. The RSS/Jana Sangh, anxious to return to the mainstream after the slender opening provided by the 1967 elections, was happy to dissolve itself into the entity called the Janta Party, which JP forged. JP’s Janta was not a coalition, but a single party to oppose Indira — which overlooked how the Socialists, Congress (O) and Jana Sangh would tackle the question of “dual membership” of both the Sangh and the party. Dual membership was to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to the exit of leaders including George Fernandes from the Morarji Desai government.
In the upheaval that the 1970s were, seeing the advent of impatience, the Angry Young Man and the desire for Change as an Indian characteristic, JP, the reluctant messiah, played on his air of renunciation — something that V P Singh was to later try to mimic and Anna Hazare wanted to be seen desperately as doing. But at a time of deep change, social and economic, when a new post-Independence generation was growing up, the vision of JP was the funnel through which the imagining and making of a non-Congress government at the Centre was made possible.
NEXT: Ram Manohar Lohia, the 50th anniversary of whose death is on Thursday.