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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

JP : Some Reflections

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by Analyst


Jayaprakash Narayan has carried with him fulsome tributes from all political circles-his adherents and admirers, his adversaries and detractors. A life of ups and downs of heroic times and despairing moments Living beyond the Psalmist’s assigned span, JP had not only witnessed mighty deeds but participated in them in the company of the great and was often acclaimed as one of them. Where History will place him in the pantheon of the architects of our freedom, it will be known only to posterity. For us, who have lived in the age of his life-time, the millions who bade him a tearful farewell on the banks of the Ganga testify to his eminence, and the regard and the affection in which he was held by his countrymen and women.

Jayaprakash in his eventful political career always served as a carrier of expectations, a catalyst of mighty happenings, although he never claimed, and rightly so, to be the creator or the moulder of such events. After his early wanderings in search of an ideology that could combine his urge for nationalism with his yearning for a better social order where poverty could be banished, he shot into the limelight in Indian politics when he founded the Congress Socialist Party in 1934. The inspiration for it, of course, came from Jawaharlal Nehru’s gropings for instilling into the Congress the commitment to social change in the struggle for independence. Jayaprakash took the initiative for setting up a definite group within the Congress itself. Those were the years when some of the finest intellectuals-turned-activists in the national movement like Narendra Dev, Yusuf Meherally, Achyut Patwardhan and Rammanohar Lohia joined hands with him, or more correctly, spurred him on in the new endeavour. Side by side, the outlawed Communists, after a protracted phase of persecution and sectarianism, were also feeling the need to build bridges with comrades-in-arms against foreign rule. It was this combination of the urge for socialism with the restlessness of militant nationalism that soon made the Congress Socialist Party a force to reckon with, so much so that it commanded in strength more than one-third of the AICC, with its influence spilling over to many more.

In this united front of the Left that the CSP represented within the broader nationwide united front that was the Congress, JP held the balance. He was not a Communist, but he felt the need at the time to enlist and retain the support of the Communists within the CSP itself. In fact, it was this approach which led to the estrangement between JP and Masani, who candidly and in mellifluous language, has described this in the first volume of his autobiography.

JP’s estrangement from the Communists within the CSP came earlier than the break brought by the Communist stand in opposing the ‘Quit India’ movement under a mistaken understanding of the implications of the world struggle against Fascism for India. It was at the Tripuri Congress in 1939 that JP, under the spell of Nehru, kept his flock away from support to Subhas Bose in the latter’s confrontation with the Congress High Ommand, while the Communists stood by Subhas though they did not agree to leave the Congress along with him.

The breach between JP and the Communists, so complete in 1942, did not lead to permanent hostility. When, after the end of the war, there were mass upheavals, there were a number of occasions when they worked to together. For instance, the proposed Railway strike in 1946 saw JP in its leadership with the Communists by his side—the strike was withdrawn as both by that time felt, mainly on the counsel of Nehru, that the transfer or power must not be disturbed, while the workers’ demands were promised to be considered by the Congress leadership. The eminence that JP commanded at that time could be seen from the fact that he was to have been made the Congress President in 1947 with Gandhiji’s blessings, but it was vetoed by Sardar Patel with his far-seeing conservatism, and, as a result, Rajendra Prasad was made the Congress President.

The years immediately following independence saw the Left in wilderness. Communists were excluded from the Congress in 1946 for the sins of 1942, but the Socialists under JP also opted out in 1948, leaving the parent organisation with its massive prestige to be exploited by the Right, the balance inside the Congress having changed in its favour with the exit of the Left. If the Communists wasted the next three years in sectarian adventurism, the Socialists under JP fared no better. The strains between the militant wing under Lohia and the moderates under JP grew, and by the time of the 1952 General Election, the Socialist Party, with Asoka Mehta at its head, decided to contest without allies and fared badly: in comparison, the Communists, with all the handicaps of semi-illegality, scored much better. This led the Socialists to rethink and merge with Acharya Kripalani’s KMPP to jointly form the PSP under Jayaprakash.

Very soon after the General Election, Nehru in the autumn of 1952 opened a dialogue with the Socialist leaders, particularly with JP. By then Nehru was not hamstrung in the Congress leadership by Sardar Patel, and he frankly sought the cooperation of the Socialists, “at all levels”, with the Congress; in other words, Nehru was interested in building a Left buffer against the Right pressure within the Congress, and also perhaps as a Congress-Socialist counterpoise between the aggressive Right as represented by the Hindu communalist attacks on his Kashmir arrangement on the one hand, and the emerging growth of the Communists as registered in the election results on the other. This effort at unity between Nehru and JP however failed: for one thing, Nehru could not, under pressure of his colleagues, agree to JP’s Fourteen-Point Programme, nor could JP, under pressure from Lohia’s militant wing, walk into the ruling Establishment. This was the time when many thought that Nehru was keen on grooming JP as his successor. In his correspondence with JP, Nehru candidly admitted that he was not satisfied with the rate of progress in the country: “I wanted to hasten it and so I wanted your help.”

It would perhaps be of interest to note here some of the items in JP’s Fourteen Points: they included, among other things, the abolition of the second chamber in legislatures and Parliament; abolition of Privy purses and privileges of the princes; abolition of service guarantees to the ICS; redistribution of land without compensation and encouragement of cooperative farming; nationalisation of banks, insurance and coal industry and development of state grading. If the Congress in 1953 could not accept these, JP’s worshippers in 1977-79 have opposed or rejected many of these with vehemence—an eloquent commentary on the changing stances of political leaders and the changing composition of their followers.

There followed a period of political drift of the Socialists under JP. It was in this period that the militant wing under Lohia was antagonised because JP was not prepared to condemn the police shooting of workers under a Socialist-led Ministry in the then Travancore-Cochin State. This led to a parting of ways and Lohia revived the Socialist Party, denouncing JP’s moderate line.

All this had it impact on JP who began wandering again and sought shelter in the Bhoodan movement under Vinoba Bhave. In fact, JP formally abjured politics in 1956, dedicating himself to the Sarvodaya movement, turning it into gramdan and ending up with the thesis of jeevan-dan.

All these were signs of a highly individualistic personality, moved largely by emotions rather than by reason. If the yardstick of political greatness is to be intention and desire, then certainly JP had it in abundance. But if political statesmanship has to take into account the working out of a political line, with its strategy and tactics, with the creation of the leverage of change through an organisation, then JP would have been the first to confess that he did not possess them. In his eventful career, there are many instances to bear this out.

JP was intensely committed to Indo-Pak unity, and even visited Pakistan under Ayub and had a good word to say about his dictatorship—a step which was misunderstood by many. And yet it was the same JP who in 1950-51 had been clamouring for the Indian Army to march into East Pakistan to carve out a portion of territory to settle the refugees. Again, the very same JP, when the Bangladesh crisis came, did not hesitate to undertake a world tour explaining the Indira Government’s policy towards Bangladesh. He was always a close friend of Sheikh Abdullah, but one looked up to him in vain for any concrete proposal to bring about reconciliation between Sheikh Sahib and New Delhi, or between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. An individualist without an eye for details expects events to happen on their own, and is unable to forge the instruments of change.

JP’s was no doubt a sensitive mind and he could react spontaneously to events. In the days of his retirement from politics, when there was a brutal police firing on students in Bihar, JP came out denouncing the government, and in the campaign that followed he did not hesitate to join hands with the Communists. At the same time, during the Hungarian crisis in 1956 he wrote an open letter to the CPI journal raising basic issues about democracy and socialism—which brought forth an equally frank response from the then leader of the CPI, Ajoy Ghosh. This correspondence between JP and Ajoy, now forgotten, is one of the landmarks in socialist thinking in India, while the second landmark came when the CPI, two years later at its Congress under Ajoy Ghosh’s leadership, laid down in its constitution that under the socialism of its model in India, there would be room for pluralism of political parties.

After Bangladesh, when Indira Gandhi, dizzy with electoral success, not only became complacent and allowed corruption to be rampant, but made State governments servitors of the Centre and was becoming more and more impervious to the hardship of the masses with scarcity and rising prices, JP was drawn into the mass unrest in Gujarat and followed it up by campaigning in Bihar. In both cases, the movements had all the sign of spontaneity without any organised thrust. JP in his failing health used his personal stature to give these movements a character, but did not seem to have had any clear perspective of the forces at work. It was more an outburst of anger at the inequity and injustice—no doubt noble by itself but it had the danger of being frittered away.

It was at this stage that JP was attracted by the organised discipline of the RSS and thought that by harnessing this force, he would be able to lead the people in the struggle against corruption. It was this approach by JP which led Chandra Shekhar at that time to write to JP objecting to his testimonial to the RSS though he approved of JP’s crusade against corruption.

This happens to many leaders who, fired by emotional spontaneity, tend to depend on borrowed organisation. In a sense, Nehru too had that weakness, when, at the peak of his power, he left the management of the Congress Party organisation to men like S.K. Patil and Atulya Ghosh. Indira Gandhi went one step further—she dispersed the party altogether.

What happened from 1975 onward is recent history. More than what JP could do, Indira Gandhi by her folly, power-hunger and attachment to her son’s mafia forced the pace and brought upon the nation the curse of the Emergency. Inevitably, JP in prison became the symbol of resistance. But significantly, no organised resistance could be discerned, because JP was never a man of organisation. This absence of resistance led Indira further astray into more misdeeds. By the time the election was announced on January 18, 1977, many of the Janata heroes had already, from prison, compromised themselves by almost beseeching overtures to the Indira Government: one has to look at the records of Charan Singh and Biju Patnaik, not to speak of Jagjivan Ram who only deserted at the right moment.

The Janata Party won a landslide victory, not because JP had welded it into a party but because of the anger of the electorate against the Emergency Raj. The dismal history of the Janata Raj must have come as a matter of utter distress for Jayaprakash Narayan. From the sick bed, there was nothing that he could do to stem the rot. However, one wonders, with due deference to his memory, how much more he could have done had he been in better state of health, except occasional admonitions which power-hungry politicians would have ignored without qualms of conscience. The very manner of choosing the new Janata Prime Minister gave an inkling of the innate drawback that has always afflicted JP in handling matters organisational at the best of times. His Total Revolution was at best an emotional urge without the contours of a well-framed idea. This was indeed a career bereft of consummation.

Jayaprakash Narayan has left this world of sordid politics with an abundance of tributes of gratitude from his countrymen and women. If one has taken a critical view of his life-work, it is with the fullest knowledge that JP belonged to the generation wherein leaders could listen to criticism and were not scared at nor insensitive to the slightest murmur of dissent as do those who strut about the political stage today.

Under different aegis and in different times Jayaprakash Narayan would have had a better epitaph than the crumbling edifice of the discredited Janata Party.

(Mainstream, October 13, 1979)

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