Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 16, April 9, 2011
Thursday 14 April 2011, by
Jayaprakash Narayan has left a heritage of unremitting intellectual and political pursuit of individual freedom and social justice. He campaigned for human rights everywhere, including Kashmir, Nagaland and Tibet. His transparent sincerity, simplicity, openness to new ideas and willingness to re-examine his own made it a privilege to know him.
Yet one cannot say that the social evils against which he struggled are nearer solution today, 19 years after he left us. In many ways the situation is worse, making it even more necessary to re-examine the basic features of our polity. What then is his legacy? What message did he leave? As with Gandhiji, we have to study his life and writings to discern the elements that go beyond the present. We are fortunate that the stream of writings he left behind provide a crystal-clear reflection of the evolution of his thought.
JP did not die a happy man. The last years of his life were tragic. He was crippled by the kidney failure that originated in 1975, when he was detained during the Emergency. Yet he poured out the last remnants of the energy and dedication that were the hallmarks of his career to inspire the crushing defeat of Indira Gandhi’s Congress party in the 1977 elections. The Janata Ministers who took office received his blessing, but proceeded to ignore him and his programmes.
I came to know JP in the last decade of his life. I had admired him since my college days for his exploits in the ‘Quit India’ movement and later attempts to put together a democratic socialist alternative to the Congress. He failed, but his ideas could not be forgotten, especially after I came to study his numerous writings. His views were expressed so clearly and directly that even now it is easier to use his own words than to paraphrase them.
JP embraced ideologies ranging from communism to sarvodaya in his quest for individual freedom combined with social justice. Like Gandhiji, he had limited faith in parliamentary democracy. He regarded it as divisive and advocated a different model rooted in our traditions. The base was to be provided by gram sabhas or village assemblies. Panchayats, their executive committees, would be chosen by consensus or by lot to avoid conflict. Indirect elections would be held to successive levels of governance up to the State and Central levels. But the gram sabha would be sovereign, with only subjects relating to wide areas left out of its competence. The overall thrus was on decentralisation and empowerment; of the community, not the individual.
This is a highly abbreviated account of communitarian democracy, a model that JP wrote about a some length. A detailed description is contained in his essay, ‘A Plea for Reconstruction of the Indian Polity’, written in 1959. The same essay contains his analysis of the failings of the parliamentary system. Since this is perhaps even more relevant today than it was 40 years ago, I will take the liberty of quoting from it at length.
The fundamental defect, from which other serious defects issue, is that this from of democracy is based on the vote of the individual. We have already examined this situation and found that it is the atomisation of society that is responsible for this kind of political system. But that does not alter the fact that the system is based on a false premise; the State cannot be an arithmetical sum of individuals. The people, the nation, the community can never be equated with the sum of individual voters…
The claim that parliamentary democratic governments at least represent a majority of the voters breaks down in a still more serious manner. Experience has shown that present-day mass elections, manipulated by powerful, centrally-controlled parties, with the aid of high finance and diabolically clever methods and super media of communication, represent far less the electorate than the forces and interests behind the parties and the propaganda machines.
Here we are face to face with another serious defect of parliamentary democracy—demagoguery. The need to ‘catch’ votes creates an unlimited opportunity for indulging in half-truths, even outright lies sometimes; for exciting the passions, more often than not, the base passions; for arousing false hopes by making dishonest, but pleasing, promises. Hardly any issue of public policy is presented to the people in its true light; everything gets distorted by partisan demagoguery. The consequence of all this is that the real interests of the nation are sacrificed, more often than not, at the altar of demagaguery.
Perhaps the most serious fault of parliamentary democracy, from the point of view of democracy itself, is its interest tendency toward centralism. At one extreme of its political spectrum is the national state and at the other the individual voter, with a blank in between. The local bodies that may exist have (a) little self-government powers, and (b) no direct or indirect influence on the nation-state. Add to this the complexities of a highly industrialised civilisation that are beyond even the understanding of the ordinary citizen, and you have a central state of overwhelming power and resource, and the individual voter reduced to abject helplessness.
A natural outcome of centralisation of power and administration is bureaucracy. The central executive or cabinet is no overburdened with work that it is compelled to leave more and more to, and depend more and more upon, the permanent officials, who in course of time gather more and more power for themselves. This soon leads to a dangerous autocracy, the autocracy of the bureaucrat, which is difficult to fight because it ‘works in the shadows’ and is hard to get at. The only answer to the problem of bureaucracy is more and more decentralisation so that the people directly participate in the administration of their affairs and control the civil servants who owe their jobs and are directly responsible to them.
An inevitable concomitant of parliamentary democracy is the party system. It is clear that parliamentary democracy cannot work without parties. Parties of a sort will perhaps exist everywhere and at all times. All this has changed now and parties have become a sort of state within the State. They are now the real arbiters of the people’s fate, whose control over them is fictional. The citizens who cast their votes for the parties have nothing to do with the running of the parties: they are complete outsiders. Even the enrolled members of the parties have no say either in the policymaking or the inner administration of the parties. The parties are run by caucuses that are beyond democratic control.
Another serious fault of parliamentary democracy is the system of election that it fosters and requires for its proper functioning. First of all, the system is very expensive and appallingly wasteful. The fabulous expenses involved have the effect of mortgaging democracy to moneyed interests or large sectional organisations like trade unions.
By 1969, after devoting nearly 20 years to promoting Vinoba Bhave’s campaign to persuade bigger landowners to hand over part of their land to the poor, JP was becoming impatient. He had lost faith in the State and in political parties as agents of change. Yet it was clear that little could be achieved by persuasion alone. His feelings were expressed in an address to a conference of voluntary agencies in New Delhi in 1969. He said:
I have every sympathy for the Naxalite people. They are violent people. But I have every sympathy for them because they are doing something for the poor… Thousands of share-croppers are being evicted because the landlords have the right to resume the land; because these poor people do not have even a chit to prove that the land was in their cultivating possession. They cannot prove it in a court of law. These things are happening today and the law is absolutely important to help these poor people. If the law is unable to give the people a modicum of social and economic justice, if even whatever is on paper is not implemented, what do you think will happen if not violence erupting all over? Do you think that mere mantras of shanti shanti are going to save the situation?…. What India needs today on the political agenda is non-violent social revolution. Otherwise violence will grow.,.. My Sarvodaya friends and my Gandhian friends will be surprised to read what I publicly say now. I say with a due sense of responsibility that if convinced that there is no deliverance for the people except through violence Jayaprakash Narayan will take to violence.
This is an index of the extent of JP’s frustration. But he took pains to explain that violence was counter-productive. It could lead to fascism and enslavement. The power that came out of the barrel of a gun could only empower a clique, he explained, because the gun was not in the hands of the common people.
He recalled that Gandhiji had used the techniques of non-violent resistance and non-violent non-cooperation to fight the British. He wanted to use the same techniques to achieve a social revolution. But where would he find counterparts for the disciplined Congress workers who had involved people in the process of social change and stood up non-violently to the lathis of the British Raj?
The immediate occasion for his concern was the situation in Bihar. But the national scene was no less disturbing. The analysis of national politics contained in his convocation address to the Banaras Hindu University in 1970 was distur-bingly prescient: “Political disintegration is likely to spread,” he warned, “selfish splitting up of parties rather than their ideological polarisation will continue; the devaluation of ideologies may continue; frequent change of party loyalties for personal or parochial benefits, buying and selling of legislators, inner party indiscipline, opportu-nistic alliances among parties and instability of government—all these are expected to continue.”
In 1971, JP fell ill. He had been suffering from sciatica and diabetes; now doctors detected a heart condition. He was advised to cut down his engagements. This added to his impatience. He knew he did not have too much time to set his non-violent social revolution in motion. He tried to utilise whatever instruments were available.
In 1973, JP appealed to the only force that seemed idealistic and patriotic enough to serve as uncommitted agents of socio-political change. Urging students to launch a Youth for Democracy Movement, he asked:
Will our youth continue to look on idly at this strangulation of the democratic process at its very birth?
His state of mind was reflected in a series of articles in his journal, Everyman’s. He wrote:
Politics, at least under a democracy, must know the limits it may not cross. Otherwise, if there is dishonesty, corruption, manipulation of the masses, naked struggle for personal power and personal gain, there can be no socialism, no welfarism, no government, no public order, no justice, no freedom, no national unity—in short no nation.
What would he have said today?
JP’s appeal to the youth seemed to be answered in Gujarat. Students organised a campaign against rising prices in early 1974. It developed into a popular Statewide movement against corruption. The Chimanbhai Patel Government was forced to resign. Though JP visited Gujarat for four days, he did not play a significant role and the movement died down. It did suggest, however, that popular discontent was wides-pread enough to be ready for massive protest movements.
The Bihar movement followed, closely monitored by JP. His stated targets were: corruption, misgovernment, blackmarketing, profiteering, hoarding, overhaul of the educational system and a real people’s democracy. These could not be achieved, he said, without a change in social practices like dowry and the caste system. This was Total Revolution.
I accompanied JP on several tours. Uncertain health, bumpy roads, bad food, long delays, ill-organised programmes did not deter him. Crowds waited hours to hear him and he often spoke for hours lecturing them on political and social goals. Occasionally, they felt impatient because he spent as much time speaking on the ills of the dowry system as of the Bihar Government. But these strands were intertwined for him.
The overall response, however, seemed to convince JP that Lokniti—people’s power—-would soon purify Rajniti, state power. When he tried to expand the movement outside Bihar, some of us thought he was trying to do too much too fast. I wrote as much in Everyman’s which I had the privilege of then editing. That I could criticise him in his own paper was a measure of his greatness.
But Indira Gandhi seemed to share JP’s views on the potential of Lokniti. She declared an Emergency on June 26, 1975. He was the first to be detained. In the Prison Diary he wrote while in solitary detention in Chandigarh, he put his case in the simplest terms:
In a democracy what ways are there for bringing about social, economic and cultural changes? Are elections the only means? And what if elections are neither free nor fair? And how can elections be won by keeping your mouth shut and hands folded? And how do you fight against injustice and oppression? And what do you do with a corrupt and misruling government? Wait until the elections and lose? If you do not expose such a government, if you do not agitate for its removal, what chances have you to win at the hustings? All these meetings, demonstrations, strikes, bandhs, civil disobe-dience, etc. are the weapons of democracy and they have to be used. Disorder and violence do not go with democracy.
Soon after writing this, JP was struck by the first pains of what was later diagnosed as kidney failure. He never recovered fully.
JP was a politician as well as a visionary. Although convinced, like Gandhiji, that the gram swaraj model was best suited to our country, he realised that, for all its flaws, there was no current alternative to parliamentary democracy. Otherwise the field would be open to some form of fascism. Accordingly, he supported efforts to plug loopholes in the system. He advocated electoral reform, publication of party funds, recall of legislators and other measures. Some recommendations of a committee on electoral reform chaired by him in 1973 are beginning to be implemented.
What JP would particularly welcome today is the number of non-political groups working in the field to advance grassroots awareness and empowerment. Prominent among them are those who have aroused awareness of the citizen’s right to information, the rights of tribal people, the rights of those uprooted by major projects and the need to protect our natural resources and environment. But until a sustained, non-violent popular movement is organised to monitor, expose, agitate against and counter misrule and corruption at all levels, the core of his message will remain unheard.
[Lecture delivered on Jayaprakash Narayan’s birth anniversary (Jaipur, October 11, 1998)]
(Mainstream Annual, 1998)