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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

Remembering JP Today

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by Arvind Bhandari


[(On the occasion of Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan’s 105th birth anniversary on October 11, we are publishing the following articles. Besides the piece by senior journalist Arvind Bhandari, written specially for this occasion, the one by veteran journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea is reproduced from Mainstream Annual, 1998.)]

Invoking the memory of Jayaprakash Narayan on the occasion of his birth anniversary on October 11 acquires greater relevance today because the nation is passing through a crisis of character. JP’s illustrious name will forever shine as a resplendent star in the pantheon of post-independence India’s leaders.

The man who could have become the second Prime Minister of India became, after Mahatma Gandhi, the second redeemer of the nation, freeing the country from the shackles of a home-brewed dictatorship, which was imposed by an unprincip-led Indira Gandhi. Sometimes leaders scale such lofty heights of national eminence that they become too big for mundane office. In post-Emergency India JP never occupied any official seat of power and was regarded as the nation’s patron saint.

JP was born in his home village of Baburani, now renamed after him as Jayaprakash Nagar. Whenever the Ganges changes course, JP’s ancestral house has been shown alternately in Bihar and UP. JP’s grandfather, Babu Debkinandan Lal, was a prominent personality of Lalaka Tola, joining the police and becoming a daroga. Debkinandan sent his son Harshu Dayal to an English school so that he could become tax daroga. On October 11, 1902 Harshu Dayal’s wife, Phulrani, gave birth to a son. The boy become a natural leader among the village boys.

JP wanted to overhaul the entire Indian society. The political system should be responsive to the aspirations of the poorest of the poor; the glaring inequalities that our economic system breeds should be ended; the educational system should be geared to the needs of the nation; the canker of corruption in India’s administrative system should be eradicated; the various social ills that afflict our country should be ended. This in simplistic and pragmatic terms is what JP meant by “Total Revolution”.

The kind of sweeping reforms JP had in mind appear like a Utopian abstraction, but nobody can contest their fundamental desirability. Evidently, the initative for such a revolution has to come from society as a whole, not just the government.

JP did not belong to the common breed of power-seeking politicians. He was basically a visionary and a social reformer who had been a crusader for values and causes all his life. His touching identification with the people comes out in his Prison Diary, which has been translated into many foreign languages. As a campaigner for social reform, JP was loyal to values but not ideologies, which in his case ran the gamut from Marxism to socialism to Sarvodaya.

JP was a student for seven years in the United States in the 1920s. It was in the land of capitalism that JP developed a fascination for Marxism because of the inequalities he observed in American life. His Ohio professor observed in the young man “germs of leadership” and “aggressiveness of thought”.

Subsequently, JP co-founded the Congress Socialist Party and went underground. His escape from prison during the 1942 upheaval reads like a Scarlet Pimpernal story. Uitimately, JP’s quest for the elusive Utopia brought him to Sarvodaya and spawned his brainchild—“partyless demo-cracy”.

JP’s hop from ideology to ideology is an indication of his failure, as in the case of most thinkers, to resolve the dilemma of ends and means. Changeability of ideological stance and aggressive-ness of thoughts brought JP into clash with all the three giants—Gandhi, Nehru and Patel.

When Mahatma Gandhi condemned the 1942 socialist movement for using violent mans, JP was so hurt that there was a permanent estrangement between him and Gandhiji. JP once told Nehru: “Power corrupts, absolute power absolutely.” Nehru’s retort was swift: “Irresponsibility corrupts, absolute irresponsibility absolutely.”

Because of policy differences, JP refused to join Nehru’s Cabinet. When Gandhi wanted to make JP the Congress President, Nehru opposed it. Patel was annoyed with JP because of the attacks of the Congress Socialist Party on the policies of the Congress Party. When Gandhiji was assassinated, JP demanded the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Patel, for he held the Home portfolio. Nonetheless, Patel continued to treat JP’s critical posture with good-humoured tolerance.

In the case of big leaders political differences often do not affect personal relations. It was so in the case of the Gandhi-Nehru-Patel-JP tug-of-war. JP often used to stay with Nehru at Teen Murti and was with him at the time of the Mahatma’s assassination. Patel and Manibehn had a lot of regard for JP’s wife Prabha Devi.

JP’s continued regard for Nehru found reflection in his ambivalent altitude towards Indira Gandhi. Despite the shabby treatment she accorded to him, he continued to write to her from prison. Some of his letters read like a avuncular exhortations.

JP also campaigned for the eradication of specific ills in society, but this not without the contradiction that at times marked his leadership.

At a grand ceremony near the Chambal Ravines (I was among the journalists present), the surrendered dacoits—Madho Singh, Manohar Singh and the like—all washed and spruced up for the occasion, dropped their guru before a large portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, touched JP’s feet and participated in the chanting of religious hymns. Subsequently, they were lodged in an open jail where the comfortable conditions and easy parole made a mockery of crime and punishment.

Later, I met JP at the Raj Bhavan in Bhopal and asked him: “Is it in keeping with the principles of natural justice that hardened criminals guilty of felonious crimes should be let off the hook like that and whether such lenient treatment will not spawn dacoits in future?” The old man lost his shirt. Even the great have their foibles.

Seen warts and all, no man is perfect, and JP was no exception. JP neglected Prabha Devi because of his passionate attachment to political work. First, he went away to America leaving his newly-wed wife in the care of Gandhiji’s entourage. On returning he became so immersed in public life that he forgot his role as a husband. Prabha Devi lived like a nun at a time she should been engulfed in marital joys. JP had no children. According to those who were close to him, his marriage was never consummated.

JP developed kidney trouble during the Emergency. The report of the Alva Commission, which inquired into the medical treatment given to JP at the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Chandigarh, has never been made public and continues to raise eyebrows about Indira Gandhi’s dubious role in the murky affair.

My peer in journalism, Ajit Bhattacharjea, and I were the only journalists present in the ante-chamber when JP breathed his last in the Jaslok Hospital in Bombay.

Nobody would grudge the placement of Jayaprakash Narayan as one of the greatest Indians after Mahatma Gandhi in recent times. Nonetheless, an authentic evaluation of his contribution to the Indian nation most await the perspective of his history and the pen of a Gibbon.

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