Of course there’s a big difference between JP’s movement and that of Anna’s. And I’m not talking of how one was led by a seasoned politician—however ambiguous his ideology and political affiliation—while the other, Anna Hazare, is more like a “neighbourhood elder”, as Ashis Nandy memorably puts it: “familiar, unassuming and perhaps slightly dumb”. It’s something else that separates them—Jayaprakash Narayan stumbled on his movement, almost by accident, weeks after it had started—a spontaneous outburst of public rage against corrupt politicians. Anna, however surprised he might privately be by the enthused masses he’s attracting, is certainly not hanging on to the tailcoats of youthful protesters. JP claimed he was inspired by Gujarat’s student protesters. Anna, on the other hand, is the inspiration behind his own movement.
JP’s movement was sparked off not by JP but by a bunch of engineering college students in Ahmedabad whom we’ve long forgotten. They were protesting a steep hike in their canteen bills in December 1973. Protests and strikes were hardly unusual in the ’70s, with its food shortages, escalating prices, caps on government salaries. But when people began blaming the price rise on politicians, accusing them of colluding with traders and blackmarketeers, it was a portent. Instead of taking heed, the then chief minister of Gujarat, Chimanbhai Patel, carried on as most CMs of his day did, and still do: please the boss, Indira Gandhi in this case, and forget the people until the next elections. Ordered by the Congress high command to contribute his share to the party’s poll funds, Patel got into a deal with the state’s peanut oil traders. In exchange for the donations he asked for, he agreed to look the other way while they overcharged consumers. It was the spark that lit a mass movement that overthrew him.
Like Anna’s team, the students in L.D. Engineering College, Ahmedabad, could have hardly expected the response they got. But they had touched a raw nerve. When they gave a call for an Ahmedabad bandh on January 10, 1974, to protest against the government they blamed for rising prices, nearly everyone joined in: workers, school and college teachers’ associations, employees of banks and insurance companies, sarkari workers and, of course, opposition parties.
Having tasted blood, the students went further: the next day, egged on by opposition parties, they formed the Navnirman Yuva Samiti (Youth Organisation for Regeneration), organising agitations across Gujarat. The protests—and attendant rioting—spread to Baroda, Surat and other towns. In the battle of people versus an elected government, it was the people’s movement that gathered momentum, despite the 85 killed in police firings. The students now went for the jugular, demanding the resignation of the Chimanbhai government—with a majority of 140 in a house of 168—and dissolution of the state assembly. Helpless against the unstoppable masses, and incapable of consensus politics, Indira Gandhi gave in, imposing President’s rule and putting the state assembly under suspension, on February 9, 1974.
Like Anna’s team, the Navnirman movement’s leaders hardly expected the massive popular support they received.
But even this wasn’t enough for the triumphant Navnirman students. They demanded that she dissolve the House and call fresh elections. This is when JP came on the scene, arriving in Ahmedabad two days after the imposition of President’s rule. A failed Marxist and revolutionary, an ex-Gandhian and Bhoodan leader and still groping in the dark for an effective political strategy, the students saw no reason to embrace JP as their leader. Instead, as JP confessed later, it was the Navnirman movement that inspired him to adopt a new political strategy. “I wasted two years trying to bring about a politics of consensus. It came to nothing,” he wrote in a magazine article in August 1974. “Then I saw students in Gujarat bring about a political change with the backing of the people...and I knew this was the way out.”
Like JP, there were other political leaders trying to clamber onto the Navnirman bandwagon. One of them was Morarji Desai. Eager to retrieve lost ground, he joined other opposition leaders in demanding that the House be dissolved. They egged on the students to gherao Congress mlas to force them to resign. Several of them did, but it didn’t suffice. Eventually, Morarji resorted to that time-worn weapon of Indian politicians: an indefinite fast. The blackmail worked: within four days, the Centre—unnerved by the consequences—dissolved the assembly. Morarji broke his fast soon after.
Having achieved their goal, the student leaders scattered, and their mass movement petered off. But many felt the success of the Navnirman movement set a bad precedent for Indian democracy. “Congratulations poured in for the success of the students’ efforts from many quarters,” recalls P.N. Dhar in his memoir, Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy. “Nobody shed a tear for the demise of the rule of law and constitutional means of changing governments.”
It was true. The Navnirman wasn’t the first mass movement against an elected government. There had been several protest movements against specific public policies in Nehru’s time. Like the mass movements in 1956 organised by the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti and the Maha Gujarat Janata Parishad for the division of then Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat. The movements sprang up spontaneously, swelled, accomplished their goal, then faded out, with their leaders seamlessly integrating into the political process. Likewise with the mass movement to oppose the imposition of Hindi as the sole official language.
Such older protests were dealt with differently, in what was a crucial difference: the changing nature of our governments. For Nehru, the touchstone of a true democracy was the quality of its government’s response to a protest movement. Till he was at the helm, the aim of his government was political consensus with the protesting masses. His daughter replaced it with a politics of stonewalling, forcing her opponents into confrontational politics.
The more politically ambitious JP became, the more followers he lost. They’d chosen him for not being a politician.
JP didn’t have to wait very long to try out this new political strategy against an unbending government. Within a month, in April 1974, student leaders in Bihar, who had started a similar movement against rising prices and tuition fees and demanding action against hoarders, profiteers and blackmarketeers, invited JP to lead their movement. It was a golden chance for him: Bihar—economically backward and worse governed than Gujarat—was ripe for a revolution. All JP needed was a spark: the student movement would provide him this.
JP set only one condition: he would assume full command of the movement. Within weeks, Bihar witnessed the kind of mass movement it hadn’t seen since the freedom struggle: starting with dharnas, silent processions, “black days”, and soon widening into a demand for the dissolution of the assembly. As the movement gathered momentum, JP gave a call to his masses to paralyse the government at every level, close colleges, not pay taxes, gherao the state assembly and government offices, and set up parallel governments all over the state. The next step: to topple Indira Gandhi.
But gradually a curious thing happened: the more ambitious JP became politically, the more disenchanted became his supporters. Huge crowds came, of course, to hear him wherever he went, he began to be admired by other politicians, but somehow the spark went out of the movement he’d created in Bihar. His student followers trickled back to their classes, the spontaneity and appeal died out and by September-October 1974, the JP movement had reached its dead-end.
It’s the inevitable course that all protest movements take, according to historian Bipan Chandra. “There was nothing surprising about the movement declining after a few months,” Chandra writes in his book, In The Name Of Democracy: The JP movement and the Emergency. “A popular movement...cannot be carried on for a long time at a fever pitch. What was surprising was Jayaprakash’s belief that he could do so.”
But there was another reason why his supporters became disenchanted. They chose him because he wasn’t the usual politician; now he was dangerously close to, if not becoming one himself, at least keeping their company. JP was, like Anna, a symbol of people’s disgust with politicians—the renunciate who had rejected Nehru’s offer of a cabinet post. “A sanyasi passionately involved in public affairs,” as Dhar puts it. And then, somewhere along the way, he lost his way—used by the opposition and then cast off.
So are they futile, then, these mass movements, setting out with their limited goals—remove a government or a bill, and replace it with another? Fading out as suddenly as they sprang up, leaving no mark behind? Not at all, says Nandy, who’s never forgotten what a leader of the JP movement once told him: “These movements never die. Just when you think you’ve put it out, it catches fire somewhere else.” A million Annas waiting to happen?