"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."
Transforming The Polity
—A Plea for Reconstruction of the Indian Polity, 1959
Jayaprakash Narayan was born a century ago (October 11, 1902) in Sitabdiara, a riverine village on the Bihar-UP border. He became, after Gandhiji, the most effective proponent of non-violent mass action to achieve grassroots political and social change. His leadership of the Bihar movement in 1975-76 provoked Indira Gandhi to declare an emergency, detaining him and the leaders of several parties who joined the movement. Further history was made when they combined to form the Janata Party and thrashed the ruling Congress in the 1977 general elections. Even Mrs Gandhi was trounced at the polls. But the Janata government fell apart and JP died disappointed two years later.
This was enough to earn JP a place in history. But, as the extract above shows, his essays on the flaws in our political structure and governance are as telling today as when he wrote them. In fact, more telling because the deterioration has progressed further. Even in the few years between 1959, when the above essay was written, and 1975, when he was inspiring the Bihar movement, the prospect had darkened enough for him to warn in Everyman's, the weekly he initiated and I had the privilege of editing: "Politics, at least under a democracy, must know the limits it may not cross. Otherwise, if there's 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."
JP's writings and speeches fill several volumes. After an initial flirtation with Marxism, which began as a student in the US, he distanced himself from theories preaching violent capture of state power. Like Gandhiji, he maintained that without regenerating human values, political change served little purpose, a theme he would fill out towards the end in his thesis of 'Total Revolution'. The clarity of his style and the elegance of his expression is evident from a tract titled Ends and Means, written in 1948 and addressed to his socialist colleagues:
"Socialism means different things to different persons, but if by socialism we mean a form of society in which the material needs of every individual are satisfied and also in which the individual is a cultured and civilised being, is free and brave, kind and generous, then I'm absolutely clear that we'll never reach this goal except by strict adherence to certain human values and standards of conduct. It's too often believed that all would be well only if there were no exploitation in society and everyone was well fed and clothed and housed. But a society of well-fed and clothed and housed brutes is a far cry from socialism."
JP returned to the theme repeatedly. In his seminal From Socialism to Sarvodaya, written a decade later, he argues: "If man and his consciousness and the society and culture which he has built up are mere manifestations of matter—howsoever dialectically active—I can see no reason why in such a society anyone should try to be good, that is, be generous, kind, unselfish. Why then should one feel sympathy with those who are weak, poor or sick? What is matter will dissolve into matter after death. So what incentive can there be for moral behaviour? Lust for power or wealth, or desire to win the acclaim of the people, or the regard of one's peers, may be an incentive to action.But such incentives can have no concern with valuations of right or wrong."
On his return from the US, JP joined the Congress, but, disgusted by the corruption and conservatism he found in the party, broke away to form the Congress Socialist Party. During the Quit India movement, he organised sabotage operations against the British, was caught, escaped, re-arrested and imprisoned from '43 to '46, often in solitary confinement.
Reports of his defiance of the British raised JP to the status of a national icon on his release from jail. He revived the Socialist Party and Jawaharlal Nehru offered him the second position in his cabinet in 1953 but could not go along with his radical programme. JP became disenchanted with all party politics because of the corruption that seemed in-built in the parliamentary system and joined Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan (voluntary land transfer) movement and the Sarvodaya activists.
From Socialism to Sarvodaya was written as an extended letter to his comrades to explain why he was leaving the party. The commitment to human freedom underlying his political excursions is eloquently and brilliantly expressed. The following passage stands out:
"The past course of my life might well appear to the outsider as a zigzag and tortuous chart of unsteadiness and blind groping. But as I look back I discern in it a uniform line of development. The groping undeniably was there, but it was certainly not blind; there were clear beacons of light that remained undimmed and unaltered from the beginning and that led me on to my apparently tortuous path, I, at least, am not sorry for having made this zigzag journey, for it has made me the surer of the path that I have now decided to tread.
"As a boy, like most boys of those days, I was an ardent nationalist and leaned towards the revolutionary cult of which Bengal was the noble leader at that time. But even then the story of the South African satyagraha had fascinated my young heart. Before my revolutionary leanings could mature, Gandhiji's first non-cooperation movement swept over the land as a strangely uplifting hurricane. I, too, was one of the thousands of young men of those days, who, like leaves in the storm, were momentarily lifted up to the skies. That brief experience of soaring up with the winds of a great idea left imprints on the inner being that time and much familiarity with the ugliness of reality have not removed.
"It was then that freedom became one of the beacon lights of my life, and it has remained so ever since. Freedom, with the passing of the years, transcended the mere freedom of my country and embraced freedom of man everywhere and from every sort of trammel—above all, it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit. This freedom has become a passion of life and I shall not see it compromised for bread, for power, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the State or for anything else."
But 1957 was far from the end of the journey. In his travels in Bihar and elsewhere, JP found that Sarvodaya, too, was inadequate to mitigate the misery of the poor. Despite his eloquence with the pen, JP was no goody-goody armchair theorist. His condemnation of the way parliamentary democracy was, and continues to be, practised in our country became stronger. He maintained that the system wasn't in fact representative and led to massive corruption, dishonest and divisive party politics, control of power by a dominant elite and bureaucracy—to failure of governance. And so, addressing a conference in New Delhi in 1969, he declared: "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."
It was a wake-up call more than a threat. Having lost faith in parliamentary democracy, he believed that the only alternative to violence was mass, non-party pressure for change. Student agitation in Bihar against Congress misrule and corruption provided an occasion. When the movement gathered force, Opposition parties, barring those of the Left, joined in. Indira Gandhi's standing was further shaken by the Allahabad High Court's indictment for electoral fraud in June 1975. Emergency followed and the rest is history.
JP did not believe only in opposing and criticising; he proposed an alternative model of democratic governance more representative of Indian reality and less divisive than the multi-party parliamentary system. An ideal he shared with Gandhiji is of a communitarian society, consisting of autonomous self-governing agro-rural units which collaborate to the extent required with other units, forming wider levels of cooperation until reaching the national level. Powers are delegated from bottom up, as is the procedure for choosing candidates for elections, not the other way. The model has been ignored as impractical, but given increasing evidence of the inadequacies of the parliamentary, may now merit consideration.
(The excerpts are taken from Transforming the Polity; Centenary Readings from Jayaprakash Narayan, selected and introduced by Ajit Bhattacharjea, to be released on JP's centenary.)