It was the high point of idealism and the spring of hope. India had just won a historic cricket tournament. It seems I am talking of 2011 but in fact I am talking of 1973…
India had crushed arch rival Pakistan in a historic war and India Gandhi, the country’s wartime prime minister was still basking under the halo of her self-perceived invincibility post the victory. Yet beneath the aura of festivity, the country was crumbling. After three decades of unfettered power and numerous splits, the Congress, a party of illustrious freedom fighters had been reduced to a largely corrupt edifice. Alarmingly corruption from the Congress was spreading to other parts of society.
Jayaprakash Narayan, a Berkley educated ex-Congress freedom fighter who had at the peak of his political career selflessly renounced electoral politics to live the Gandhian ideal of working for rural regeneration, was alarmed to say the least. In a famous letter to Indira Gandhi he made pointed references to the rise of corruption in the Congress and asked her to tackle them before it spread to other parts of society and polluted the entire nation. Indira retorted saying that corruption was a global phenomena and a corruption free India that JP alluded to was an utopian ideal that was possible only if the entire Indian population consisted of selfless Jayprakash Narayans. A Delhi High Court judge would later lament as to how he could crack down on corruption when someone in such a high position had almost justified it.
Even as the two were exchanging letters, a powerful student’s movement broke out in the prosperous western state of Gujarat which overthrew the corrupt CM of Gujarat, Chimmanbhai Patel, a nominee of Indira Gandhi. Sensing the mood of the people against corruption, Jayprakash Narayan launched a similar movement in Bihar. The response was momentous and Jayprakash Narayan gave a call for a “Total Revolution” at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan quoting Rashtrakavi Dinkar’s evocative poetry: “Singhasan Khaali Karo Ke Janata Aaati Hai”.
JP’s call to action changed the course of history. Faced with the rising tide of the JP movement, Indira declared an emergency in 1975 and jailed Jayprakash Narayan. Thousands of JP movement activists including Arun Jaitley, then president of Delhi University Students Union and Nitish Kumar, then a junior socialist activist were jailed. Narendra Modi, then a junior RSS pracharak was among those who evaded arrest and organized an underground resistance movement. The media was almost entirely clamped down on with the sole exception of Ramnath Goenka, the legendary proprietor of the Indian Express.
As the very idea of a free India lay in tatters, for millions of Indians, JP was now the only rallying point, the ultimate moral beacon and the sole hope for liberty. There was a humorous side to the entire story too when Subramanian Swamy, a Harvard professor turned parliamentarian, left Indira Gandhi red faced as he dared her by turning up in the parliament, recording his attendance right under her nose then fleeing to the United States even as Indira Gandhi had an arrest warrant pending against him.
The importance of democracy for ordinary Indians would be underscored in the elections in 1977 that followed, where Indira’s Congress party was wiped out as Jayprakash Narayan would lead the newly formed Janata Party to power. Jayprakash Narayan’s poor health and premature death would eventually lead to the disintegration of the Janata party and the subsequent return of Indira to power.
In retrospect, the JP movement was easily the most remarkable movement of post Independence India as a single man in the dying moments of his life underscored the huge importance of “democracy” to India and its leaders, an institution that no leader since Indira including Indira herself has dared to mess with. Having Ramnath Goenka as a moral benchmark, the Indian media too came of age and since then has been fiercely independent routinely felling powerful politicians of all hues. Inability to eradicate corruption however was a failure of the JP movement which in fact was originally evolved to eradicate corruption. Due to the imposition of emergency the movement had to redefine itself for a battle for the much larger goals of liberty and democracy and thereby the movement couldn’t keep its singular focus on corruption.
Cut to 2011 and scandals had become almost a part of daily Indian life. Corruption had acquired a life of its own much as JP had predicted. Faced with a class debater in the now leader of opposition, Arun Jaitley, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had run out of excuses to defend a never ending season of scandals. To be fair, JP’s foot soldiers had not given up on his idea of India. In Gujarat and in Bihar, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar who were now powerful Chief Ministers had ruthlessly cracked down on corruption and delivered double digit growth rates. Subramanian Swamy now the president of the defunct Janata Party and who was also a minister in JP’s Janata party government had blown the whistle on the uber corrupt telecom minister fittingly called Spectrum Raja and the Maharajas shielding him. Elsewhere Shanti Bhushan, the then law minister in JP’s Janata party goverment had drafted a little known anti-corruption Jan Lokpal bill proposal to be submitted to the government.
Yet beyond the glimpses of JP’s India, that one saw in Gujarat and Bihar and more so in Swamy’s dogged pursuit of justice in the spectrum scam, the battle against corruption was largely a losing one. It was indeed obvious to one and all, Indira’s idea of India had prevailed.
At least until the soldier turned activist Kisan Baburao Hazare fondly called as Anna Hazare boarded a train to Delhi. The irony was hard to miss, decades later it would be yet another Gandhian, who had quit his Army career at it’s peak to live the Gandhian ideal of rural regeneration, who would give a call to action against Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi. Armed with a one point demand for a Jan Lokpal he went on a fast unto death.
Within a matter of days the movement spread to Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Patna, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Ranchi, Pune, Nashik, Kochi, Jammu, Thiruvananthapuram, Guwahati, Jaipur, New York, London and Sydney as millions of Indians joined him. Dinkar’s poetry was replaced this time around by Chetan Bhagat’s kitschy slogan “Mera Neta chor hain!” that became the new war cry for the crusade against corruption both in the real world as well as in the virtual world of Facebook and Twitter.
Within 98 hours of Anna’s speech wherein he swore to crusade for the cause till his last breath, Manmohan Singh, who initially tried to trivialize him as a misguided pawn of the RSS gave in and his government hilariously proclaimed that they were in fact on Anna’s side in the war.
Kanchan Gupta, the feisty associate editor of “The Pioneer”, tweeted if Manmohan Singh was indeed on Anna Hazare’s side, then what was this entire hullabaloo about? Much like with Indira in 1975, the tide had clearly turned on Sonia and in a post JP India wherein an Emergency would be suicidal, Sonia was left with the no option but to give in.
Even as Anna is being proclaimed by the media as the new JP, it is to be noted that in terms of sheer stature or even oratory, Anna is no match to a JP. What is however working in his favour is that this time around the people’s movement does not have to fight a far more draining battle for the very idea of democracy but has to simply crack down on corruption that has become the bane of Indian democracy. Backed by a fiercely independent 24/7 media and social media his task of mobilizing the people on his side is much easier than JP who had to rely on student activists from opposition parties. Significantly Anna’s foot soldiers are not political activists but those from the civil society thereby giving the movement a bipartisan halo around it. Most importantly his adversary this time is no Indira, a popular leader with a stunning war victory on her CV but a lately unpopular Prime Minister who has presided over some of the largest scandals anywhere in the world and Indira’s elusive daughter in law Sonia who is herself facing questions about her alleged Swiss bank accounts.
In the coming days, the Congress establishment which is still struggling to come to terms with the Anna phenomena will come out with insinuations, diversions and divisive tactics. These however will not derail the movement.
For the establishment has not understood that they are dealing with JP’s idea of India which, beneath the veneer of Indira’s idea of India that they are comfortable dealing with, was always alive and kicking in the hopes and aspirations of a billion Indians. All it needed to come to life was the opportunity. And with the emergence of Anna as an icon, the Jan Lokpal bill as a roadmap and Tahrir as an inspiration the idea has finally found one.
The throwback to the JP movement reached a full circle when Anna Hazare in a post victory press conference lauded Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, the only two current Chief ministers who were youth activists of the JP movement, as the two Chief Ministers who should be a guiding ideal for all other Chief Ministers. Shanti Bhushan, JP’s law minister, will now be co-chairing the committee to draft the Lokpal bill. Subramanian Swamy yet another of JP’s ministers is widely seen as the man who irreparably damaged Manmohan Singh’s image in his 2G scam crusade thereby leaving Singh with no moral high ground to take on Anna. Not many people know but on day two of the fasts the Congress had made a final attempt to sabotage the movement by getting in touch with the BJP and gave a proposal that the two parties come together and declare the Anna movement unconstitutional. All such hopes were laid to rest when Arun Jaitley, the erstwhile face of the JP movement at Delhi University made it clear that BJP was squarely behind Anna.
Even as celebrations have broken out across India and a nation has learnt to dream again, at the Bangalore’s Freedom park, hundreds of activists were seen holding placards “JP you have come back!” and weeping with joy. I couldn’t but help notice, JP has endured to be the acronym of the right against the wrong!!!
Great men like JP come and go, the beauty of their lives is that the ideas they give and the dreams they set for others live on. Loknayak Jayprakash Narayan is probably the best Prime Minister India never had for an incomplete shot at a “Total revolution” that would ultimately come to fruition decades after he is gone.
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