Some commentators have compared the struggle led by Anna Hazare with the movement against corruption led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. A man of integrity and courage, a social worker who has eschewed the loaves and fishes of office, a septuagenarian who has emerged out of semi-retirement to take on an unfeeling government — thus JP then, and thus Anna now.
Superficially, the comparison of Anna to JP is flattering — to Hazare at any rate. But let us look more closely at how Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement unfolded. JP’s papers are housed in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. These papers are worth revisiting in light of the struggle of which Anna has become the symbol and the mascot.
Once a hero of the Quit India Movement, then a founder of the Socialist Party, Jayaprakash Narayan abandoned politics for social work in the 1950s. Two decades later, he returned to politics at the invitation of students disenchanted with corruption in Bihar. At first, JP focused attention on his own state; then, much as Hazare has now done, his struggle moved outwards to embrace the whole of India.
In the late summer of 1974, as his movement was gathering ground, JP went to Vellore for a surgical operation. While he was recovering, his associate Acharya Ramamurti kept him up-to-date with the struggle. Ramamurti’s communications, note, with some alarm, the entry of a political party into a professedly “apolitical” movement. While JP was away, wrote his colleague, “the leadership of the movement at least at local levels, is passing into the hands of the Jana Sangh”. Ramamurti also worried that “the common man has yet to be educated into the ways and values of our movement, whose appeal to him continues to be more negative than constructive”.
After some weeks in hospital JP returned to Bihar. In September 1974, he invited his friend RK Patil to come observe the situation at first-hand. Patil was in his own way a considerable figure, who had quit the Indian Civil Service to join the freedom struggle, and later worked in rural development in Maharashtra. He now travelled through Bihar, speaking to a cross-section of JP’s supporters and critics, and to many bystanders as well.
On his return to Nagpur, Patil wrote JP a long letter with his impressions. He appreciated “the tremendous popular enthusiasm generated by the movement”. However, he deplored its disparaging of political parties in particular and constitutional democracy in general. As a man of intelligence and principle, Patil was “well aware of the patent drawbacks of the Government presided over by Indira Gandhi”. But he did not think it “wise to substitute for the law of ‘Government by Discussion’, the law of ‘Government by Public Street Opinion’”. Patil reminded JP that “there is no other way of ascertaining the general opinion of the people in a Nation-State, except through free and fair elections”.
The materials of history thus suggest that the parallels between JP and Anna are less comforting than we might suppose. Front organisations of the Jana Sangh’s successor, the BJP, are now playing an increasingly active role in ‘India against corruption’. While Anna cannot be blamed for the infiltration of his movement by partisan interests, he certainly stands guilty, as did JP, of suggesting that the street — or the maidan — should have a greater say in political decision-making than a freely elected Parliament.
Such are the parallels in the realm of civil society. What then, of the other side? The main difference here is that while the prime minister of JP’s day, Indira Gandhi, was excessively arrogant, the present prime minister is excessively timid. Despite his personal honesty, Manmohan Singh is complicit in the colossal corruption promoted by the ministers in his government. Further, he is guilty of a lack of faith in the procedures of constitutional democracy. His decision not to stand for a Lok Sabha seat does not violate the Constitution in law, but does so in spirit. Because of his unwillingness to face the electorate, his claim to defend the primacy of Parliament lacks conviction.
An arrogant politician can be chastened by defeat — as happened with Indira Gandhi in 1977. But it is hard to believe, based on his recent record, that Singh can act boldly now to recover the reputation of his government. By not sacking Suresh Kalmadi after the media revelations of his misdeeds, by not sacking
A Raja as soon as the information on the spectrum scandal was sent to his office, by sanctioning an election alliance in Tamil Nadu with the heavily tainted DMK, by refusing to rein in loose-tongued Congress ministers — in these and other ways, the prime minister has contributed to a widespread public revulsion against his regime. It is time that Singh made way for a younger man or woman, for someone who has greater political courage, and who is a member of the Lok Sabha rather than the Rajya Sabha. As things stand, with every passing day in office his reputation declines further. So, more worryingly, does the credibility of constitutional democracy itself.
To restore faith in the constitutional process some heads must roll in government. But serious introspection must take place within what passes for ‘civil society’ as well. The movement led by Anna Hazare has focused sharp attention on the corruption of our political class. However, the task now is not to further polarise State and society, but to find democratic and transparent ways of making politicians more efficient and less venal.
The scholar and public servant Gopalkrishna Gandhi recently observed that the arteries of constitutional democracy have become clogged, contaminated by years of abuse and disuse. One needs, he said, a bypass surgery to restore the heart to its proper functioning. The image is striking, and apposite. The current movement against corruption may come to constitute such a bypass, so long as it does not claim to be the heart itself..
( Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy )
The views expressed by the author are personal