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"Narayanan made a mistake by not contesting for a second term."
A.T. Jaisinghani
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   In search of Jayaprakash

Global corruption watchdog, Transparency International, has rated India 71st in its 2002 Corruption Perception Index, an unenviable position that the world’s largest democracy shares with Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Honduras.

Except Pakistan and Bangladesh, all other South Asian nations fare better than India as far the extent of corruption in politics, bureaucracy and business is concerned. Commenting on this lamentable state of affairs, journalist Chitra Subramaniam coined the sardonic phrase, ‘India is for Sale'.

Since Ravinder Pal Singh Sidhu converted the Punjab Public Service Commission into his personal fiefdom and sold access to the state civil service to the highest financial bidder, the hitherto faltering faith in India’s elite administrative offices has been completely crushed.

Forget the perennial phenomenon of high political scams whose latest avatars go by the names of Tehelka, Coffingate and Petrol Pump, and just look at nooks of Indian society where one never expected the dangerous gangrene of corruption to spread.

Today, IIT entrance examinations and international cricket matches are fixed. The ‘Mammaries of the welfare state’, in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s diction, are being squeezed to dessication by the universal kleptocratic mantra, ‘I, Me, Myself.’ Self-centred, valueless and cynical attitudes from the Prime Minister’s Office downwards to the lowest institution of the country are collectively responsible for the hydra-headed monster of corruption.

It is in such a woebegone condition of the nation that the life and message of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan, whose 100th birth centenary falls on October 11, attains relevance. Like his guru, Mahatma Gandhi, JP’s life was a testimony to selfless service, devotion to common good, non-expectation of rewards and vision of an egalitarian and prosperous India.

Born in a thatched hut in 1902 in Bihar’s Saran district, JP was moved by revolutionary nationalists in his early years. At the age of 14, he started wearing crude village footwear instead of British manufactured shoes, and cleaned them with Indian mustard oil to forgo buying imported polish. In 1920, when Gandhi gave a national call for non-cooperation with the British, JP flung his textbooks into a water tank to emphasise repudiation of the colonial education system.

A chance opportunity took 19-year-old JP to the University of California, USA, in 1922, where he eked out a living drying grapes, washing dishes and doing odd jobs on Sundays. "Equality of human beings and the dignity of labour became real things to me," he would retell later. He read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, as all progressive youngsters of the time did. On graduation in 1929 with a Masters in Social Science, his Professor commended JP for possessing "germs of leadership" and "ideals of human welfare".

On returning to India, Jawaharlal Nehru took the budding socialist under his wing at the Congress Labour Research Department in Allahabad. The problems of industrial labour were sought to be integrated into the Congress manifesto, and like Nehru, JP had differences of opinion with the more conservative Gandhian factions in the party. In 1932, during the renewed Civil Disobedience movement, JP ran an illegal underground office of the Congress in Bombay and managed to stage a Working Committee meeting when the top brass leadership was imprisoned.

In 1934, JP founded the Congress Socialist Party as an adjunct of the main Congress, aiming at elimination of exploitation and indebtedness of poor peasantry. He remonstrated to Nehru that, after Congress acquired power in the 1938 Legislative Councils, "it has been converted from a democratic organisation of millions of downtrodden people into a handmaid of Indian vested interests.

Jailed in Jamshedpur after protesting British attempts to drag India into the Second World War, JP gradually came to dissociate himself from communists who supported the British war effort and justified Stalinist excesses hypocritically. His 16-day fast against ill-treatment of prisoners in Deoli made him a national hero, and more importantly, signalled that Gandhian ideation had replaced Marxism in JP’s mind.

Like a modern-day Shivaji, JP sensationally escaped from incarceration in 1942 at the advent of the Quit India movement, and earned a capture reward of five thousand rupees from the British. Rearrested and savagely interrogated in Lahore prison, JP’s spirit never broke down.

In the final years of colonial rule, JP galvanized masses around India by advocating ‘open revolution’ to bring the edifice of Pax Britannica down. When communal riots broke out in Bengal and Bihar, JP fought for repatriating Muslim evacuees with dignity, which would "deflate Mr.Jinnah’s balloon of a separate Pakistan". His ‘Letters to Freedom Fighters’ won great fame and pan-India circulation in the final years of British rule.

After freedom, JP chose to stay out of the trappings of power and turned into a bulwark of civil liberties and accountable governance. Again, he warned Nehru how corruption is rampant everywhere and even excels the malpractices prevailing in British times. Democracy could only be sustained by a continuous ‘spiritual regeneration’ of India, he argued.

In the '50s, he took a vow of ‘life service’ under Gandhi’s mantle-bearer Vinoba Bhave and championed the cause of land redistribution through bhoodan and village uplift. Unlike the duplicitous leaders of today, JP donated all his ancestral property to the landless, retaining nothing but his personal home. Living in the austere Sokhodeora Ashram as an ascetic, he eschewed calls from within the Congress party and the press for succeeding Nehru as Prime Minister. He also became a staunch advocate of decentralisation of administration so that democracy grew rooted and participatory.

JP was one of the first social thinkers to attribute famine to man-made causes during the starvation crisis of 1966 in Bihar. As he had done in the 1943 Bengal famine, he and his followers took to rural areas nursing the sick and the debilitated, while questioning the inefficiency and dishonesty of politicians in combating it. JP’s followers established nation-wide voter education councils to enlighten the electorate about parties and candidates with criminal records. Naxalism was opposed, but JP warned Indira Gandhi that its socio-economic roots could one day implode and plunge India into chaos if no immediate action were taken against oppression of the poor.

Once the economic conditions of northern India went from bad to worse in the early seventies, JP launched the Sarvodaya Satyagraha to root out unemployment, inflation and corrupt politics. He issued a memorable call to youth to enter the political scene and shake the police-state of Mrs. Gandhi that was upholding injustice.

JP’s image as ‘people’s hero’, which resonates to this day, is largely a result of his spectacular moral mobilisation of the Indian masses for ‘total revolution’ against totalitarian tendencies of Indira Gandhi. It culminated in the one-million-man march in Delhi to present the People’s Charter, demanding free elections bereft of violence and improper use of public servants, and end to black-marketeering and zamindari. At the frail age of 73, he courted arrest once again to set a personal example of sacrifice. After the Emergency was lifted, JP’s followers rode to power in 1977, even as the instigator of the anti-Indira wave chose to solemnly retire to the shadows performing social work.

When JP passed away in 1979, it was widely held that not since Mahatma Gandhi, had a single feeble old man exerted as much influence on India. It was an influence based on morality, ethics, simplicity and service.

During the heyday of the Sarvodaya Movement, illustrious Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar wrote a paean to this inspiring, honest and saintly figure: Jai Jayaprakash. Saara Aasmaan Tumhaara Hain (Hail Jayaprakash, the Entire Welter is Yours). But when I look to the firmament now, there is no JP or even memory and remembrance of a great soul who awakened millions, especially the youth, to pursue national service and a corruption-free India. Today, embezzlement, kickbacks, fraudulence and total disregard of the suffering denizens are accompanied by escapism on the part of well-intentioned and qualified Indians who revel in criticising the ‘system’ but care only for their own personal careers and families.

JP’s remark from prison to a district magistrate in 1975 is worth remembering: "It’s not a matter of my health. It is the health of the nation that needs restoring." That spirit eludes Indians today, a glaring discrepancy which Shashi Tharoor has termed "the divide between India and Indians". The younger generation of Indians, of which I am a part, should consciously pledge on JP’s birth centenary to do justice to his memory and rededicate our skills and energies to the multiple problems facing India.

Sreeram Chaulia
Via e-mail

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