Most popular recollections of Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan's career are framed by the remembrance of his role as moral leader of the widespread unrest that shook North India between 1974 and 1975. These were years marked by the crisis of the political system in India, the collapse of important ideals and structures, as well as the birth of movements and political trajectories central to the history of contemporary India. Seen through the optic of the dramatic events that led to the declaration of Emergency (1975-77) in India, two contrasting and polarised images of JP emerge. One in which he appears as a populist leader, fueling the impulse of anti-Congress feelings who is, however, co-opted by the opportunist logic of the disparate groups that integrated the Janata Coalition as well as fixated on deposing Indira Gandhi. And the second image is marked by the selfless idealism of his devotion and the wooly enthusiasm of his programme of Total Revolution.
But who was JP really? What was his project? How can we think of him today beyond the iconoclasm and radicalism of his later days?
To begin to address these questions, we should start by noting that the events of 1974-75 meant for him the culmination of a long career of opposition and protest, marked by an open embrace of ambiguity and contradiction.
Born in 1902, Jayaprakash grew up during the unfolding of the swadeshi movement and came to age with the Non-Cooperation satyagraha, at a time of significant radicalisation of anticolonial activity in British India. As a young man, he defended Marxist orthodoxy and sought to radicalise the Indian National Congress through the promotion of the goal of socialism. During the 1930s and 40s, he harshly criticised Gandhi as reactionary and wielded a fiery leftist rhetoric. 'Revolution', he proclaimed in 1946, 'is my religion.' He acted as leader and inspiration to a group of leftist radicals, including Rammanohar Lohia and Madhu Limaye, and served as a bridge between these younger figures and the older stalwarts of the Congress.
In later decades, however, he came to embrace Gandhi´s position on moral practice, voluntarism and self-sacrifice. To the surprise, and annoyance, of his old comrades, during the 1950s he drew away from raj-niti or power politics and concentrated for years on programmes of village uplift and the promotion of Vinoba Bhave´s Bhoodan movement. This political swerve also entailed a transformation of his personal demeanour that startled contemporary observers.
The British journalist Hallam Tennyson would describe JP's metamorphosis as follows: 'He walks slowly, moves his hand in deliberate, hieratic gestures, talks as quietly as Vinoba himself and has ironed all trace of passion from his fine, strong face which is dominated now (…) by the grave, grey eyes.'
'He walks slowly, moves his hand in deliberate, hieratic gestures, talks as quietly as Vinoba himself and has ironed all trace of passion from his fine, strong face which is dominated now (…) by the grave, grey eyes.'
Little remained of JP's former image as a fiery orator and an instigator to revolutionary action.
In 1957, he acknowledged that 'to the outsider' the past course of his life could appear 'as a zigag (sic.) and tortuous chart of unsteadiness and blind groping.' This apparent lack of coherence caused important rifts between him and old friends, notably Nehru and Rammanohar Lohia, and led to his marginalisation from leftist and socialist circles, which had been his natural political habitat since the 1930s. However, despite acknowledging the 'groping' of his ideological and political path, he assured that 'it (had) certainly not (been) blind', but rather guided by 'a uniform line of development'.
Despite giving up on his former party and institutional affiliations in the 1950s, JP never sought to abandon politics. Indeed, he thought it impossible to do so. In a letter to Nehru written in 1957, JP explained: ' When I say that I am not in politics I mean that I am not in competitive politics or party politics or power politics. But politics as such is all pervasive and no one in modern society can be out of politics even if he wished to be so.'
When I say that I am not in politics I mean that I am not in competitive politics or party politics or power politics. But politics as such is all pervasive and no one in modern society can be out of politics even if he wished to be so.'
In that same letter, JP made it clear that for him politics was constitutive of social life, and could not be escaped: '(e)ducation is politics, health is politics and trade and commerce are politics. The very food we eat is politics.'
Beyond its varied guises, JP´s wider project was focused on the regeneration of politics as a way of fostering the regeneration of social life. He saw himself as a continuator of the moral legacy of figures like Aurobindo and Gandhi, as well as a promoter of a true revolution. His was an ambiguous and open-ended project. It brought together languages and attitudes now identified as anti-political; it preceded the claims for social autonomy, economic decentralisation and popular power hoisted by social movements and NGOs since the late 1970s; finally, it also came together, in discursive and practical terms, with the programme of cultural and constructive work advanced by important sectors of the Jana Sangh for decades.
For all these reasons, JP remains an unclassifiable figure. He was not dogmatic, despite having a fundamentally moral perception of politics; he was deeply concerned with ideas, despite overly rejecting ideological rigidity; he was bent on revolution, despite appearing at times to be deeply conservative; he was undeniably political, despite forcefully dismissing power politics.
His contradictory and fruitful legacy is probably best defined in terms of a devotion to protest. From this angle, his investment in ideologically disparate projects—ranging from political parties to NGO workers and Sarvodaya volunteers—and currents of thought—ranging from orthodox Marxism to Hindu nationalism—does not necessarily speak of the inconsistency of his thought, but could instead be seen as a sign of his energy and flexibility.
JP was a contradictory and baffling thinker, a tireless agitator, and a full-time politician. Today, almost half a century since his death in 1979, he remains an inescapable point of reference for the contemporary history of politics in India. It is time to move beyond the polarising memory of JP´s leadership in the 1970s. We now have the opportunity to start thinking seriously, and critically, about the ways in which his life-long political engagement helped to frame and inaugurate political trajectories—both statist and anti-statist, on the left and on the right—still being played out in the arena of Indian politics today.