Listen to this article:
When it arrived on my desk, the first question to unravel was about the authors of the book The Dream of Revolution: A Biography of Jayaprakash Narayan. Bimal Prasad’s name on the cover was somewhat perplexing. The retired academic and India’s Ambassador to Nepal in the early 1990s had passed away several years ago. It couldn’t have been an unknown namesake because the co-author was his daughter, Sujata Prasad, retired civil servant and author of other books.
It then emerged that she was drawn into the work after her father’s death in November 2015. He had begun working on JP’s biography after compiling 10 volumes of his selected works. In Sujata’s words, he left behind a comprehensive blueprint and the book is the fulfilment of a promise made by a daughter to her dying father.
The late academic, and consequently his daughter too, had personal association for decades with JP. Unsurprisingly, the book is a treasure trove of micro-details from the life of one of India’s most significant leaders of the 20th century. This proximity certainly results in an unambiguously sympathetic account of a leader whose career and postures merit admiration as well as criticism. The book falls short of the latter although after a few pages, readers would realise that it is not a critique, and JP is cast in a Napoleonic hue.
Yet, the book is relevant contemporarily because discussions on the absence of political alternatives to the present regime eventually zero-in on the absence of a JP-like persona acting as the pivot. A consensus has rightly been formed in the political discourse that the agitation which led Indira Gandhi to impose Emergency in June 1975 would not have assumed its mass character, but for JP’s towering presence and ability to carry divergent shades of political opinion with him.
Narayan’s catalytic role in the most effective narrative altering post-independence mass movement and eventual formation of the Janata Party government in 1977 cannot be denied. Yet, the centrality of this facet of his life has also limited the public understanding of his political career in its entirety. With poignant writing backed by an almost infinite reservoir of research material, the book presents JP and his life in all its myriad forms, the personal as well as the political.
The author sensitively details the early formative years in Narayan’s life during the latter’s years studying in the United States. This section is enriched by the “richly textured portrait of his time” on the campus. It was during these years that Marxist thought and ideology left a lasting impression on Narayan. These were later articulated in his decades-long advocacy of socialist thought, initially under the aegis of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP).
In contemporary historiography, the existence of the CSP and Narayan’s consistent role as a pressure point, or the watchdog for socialist thought, is often overlooked. In a Congress characterised by varying political views, Narayan assembled support for socialism as a countervailing force and enlisted several others who eventually became stalwarts of the socialist movement. Besides granular details on how Narayan drew out socialist ginger-groups from different parts of India, the book provides glimpses into the price he paid for this.
For instance, in 1937, in the aftermath of the Faizpur, Maharashtra, Congress, the editor of Searchlight, the pro-Congress Patna paper mounted a vicious attack on Narayan. The paper alleged — and this has an uncanny resonance to the present-day farmers’ agitation – that the peasants’ movement championed by Narayan was “packed with unpatriotic subversives”. The book provides a detailed account of his exchange with Rajendra Prasad over Narayan’s support and the former’s opposition to the Patna peasant rallies.
Despite his passion for socialism, the author contends that Narayan was balanced and not obstinate in his pursuit of the idea. His admiration for Gandhi is detailed and it is pointed out that despite disagreeing with the Mahatma on several crucial issues, his political and economic conservatism chiefly, Narayan was certain that the national movement could be waged only “under the leadership of Gandhi”. An in-depth account is provided on the contested Tripuri Congress in 1939, when a crisis was triggered by Subhash Chandra Bose’s reelection as president and Gandhi’s promotion of Pattabhi Sitaramaya. At that stage, Narayan chose to remain neutral because he felt that Gandhi was a “stupendous force of history. We must march with history.”
Despite this support, relations between socialist and the other leaders became more tenuous subsequently and the book narrates this process in great details. Eventually, after Gandhi’s assassination, the space for CSP within the Congress shrunk and finally in 1948 the two groups parted ways. Narayan was left holding the banner of socialism when Nehru was simultaneously locking horns with rightwing forces within the Congress, making any advocacy of the socialist idea from a plank critical of Nehruvianism extremely difficult.
Although Narayan’s legacy is chiefly measured on his role in providing leadership to the agitation against Indira Gandhi’s post-1971 misgovernance and imposition of Emergency, the prime minister and he shared a cordial relationship lasting decades. This has been extensively treated and it is valuable to learn in today’s world of slanderous politics, how Narayan maintained decorum in his criticism while she correspondingly respected a principled adversary.
Undeniably, Narayan provided political legitimacy to the Sangh parivar duumvirate of the RSS and the Jana Sangh. His overarching anti-Congressism made him blind to future dangers from India’s rightwing and saw him making the questionable statement: “If you are a fascist, I too am a fascist,” at a Jana Sangh conclave in March 1975. Furthermore, Narayan’s later call also for institutional rebellion, from the Chief Justice of India to India’s armed forces and police, was extremely dangerous. The book fails in providing details on the process of JP giving such questionable calls, if he had discussed these with colleagues and impact on the anti-Congress platform, as several of his admirers and supporters felt his appeal to the armed forces was treasonous. The authors provide several instances of Narayan’s inconsistencies but the reader gets little insight into what led to these.
As a result, this remains overall an appreciative account of a contentious political career although it seeks to make up by being a detailed history of the oppositional facet of Indian politics, pre- as well as post-independence. Anecdotes, personal archives and scholarly commentaries have been very competently arranged to make the book a eulogy for both subject as well as the scholar whose name is also on the cover as lead author.