Dissenter extraordinaire, JP (Jayaprakash Narayan), was a movement by himself. In hindsight, he was the most controversial politician independent India has ever produced. The storms he threw up, especially in the turbulent 1970s, reached every nook and cranny of the country and shook the nation’s conscience and imagination. Quite interestingly, all the smoke and fire his life had triggered were for causes that would redefine the idea of India.
That takes us to the most important question: Who is this man? After JP’s death in 1979, several scholars and historians have attempted to answer the question and have not been able to offer a comprehensive answer for the mere fact that JP’s multifaceted life defied existing paradigms of how a political human should be.
A few books tried to offer a glimpse into JP’s enigmatic but transparent life, including In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency by Bipan Chandra. But there has been a long-felt need for a comprehensive work on JP and The Dream of Revolution by Bimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad fills the void.
The Emergency years
Historian and diplomat, Bimal Prasad was a professor of South Asian Studies at JNU, Delhi.
A close associate and confidante of JP, Bimal Prasad tracked JP’s life and career, especially the years that preceded his arrest and imprisonment during the Emergency. He passed away in 2015 after attempting this biography. But Bimal Prasad’s daughter Sujata was able to finish the mission and the result is this beautiful, thoroughly researched volume on the movement that was Jayaprakash Narayan.
The Dream of Revolution begins with a very candid vision statement. “Jayaprakash Narayan needs to be rescued from the condescension of posterity and a curious historical amnesia,” writes Sujata Prasad in her charming introduction. As one finishes the book, it is evident that this small, neatly-edited volume does justice to the statement. In terse and tempered prose, Bimal and Sujata Prasad profile a man who at one juncture in history was as popular as Mahatma Gandhi.
JP was a revolutionary, though his revolution didn’t take off as intended. It did collapse and the movement broke and branched out into many channels. That said, JP wasn’t a failure either. He still remains one of the most important corrective forces Indian politics has witnessed in recent history.
The slogans JP raised, against nepotism, elitism, exclusionary politics, authoritarianism, and those in favour of people’s democracy, socialism, participatory rule, social audit of politics, continue to reverberate in Indian polity, even though their colour and character have changed in unrecognisable ways. Simply put, take any politician today, in any party, he will have a slice of JP in him.
JP was a rebel in the right sense of the word. He questioned authority fearlessly and clashed with conventions. He kept looking for new thoughts and norms, which made him question the status quo vociferously. This trait made him an enemy to almost every political party in India, including the rare distinction of being a political leader both Congressmen and Communists loathed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Champion of liberty
Like Mahatma Gandhi, he cherished the dream of a better India where everyone is equal. But unlike Gandhi, JP went the extra mile to embrace socialism.
The Dream of Revolution, with passionate detailing, narrates the story of how JP was moulded by the ideals of Marxism in particular and socialism in general, European enlightenment, Gandhian ideas of non-violence and more. “I was trying to widen the horizons of democracy,” JP wrote in his Prison Diary. But during the Emergency, he witnessed how the ideals of democracy and freedom of speech could be compromised in the hands of authoritarianism and he, till his last breath, remained a champion of liberty and people’s rule. He was a man of the people.
One of the most striking features of the book is its beautiful, lyrical prose. Rarely does one come across such clarity, brevity and charm in non-fiction writing these days. This is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the idea of India, which is incomplete without the story of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan.
The Dream of Revolution: A Biography of Jayaprakash Narayan; Bimal Prasad and Sujata Prasad, Penguin, ₹799.
The reviewer is the founder & publisher of India Art Review.