Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Should only politicians have the right to express political opinions?

Recalling the Nehru-JP debate in the late 1950's brings back some interesting points that could be relevant to the current brouhaha around the proposed LokPal Bill

Jayaprakash Narayan, known more familiarly as JP, had been an active Congressman, and a hero of the Quit India movement of 1942, when he eluded the police for months on end and then, when captured, endured solitary confinement and torture in jail. A staunch critic of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies, JP helped form a new Socialist Party in 1948 as a Left-wing alternative to the party in power. He served as the president of all-India unions of railway, postal and defence workers, thus being, in effect, the leader of more than a million men. After the Congress defeated all comers in the 1952 elections, Nehru called JP for talks to explore the possibility of the socialists rejoining the Congress. The talks failed, but by this time JP was losing interest in organised politics altogether. He had become increasingly attracted to the programmes of the Gandhian Vinoba Bhave, who was campaigning for rich landlords to donate, to the poor, excess land ( bhoodan) and, where possible, entire villages (gramdan). JP was inspired to do a jivandan, namely, to offer his own life to the service of this social movement.

In 1957, when India held its second general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan was not formally associated with any political party. However, he retained a strong interest in the present and future of democratic institutions. While the campaigning for the elections was on, JP wrote an extraordinary letter to Nehru, who was both the serving prime minister and the chief vote-getter of the ruling Congress party. In this letter, JP suggested that the prime minister function as a “national rather than a party leader”; that, even while he ran the government, he should “encourage the growth of an Opposition” so as to “soundly lay the foundations of parliamentary democracy” in India. During the elections, JP had tried, and failed, to get Opposition parties to avoid three-cornered contests in individual constituencies, since a division of the vote would benefit only the Congress. “In doing so,” JP told Nehru he was: not guided by dislike of or hostility to the Congress as you have repeatedly been suggesting but merely by certain dispassionate political principles. According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on the track… [A]s a Socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people. So, I realise that if my advice had been followed by the opposition parties, it would have led to some undesirable parties gaining somewhat in strength. I was prepared, however, to take that risk on the ground (a) that between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil and (b) that there would be five years after the election in which a sound opposition party could be created. 

In one of his speeches, Nehru had chastised JP for “playing hide-and-seek” between the pillars of politics and social service. The younger man, he said, “claim[ed] to have given up politics” but “continue[d] to dabble in it.” JP replied that he did “not see why only active party and power politicians should express political opinions and no others. Politics would then be reduced to a sordid party game with which the citizen would have no concern.” There was a particular responsibility for Gandhian “constructive workers” to speak out. These workers, insisted JP, would: betray their ideals if they did not boldly play a corrective role, offering friendly, constructive, non-partisan advice and criticism and, if need be, even opposition in the form of non-cooperation and the like. Nor can eschewing of party politics mean indifference to the manner and outcome of elections. True, those who have eschewed party politics are not expected to take any partisan stand, but they may, with complete consistency, raise general political and ideological issues for the guidance of the electorate, the parties and the candidates.

JP ended his letter on a somewhat despairing note. Whatever the outcome of the elections, he remarked: the verdict is inescapable that the present political system has proved a failure. Therefore, the need after the elections is for the leaders of the country to get together in order to find out if there is a better alternative. I think there is and, in the larger interest of the country, we must seek it out. It is here that your leadership is most needed, because without you this cannot be done. Narayan’s letter extended over six typed pages; Nehru’s reply was even longer. He had “quite failed to understand” what JP meant “by my becoming a national leader, rather than a party leader.” What does a national leader do?” asked Nehru.

Read on: A Dangling Conversation By Ramachandra Guha

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