Of course there’s a big difference between JP’s movement and that of Anna’s. And I’m not talking of how one was led by a seasoned politician—however ambiguous his ideology and political affiliation—while the other, Anna Hazare, is more like a “neighbourhood elder”, as Ashis Nandy memorably puts it: “familiar, unassuming and perhaps slightly dumb”. It’s something else that separates them—Jayaprakash Narayan stumbled on his movement, almost by accident, weeks after it had started—a spontaneous outburst of public rage against corrupt politicians. Anna, however surprised he might privately be by the enthused masses he’s attracting, is certainly not hanging on to the tailcoats of youthful protesters. JP claimed he was inspired by Gujarat’s student protesters. Anna, on the other hand, is the inspiration behind his own movement.
JP’s movement was sparked off not by JP but by a bunch of engineering college students in Ahmedabad whom we’ve long forgotten. They were protesting a steep hike in their canteen bills in December 1973. Protests and strikes were hardly unusual in the ’70s, with its food shortages, escalating prices, caps on government salaries. But when people began blaming the price rise on politicians, accusing them of colluding with traders and blackmarketeers, it was a portent. Instead of taking heed, the then chief minister of Gujarat, Chimanbhai Patel, carried on as most CMs of his day did, and still do: please the boss, Indira Gandhi in this case, and forget the people until the next elections. Ordered by the Congress high command to contribute his share to the party’s poll funds, Patel got into a deal with the state’s peanut oil traders. In exchange for the donations he asked for, he agreed to look the other way while they overcharged consumers. It was the spark that lit a mass movement that overthrew him.