The aam aadmi’s maverick

The original disrupter, Raj Narain was nevertheless an advancer of people’s causes, a true Lok Bandhu

ajay

Ajay Singh | March 13, 2018


#Indira Gandhi   #Lok Bandhu   #Raj Narain   #Arvind Kejriwal  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

His green turban and bulky body used to define his persona. Raj Narain was not an ordinary leader. For his political adversaries, he was a foe who would ignite terror in their hearts. In the 1970-80s, many had learnt the lesson that it would be a mistake to cross paths with the Lok Bandhu, as he was popularly known.

Milestones

  • Born in November 1917 in Varanasi
  • In 1971, he stood in Lok Sabha elections from Rae Bareli against prime minister Indira Gandhi
  • He was defeated. Accused Gandhi of electoral malpractice and won the case
  • This led to Gandhi’s disqualification and imposition of Emergency in India in 1975
  • Gandhi lifted the state of Emergency in January 1977, dissolved Lok Sabha and arranged for fresh elections
  • Narain once again stood against her from the Rae Bareli constituency and defeated her with a margin of more than 50,000 votes
  • The Janata alliance also swept the election throughout north India to form the majority in the parliament (Lok Sabha)
  • Narain joined the Morarji Desai government and became minister of health and family welfare
  • His stint as a minister lasted just over a year when he and Charan Singh were asked to resign for criticising the Janata government
  • He was instrumental in making Charan Singh the prime minister in 1979

 

The powerful Indira Gandhi too learnt it the hard way in 1974, when her election as MP was declared invalid by justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad high court. The petitioner in the case was Raj Narain. She was forced to impose the Emergency on the nation and later rued her enmity with the person she used to dismiss as nothing more than a village maverick.

Maverick he was, in every sense of the term. With the physique of a wrestler, Raj Narain’s pugnacity knew no bounds. He could take on all high and mighty – for a cause. And more often than not, his causes were germane to common people, the aam aadmi. Much before Arvind Kejriwal politically monopolised a movement launched by Anna Hazare and turned the phrase into a trademark with his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), it was Raj Narain who symbolised the real common man.

I did not have the fortune of interacting with him as a journalist, though I had seen him fleetingly at public gatherings. But I’d heard so many stories and anecdotes about him that I wish I had met him. People close to him recount these tales with a rare fondness and nostalgia. And these stories reveal that behind the haughtiness was a person full of compassion, humour, kindness and a lot of human vulnerability.

One story relates to how he would call friends and loyalists to hold a dharna outside the Varanasi residence (in the Aurangabad locality) of then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kamalapati Tripathi. From morning to evening he would hold the dharna and conclude it when Tripathi would send an emissary out with some cash and advice: “Let him eat something and rest, so that he may have the energy to continue with the dharna the next day.” Raj Narain would heartily accept the money – right in front of his supporters – and take everyone along for a feast, only to return the next day to resume the offensive.

Also worth recounting is another story about his magnanimity. After he defeated Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli during the 1977 elections, a group of enthusiastic socialist workers tried to storm her official residence in Delhi to demand that she vacate the house immediately. Raj Narain was then in Rae Bareli. When he learnt of this, he telephoned the leader of the group told him clear out with his followers immediately. He told the group leader, “I have defeated her in the court of law and also in the court of the people. Now there is no need to humiliate a defeated general.”

There are stories galore. A close associate of Raj Narain recalls that one day an industrialist came to see him and gave him a packet containing Rs 10,000 in cash. Raj Narain immediately distributed Rs 9,500 from it among his associates, in various amounts depending on their needs, and retained Rs 500 for a feast with his friends. Such a casual attitude to oneself was part of his personality, which he apparently had cultivated since childhood. He would hardly care about himself when it came to politics. As of today, nobody knows about his family and their politics. Like a true socialist, he maintained a distance from his family in public life, a trait that stands in stark contrast to most so-called practitioners of socialism in politics today, for example, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and their ilk.

I can vividly recall pictures of those times when Raj Narain would be taken out of parliament by marshals for creating such a ruckus that it was nearly impossible for the house to function. He could justly be described as an incorrigible disruptor of parliamentary proceedings. But again, his disruptions were strongly linked to people’s causes. Old-timers still recall with  nostalgia how Raj Narain would take up people’s issues in such a way that the aam aadmi could relate to them.

In 1977, when the Janata Party came to power, he once again came across as a divisive figure who played a critical role in the  breaking up of the party. In support of his friend Chaudhary Charan Singh, who had fallen out with Morarji Desai, he attacked the then prime minister and took on everyone who came in the way. In justice HR Khanna’s autobiography, Neither Roses Nor Thorns, Raj Narain is recorded as having  played a crucial role in the formation of the Charan Singh government. Once again, it was a measure of Raj Narain’s gullibility that he trusted Indira Gandhi, who was nursing a deep-seated grudge against him and Charan Singh. Obviously, the political experiment was short-lived as Indira Gandhi pulled the rug from under Charan Singh’s feet and discredited the Janata Party experiment.

Before his death in 1986, his last days were quite pathetic. My former colleague and intrepid photographer, the late Sanjeev Premi, once narrated to me how he saw Raj Narain sitting alone on a road divider near Lucknow’s Hazrat Ganj as the man who had escorted him had left him there while bringing a vehicle to take the leader along. Raj Narain had reached such a stage that he couldn’t walk a step without an aide to hemp him. Premi rushed to capture on camera the tragedy of a man who once moulded the destiny of India, more for the better than the worse.


(The article appears in the March 15, 2018 issue)

 

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