An Year of the Streets in India: Did The Protests Really Help?

Posted on January 26, 2012

By Waled Aadnan:

On 18 December 2010, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself. The wheels of time grind slow, but they grind fine, or so they say. The immediate cause of this act of protest in Tunisia was undue harassment by officials yet its underlying causes aptly symbolise the ills of 21st century civilisation. A civilisation of tremendous discrimination and limited class mobility, whether the classes are economic, racial, religious, sectarian or otherwise. Bouazizi’s symbolic death in early January set in motion a chain of events that has seen the following year 2011 to be a year of the man on the street. It inspired the fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; it also sparked protests and similar self-immolation bids in scores of countries in the Arab World. Later in the year, the First World tired of a prolonged recession. Thus came Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street which quickly turned international with protestors in nearly a thousand cities across the globe venting anger against corporate greed and economic mismanagement in their respective countries. Indeed, 2011 turned out to be a year of popular uprisings across the world: varying in ideological colour, modus operandi and aims yet synchronised such that each uprising inspired the next in a network of dissent across the globe.

Parallelly in India

Almost in parallel, in India the 2G scam had seen the public exchequer cheated of an estimated trillion rupees. In one go, this mother-of-all-scams had put all its predecessors in Indian democracy’s “chequered” history to shame.

Enter Anna Hazare. Most Indians hadn’t heard of him back on April 4. A day later, he began a fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in protest against governmental lethargy in passing the Jan Lokpal Bill to create an ombudsman that would check corruption in the corridors of power.

The Hijack

In a fascinating turn of events that was hardly visible to the undiscerning spectator, the agitation was hijacked. Within days, the entire mainstream media had thrown its corporate backed weight behind the movement. Television news channels flashed every happening at Jantar Mantar to viewers across the country. This was hailed as India’s second coming, the re-run of the Freedom Struggle, the Mahatma this time round? Anna Hazare! A dedicated team calling themselves an oxymoronic Team Anna managed to make out of the agitation, a spectacle that sells to television viewers. Here was India’s Tahrir Square; an opportunity to do for the country what the brave souls of Egypt had done for theirs. And what better, here was Hazare sitting infront of a giant portrait of Gandhi; a non-violent movement at that! And here was the Indian Government arrogantly dismissing the movement then belatedly gauging its impact and scampering for a repartee.

Here was a ready-made Freedom Struggle for all and sundry to participate and become freedom fighters by their own right, without too much pain. The images and sentiments evoked struck deep. In strictly commercial terms, the branding of the “event” (as it basically is) was adapted to suit changing circumstances and demands. When Hazare’s alleged links to the RSS threw a spanner in the way of enlarging the support base, the campaign was “secularised” with more acceptable “brands”: the portrait of Bharat Mata replaced by that of Gandhi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar playing a less and less important role in proceedings and Baba Ramdev fading out of the picture. In an article in The Outlook in September, Rahul Pandita and Jatin Gandhi noted the deja vu effect – “Just about everything about the Anna movement has been choreographed to draw parallels with and evoke sentiments of Gandhi’s own struggle.”

Two important questions arise here. Firstly, why did India Inc support the movement, if at all? Secondly, what was the nature of the mass support that Hazare received in the months following April?

To answer the first, the Jan Lokpal Bill that Hazare demanded was one that created checks and balances on the functioning of the legislature and the executive, maybe even the judiciary. But it had no such regulations for corruption in the private sector, which had often facilitated as well as benefitted from the menace. Besides, Hazare was proving very successful in convincing the masses that the JLB was the antidote to all their sufferings. Increased governmental efficiency could only help structurally reform the economy while the finger of suspicion pointed towards India Inc by the 2G scam would be turned away in the euphoria of the Jan Lokpal Bill like the sins that Indians have washed away in the Ganges for generations. It was a convenient way to have the cake (read profits) and eat it too.

Encore of the Freedom Fighters: A Virtual Reality Dilemma

The second question pertains more directly to the global nature of protests during the year. Athough it wouldn’t be entirely correct to posit that the agitation drew its support from only certain segments of the masses, yet the very nature of the agitation was such that it appealed to mostly young, middle class youth.

Media reports would have you believe that the Hazare movement was the natural culmination of a sense of deep-seated disgust among the masses towards corruption. What actually transpired was something much more complex. Take the general frustrating idea of a corrupt country, add to that the youthful zeal to bring about revolutions (inspired both by the Arab tumult as well as the cricketers’ heroics in the World Cup). Couple that up with the appealing idea of participating in a second Freedom Struggle and being the new-generation heroes and we had a recipe for disaster.

Yes, the movement did draw support from a diverse populace. Yet those who weren’t part of the recipe jotted down above were there against corruption, not necessarily in support of Hazare or his BIll. Furthermore, the Bush-like noises coming from Team Anna that one could either be for Anna or for corruption drove the newly “awakened” middle class to the movement. The worldwide discrimination referred to earlier is of such a character in India that the poor in their “Slumdog India” were too engaged with their perennial struggle for one or two square meals to be able to afford a thought to Hazare, whereas the rich of “Shining India” barring the political class had too much riding in it for them anyway.

Thus, Team Anna rode on a wave of virtual reality to project a movement of 50,000, or even 500,000 as a means to blackmail Parliament into action on the Jan Lokpal.

Actually Confronting the Establishment: A Failure

Where the Hazare movement first began to falter was when it seemingly diverged from its specified aims to fight corruption through the enactment of the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament and the repatriation of black money stashed away in Swiss and other foreign banks. This was when Hazare, instead of counting his gains, launched an all-out attack on the Congress party by campaigning against it in the Hisar elections in Haryana. This is when the hypocrisy of the new-age freedom fighters turned into a double-edged sword for Hazare. Although willing to participate in the odd dharna or a protest march holding candles and wearing ‘I Am Anna’ Nehru caps, they were unwilling to enter into confrontations with an enemy with a face, be it the might of the Family (there is only one in India) or the jail officials in the scuppered Jail Bharo movement (which more than 80% of those supporting Hazare in the first place refused to be a part of during a survey in December). It will be wrong to argue that the protesters stood by Anna as long as he was apolitical. That involves a flawed definition of what being political is. The movement, by trying to influence policy from the outset, was political throughout.

Response from the Political Class

By midnight of 29th December when the Rajya Sabha was adjourned with the Bill in limbo, it was clear that the political class of the day could not or would not come to a consensus to draft a strong Lokpal Bill.

Regional parties including UPA allies opposed the compulsory creation of Lokayuktas in the state to preserve their own interests, using the garb of the move interfering with the federal structure of the Indian Union.

The main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party courted Hazare as long as he played into their hands by opposing the Congress and projected it as a party opposed to eradicating corruption to serve its own selfish interests. The moment the Congress gained ground by actually tabling the Bill in Parliament, the BJP turned table to deny the UPA Government the privilege of enacting an anti-corruption law and earning brownie points before crucial state assembly elections in January-March 2012.

Whither 2012?

This narrow bickering ensured that India saw the end of an eventful year not far from where it had started from. Hazare’s movement lost steam due to its increasingly confrontational stance and the man’s poor health and virtual reality superheroes of the middle class returned to the cosy confines of their private lives.

Across the world, the movements have moved in different directions. In Egypt, the military takeover after Hosni Mubarak’s departure saw another round of street protests. Civilian rule is not yet achieved in many of the countries that saw the Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street continues to occupy the newsfeeds and is expected to play a part in shaping the Presidential elections in the US of A this coming year. While in India, people are slowly returning to their pre-Anna existences, the cricket team has lost six away Tests in a row, Sachin is yet to reach his century of centuries and Hazare lies recuperating from weakness that may prove to draw curtains on the agitation as we have known it.

A candlelight march, anyone?

Author bio: Waled Aadnan is a student of Economics at Presidency University, Kolkata.

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