The rise of the anti-politician

The internet is an angry place, as is obvious from any examination of the comments section of blogs or popular news-sites. Anti-politicians have managed to use this disembodied universe we all increasingly inhabit to stoke people’s anger. 

When the results for the recent Italian elections were announced, there was, unsurprisingly, another gridlock. The most surprising story of the elections is the spectacular breakthrough of Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement (M5S). The M5S reached over 25% of the lower and upper house, while both the major centre-left and centre-right coalitions have just over 30%. This has made Beppe Grillo the king-maker. However, he is a king-maker who refuses to crown a king; one of his promises was not to ally his movement with any of the major parties.

Beppe is a comedian turned blogger turned political rabble-rouser whose philosophy is perhaps best summarised as anti-politics. As a politician, he first stormed into the limelight with his 2007 V-day protests. The V stands for Vaffanculo, or f***-off, addressed to all politicians. He has taken pot-shots at both the left and right in the last few years, focusing on corruption and the 'caste system' in Italian politics where only those already embedded in the hierarchy can aspire to important roles.

Many do not trust Beppe to govern, mostly because he doesn't provide a coherent positive agenda, only a strong voice of opposition. In short, he provides slogans, but no solutions. Some voice their suspicion about the capabilities of his candidates: including a schoolteacher and a construction worker, all of whom are now receiving basic orientation on parliamentary processes. Critics claim Italian politics needs experienced hands to guide the country through the financial crisis. But Beppe’s supporters say fresh faces are the only solution, parliamentarians who are not used to the political wrangling and backroom deals that have paralysed the country.

Maybe Beppe’s rise mirrors (with far greater success so far) the Arvind Kejriwal story in India: a rank outsider who scorns the system and asks voters to register a vote of protest. Both are born from a sense that citizens feel disconnected from political processes that govern their lives, but over which they feel no ownership (in Italy, this is exacerbated by the sense that power has moved within countries to the rich and the connected, and across borders to the EU). For both movements social media was the midwife: the vigorous online activism associated with the Indian anti-corruption movement and Beppe's blog, whose followers formed the initial core of the movement (Beppe has relied largely on social media and gatherings in piazzas since first being outlawed from national TV for his withering, often rude, criticism of politicians). 

Beppe Grillo and Arvind Kejriwal.
Demotix/Stefano Montesi and Demotix/Sarika Gulati. All rights reserved.

The internet is an angry place, as is obvious from any examination of the comments section of blogs or popular news-sites. And both have managed to use this disembodied universe we all increasingly inhabit to stoke people’s anger further. Further, both offer an image of impeccable honesty. One of Beppe's first tweets following the results was about honesty becoming fashionable in Italy again. 

Even the criticisms are the same: while the movements promote versions of direct democracy, both leaders have been accused of autocratic decision-making within their organisations. Both have been criticised for a lack of nuance. Beppe has eschewed traditional media, preferring rallies in packed piazzas and his blog to TV appearances and debates. But that also protects him from cross-questioning. And Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party vigorously condemn corruption but do not address, as clearly, the socio-structural inequities that give rise to corruption. Most importantly, they have both been accused of not offering any constructive agenda. Many critics, including on this website have assessed that Beppe doesn’t want to change anything, only to channel people’s anger.

However, the road to parliament for Kejriwal's party may not be capped by the same spectacular success. In fact, it seems highly improbable. For one, building broad support on issues may not be as easy in India given the fractured nature of the electorate. Support needs to be generated across classes. While some have regarded the Indian anti-corruption movement as just a middle-class outpouring, it did appear to have received broader support. Importantly, the issues of corruption and the distance of national politics and its players from the people could resonate with a much larger audience. The question is: in an electorate where much voting is determined by ethnic/ caste loyalties, would Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) manage to cobble together the necessary alliance? Or could it, unlikely as it seems, actually provide a voice clear enough to cut across such traditional alliances? And do they have the resources and the level of support to generate actual votes, and not just angry voices?

Further, it is important for an independent anti-politics voice to remain precisely that: independent. Throughout his campaign and even in the initial days following the results, Beppe has insisted that he will not ally with either coalition, and instead will only offer issue-based support. This could change; especially given the overtures he has received from the left, with whom he shares broader ideological ground. But in his first response to the left’s invitation, Beppe called their leader a ‘dead man talking’, announced in Beppe’s showman style in front of a banner where the left leader’s face was superimposed on a zombie movie poster

Similarly, to retain integrity and a sense of credibility, the AAP should maintain its distance from sections of the opposition and their divisive politics. In opposing the ruling coalition, the earlier protests in India saw participation from elements from the Hindu right (though admittedly since then, Kejriwal has condemned political graft both in the ruling INC-led coalition and in the leading right-wing opposition party, the BJP). To be truly anti-politics, one cannot simply rely on the politicians in the opposition, but must present a new vision that does not contain any of the existing political grammar. 

The question that faces supporters and critics in both countries (and possibly in other electorates where an independent voice is emerging) is: can these anti-political angry voices actually offer any solutions? Or maybe there’s another question we should be asking: are parliamentary decision-making and associated processes the only, or the overwhelmingly important, sites for practising democracy? Or are there new venues emerging for people’s voices, including the piazzas and the blogs? These sites and related protests are worth taking note of, even if the emerging voice is one of only anger. This anger is crucial, perhaps not for immediate policy (for which, these voices could often only lead to deadlock), but because such anger could have large long-term consequences. Either it could help reimagine the political space, or it could be hijacked by radical politics on either end of the spectrum.

Demotix/Donatella Giagnori and Demotix/Rohit Gautam. All rights reserved.

But then, maybe there is no real anti-politics. The condemnation of the political classes is itself a hugely political act. And the anti-politician does not remain one for very long. When Berlusconi first burst onto the political stage, he presented himself as the outsider who was not 'political'. As he reinforced his grip on power and stretched his reign for almost two decades (seemingly impervious to public opinion and even court rulings), he eventually embodied all that he apparently despised: the consummate politician. 
About the author

Kaushik Barua works with an international development agency and is based in Rome. He has previously written for The Guardian and The Indian Express. His first novel Windhorse, based on the Tibetan resistance, will be published in 2013 by Harper Collins India.