Tahrir not twitterati: the future of middle-class movements in India

If it has to actually challenge the powers that be, the anti-corruption movement must move to real grassroots work and not canvass on astroturf

Siddharthya Swapan Roy
14 March 2012

The issue of widespread corruption in public life in India is incontrovertibly a very grave one. Through its anti-corruption agitations over the past year, various middle-class groups like Team Anna – led by political activist Anna Hazare, the group led by Yoga and Ayurveda magnate Baba Ramdev, were right to foreground the issue. Supported most by the yuppie populace that resides in the major cities of India, they formed an umbrella movement demanding the enactment of the Lokpal legislation which would in turn install an ombudsman invested with sufficient powers to investigate and prosecute all three pillars of the world’s largest electoral democracy – the elected parliamentarians, the executive bureaucracy and the judiciary for charges of corruption.

For a whole knotty swad of reasons – ranging from overreach to lack of cohesive action on to major gaffes by its leaders – the movement failed to pressurise the Indian parliament to legislate the Lokpal. But the apparent failure of the movement notwithstanding, the current ‘middle class’ of India has undoubtedly made its presence strongly felt on the stage of Indian politics. Moving beyond its rhetoric of apolitical neutrality, it is now testing the electoral waters. Whether through electoral ‘revenge’ on Congress in the Hissar polls (where Team Anna actively campaigned against its first political foe ensuring its defeat) or the plans in Goa, Team Anna, the figurehead of the middle-class movement, is making its political ambitions clear. Also what’s becoming clearer every day is that, politically and elsewhere, the middle-class is demanding its pound of flesh.

The middle-class has every right to political participation using slogans they deem fit – and no amount of derision can rob them of that right. But it is also natural to observe that after a crackling show last year inviting unparalleled media coverage, the movement has waned and appears besieged by its clever opponents. From its high point of success, when top faces of government had to eat many a humble pie in full public view, it’s not uncommon now to hear commentators writing off Team Anna. Why so? Is the fizzle-out inevitable? 

The middle class and neo-liberalism

Those interacting in the larger urban masses in India, including this essayist, will attest that citizens of diverse incomes – from slum dwellers earning barely a few thousand rupees a month to executives of top firms earning many lakhs – all nowadays refer to themselves as ‘middle-class’. Today, the ‘middle-class’ of India has come to denote that set of urban Indian people who live in and around the big and small cities and towns of India and the majority of whose members have achieved adulthood in post liberalisation India. In fact from popular representations – such as in the media – what appears to connect the members are the shared experiences and the collective memory of the sights and sounds of neo-liberal India. Whether it is the distinction of being the generation that moved from terrestrial state run TV (Doordarshan) to satellite TV or being witness to the advent of branded consumer products as opposed to the somewhat drab life of earlier times – the current middle class and its set of values and priorities is one which is a result of India’s accession to the ‘free market’.  In other words, the generation of people who have benefited most from the wonders of the free market and having assimilated the exposure to first world skills are currently at the productive peak of their professional lives, have become the face and voice of the eponymous middle class. Armed with the technologies, the sensitivities and the parlance of this era, the middle classes have now taken on the political rulers of the nation.

But we must now ask, whether a movement or the class that engendered it, which bases its identity on the very advent of neo-liberalism, can ignore the socio-economic and political realities brought on by it? Jostling for space and legitimacy in the Indian political spectrum, can it ignore the massive changes which the historical act of opening up India’s economy and the following influx of global capital have induced? If it wishes to steer itself along a path with some credible chance of political success, can the experiences of other third world countries (Latin American for example) that have followed this path of feudalism to neo-liberalism be ignored? 

Right baggage

And secondly, mustn’t it now do away with the baggage of conservative ideas with which a section in the movement seeks to encumber it?

When Anna Hazare, leader of Team Anna, says that alcoholics should be publicly caned after tying them to posts, or the hands of those deemed corrupt chopped off (not to mention publicly hanging them) he highlights his incompatibility with a modern and humane India. When Baba Ramdev claims he can cure nearly everything just by making people breathe correctly (and especially in a nation riddled with public ill health) he underscores his regressive views.

It’s an unacceptable contradiction that this leading component seeks to use the most modern means - satellite TV and the internet - to propagate the most decayed and fetid of ideas under the name of morals, piety, national identity and other vague and vile words. Even if one disseminates such decayed ideas through HD TV or posts them to Facebook, the ideas do not become modern. They remain as ridiculous and malevolent as ever. They politically damage the image of the speaker and the movement beyond repair.

There is also the major issue of the strong presence of the Hindutva (right wing Hindu supremacists). Team Anna has amongst them people who trace their political lineage to anti-lower caste movements. Ramdev is of course an open proponent of Hindu theocratic governance and society. It is these elements which make the movement unacceptable to a plural Indian society. The movement must get this straight – ideas about how to belittle lower castes, other religions and other minority and/or disadvantaged identities (whether linguistic or regional or sexual) is an absolute no go. Given the irreversible plurality and heterodoxy of India’s social and cultural fabric, any group which sports the colours of hateful exclusivity, even camouflaged, will get rejected.

Since the very beginning of history, India has essentially been a coalition of disparate yet agreeing groups, beliefs and ideologies – and also a cohabitation of irreconcilable ones. The very Constitution adopted by India is full to the brim with it. Of course there are deviations – deep gashes in post-independence India like the Gujarat genocide of Muslims or the mass killings of Sikhs and Kashmiris bear bloody witnesses to them. But in totality the quantum of time which the Indian people have spent in living together hugely exceeds the times of animosity.  It must be remembered that due to his role in presiding over the carnage in 2002, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is to date considered a heavy liability by even the closest of allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His extremism has made him such an icon of supremacy and hate that despite heavy and continuous advertisement and state sponsored media programmes projecting him as a man who can make industries with minimal governmental interference – something the yuppie sections of the Indian middle class hails as the ultimate in achieving anti-corruption – his own party is fighting shy of projecting him as a potential prime ministerial candidate.

Indians have continually rejected extremism whether left or right and there is no reason to believe that it will make any exceptions this time. We have agreed to be run by a Constitution and not by mobs and capricious despots. So taking anti-democratic and violent positions will, very rightly, be found unacceptable to all right thinking people. If it is to survive, the movement’s leaders have to rid themselves of such retrograde mentality. Failing which, the movement has to rid itself of such leaders. The middle-class movement in its present form in India declares itself to be a new movement. To make that believable it must necessarily carve out its own identity – an identity which is neither communal nor corrupt. While the evil of corruption must be rooted out, it can most certainly not be replaced with the evil of communal theocracy and arbitrary justice.

Connecting with the masses

Given that the left, right and centre of Indian politics is showing an absolute lack of direction and vacillating like never before, the present times should have been germane to the emergence of new political formations – especially ones that hark back to the practice of ethical politics. But the movement has been more like a flash in the pan, and one of the answers lies in the lack of outreach of the movement.

The ubiquity of relatively well educated and well-heeled people, to which the movement appeals, is an illusion generated by a constrained media view that simply doesn’t cover the issues of the impoverished majority. The reality is that only a small fraction of India’s workforce belongs in the organised sector (28 million out of 397 million) and the yuppie population is an even smaller subset of that. Hence it is incumbent for the movement to win the trust of the larger masses if it is to become sustainable.

But then again to win the trust of the larger masses it must be willing to take note of the distresses which the new order has brought upon them: like the unbridled rise of corporates, their crass profiteering and the resulting loot of public resources; the unrelenting commodification of human beings and natural resources; the rapidly widening chasm between the rich and the poor; imperialism and its wars; the havoc which speculative markets wreak on food, fuel and other essential goods and services; and a myriad other issues that have cropped up in the post liberalisation era. Unless cognisance is taken of the truth that we live in a system that incentivises corruption and cronyism the dream of corruption free-India is foredoomed. The willingness to see the larger picture and bravely accept and contest the systemic issues of modern capitalism is inescapable.

Besides, a real movement must necessarily espouse real causes, giving up the luxury of being merely emotive and skimming the surface. It is not enough to vaguely posture against some faceless villain called ‘the corrupt politician’. If, for example, kickbacks taken by politicians when placing orders to private corporations irk the middle class, then they must be willing to ask if the role of private corporations in public matters needs to be reassessed. If profiteering by those in power is deemed unacceptable then there is a need to ask if a social order based solely on the pursuit of profits is sustainable? If the amassing of money by politicians in personal accounts is unacceptable, then it must be willing to take on a system that celebrates money at any cost and treats the fatness of a bank account as the sole yardstick of success.

The movement essentially positions itself as a contrarian movement that stands opposed to the current crop of corrupt and insular politicians who rule the roost in India’s parliament and the many state assemblies. The very raison d’etre of the anti-corruption movement is its charge that the elected representatives of India are not representative enough and hence the leaders have lost the moral basis to rule. The charges are in many ways true. In a nation plagued with poverty and hunger the loot of public money in scam after scam done year after year runs into billions and billions of dollars – so yes the current crop of legislators are corrupt by no small measure. While India is witnessing hunger, suicide of debt ridden farmers and myriad other manifestations of extreme poverty at an unforeseen scale, the current parliament and set of assemblies has the highest number of millionaires ever elected – so yes the political rulers of India are not really very representative of the Indian people.

But the movement which stands against this corruption and insularity must necessarily get down on to the ground and dirty itself in the process of cleaning. The idea is to be the alternative and not merely pose the alternative. Recent local self-government elections in Maharashtra’s cities, especially Pune which was one of the nerve centres of the anti-corruption movement, throw up a telling irony. Despite ‘huge’ support for the cause of anti-corruption and spontaneous response to calls for rallies, the voter turn-out was dismal and half the city didn’t bother voting. This clearly indicates the political lethargy and superficiality of the movement in its present form. The movement must be willing to step out of the comfortable environs of media debates and TV studios and enter the arena of ground level politics. If it has to actually challenge the powers that be, the movement must move to real grassroots work and not canvass on astroturf!

The young members of the movement must steel themselves into becoming a worthy force in real politics because once in the electoral arena, tags like apolitical, neutral, young, even if genuine, are of little use. Without a concrete agenda which is sincere to its slogans and the will to follow through with it, the use of new technology will not maintain the ‘edge of the young’. Yes every new technology from emails to social networking must be used to the hilt. But the technologies by themselves are no guarantee of success. If one group can blog or tweet so can the other. The only thing that could set them apart is the message they convey. The young urban Indians who wield these technologies will have to decide what they choose to do with it. They must decide whether to go the glossy Twitterati way or take the road to Tahrir.

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