June 16, 2011
Governance & Politics
Politics of Protest
By Nitin Desai
Anna Hazare and Ramdev have taken up a campaign against corruption and black money– out of sincere belief in one case and as an opportunistic issue for self-projection in the other. It is an issue that resonates well in the educated classes which feel insulted by the brazen corruption that has come to light recently. But the Tamil Nadu elections, where the principal guilty party, the DMK, lost many seats but saw only a modest erosion in the votes polled, suggests that the electorate at large is still swayed by other concerns.
The cancer of corruption in politics must be addressed. But the methods chosen by the anti-corruption campaigners could endanger other aspects of our system of governance that we value highly. Constitutional democracy is eroded by the executive giving self-appointed spokespersons of the people more importance than the elected representatives. The processes of policy formation are distorted by incorporating persons who are not accountable to the legislature or the executive in operational policy making. But the greatest challenge is to a democratic political culture. Protests that hold out the prospect of social violence and seek to coerce an elected government threaten to overwhelm the ethos of a democracy where differences are mediated through elections, party politics and parliamentary debate.
Part of the reason for this is the sheer incompetence of the UPA Government in handling the politics of protest. Setting up a National Advisory Council of NGOs that drafts legislation, buying time by incorporating civil society reps in an operational process for drafting the Lokpal Bill, sending four ministers and a battalion of secretaries to cajole Ramdev to call off his fast and then sending in the police in force to break up his meeting are all symptoms of confusion.
If all that is at risk is the present government then perhaps not much is at stake. It is recovering its composure and hitting back now and the risk will pass. But the fact is that our polity faces a deeper problem of learning how to cope with the persistence of protest and violence in the vocabulary of politics.
Protest is in our DNA as a nation. By 1920, the political leadership of the freedom movement passed from those who espoused constitutional processes to those who believed in civil disobedience and street protest. Gandhiji was the main architect of this transition but there were others like Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai who played an important role. But note also that in their effort to reach the masses, these leaders used religious symbols, predominantly Hindu like Ganpati puja, cow protection, or in Gandhiji’s case, a renunciatory lifestyle. Jinnah, secular by temperament, had to resort to religion in an even more fundamental way to establish a mass political base. Religion has never been very far away from the processes of political mobilisation for almost a century now. A brief, aggressively secular Nehruvian interlude led us to forget this. Hence the first challenge is to find a modality for mass mobilsation that transcends religious and caste divisions.
There is a certain theatrical quality about protest because it uses the language of gestures. The acts of protest- shouting slogans, disrupting traffic, breaking shop windows, fasting, courting imprisonment and, as an extreme case, striking terror- are not in themselves capable of realising the aims of protest. They draw attention to the aims in an arresting way. (Pun not intended!) The aim of the protest is the same as of a theatrical performance – that of grabbing the attention of the audience with a gesture that conveys meaning better than words alone. Gandhiji was an absolute master in the theatre of politics. The Salt March to Dandi was a spectacular instance of this and it had a remarkable effect in rejuvenating a demoralized freedom movement.
Anna Hazare’s and Ramdev’s fast have this theatrical air about them with fellow performers and bit players joining them and a live audience providing the applause when needed. The impact of extra-constitutional protest politics has been enhanced now with 24/7 coverage by TV news channels and willing sutradhars in TV anchors competing for ratings.
Protests do have a role to play even in a democracy. A society that is successful in handling conflicts is in a state of ‘controlled rebellion’ with organised modes for expressing conflict but preserving unity. In the words of Georges Balandier, a political anthropologist, “The supreme ruse of power is to allow itself to be contested ritually in order to consolidate itself more effectively”. Anna Hazare’s fast and Ramdev’s theatrics are best seen as this type of contestation. The NAC is a more decorous instance of a ritual opposition to the realities of power.
To cope with this political leaders must master the art of the gesture and understand better the rituals and protocols of protest. Indira Gandhi did this when she travelled to Belchi in Bihar on an elephant to sympathise with some Dalits under attack. A closely related competence has to be a subtle skill in the management of the feverish 24/7 TV news channels.
Civil society, on its part, must also understand the limits to the ruling classes’ tolerance when protests escalate to large scale disruption. That is the stage we are at with the anti corruption crusade. The crusade will lead to some change but the basic structures of economic and political power will not be disturbed as long as the elites in charge do not loss their nerve.
For protests to become a game changer we need leaders who can work with elites and the masses at the same time. That is how they can help society overcome its weaknesses. Gandhiji did this by helping a society coerced into submission to overcome its sense of fear. Nehru persuaded a stagnant society that it could change and grow into prosperity. Jayaprakash restored our faith in the power of the people. They did this because they appealed both to the masses and to the political and media elite.
Does Anna Hazare have the charisma to persuade the mass of citizens to be ready for a long haul? Can he build a viable coalition? Will the appeal of his simplicity survive the attention deficit disorder of the chattering classes? Time will tell; but right now the odds are that the empire will strike back and survive.