Posts Tagged ‘Middle class’

Movements such as Hazare’s may promote the corporate agenda (Prabhat Patnaik)

In Uncategorized on September 8, 2011 at 6:51 pm

From: The Telegraph

September 8 , 2011

– Movements such as Hazare’s may promote the corporate agenda

Prabhat Patnaik

Anna Hazare’s fast is over, but the conjuncture of which that fast was an episode is not: Hazare’s own movement, or other similar movements, are bound to recur in the coming months. The question naturally arises: what are these movements all about? And to start with: what was Hazare’s own movement all about? It was certainly not about “corruption” in any definable sense. That word meant different things to the different people who thronged the Ramlila grounds. For some, it was what caused prices to rise; for others, it was what underlay the dynastic politics of the Congress; for still others, it was synonymous with “job reservation policy”. Ironically, though the jan lok pal bill, on which “Team Anna” was so insistent, might have received symbolic support from all who had gathered there, it meant little to them. The crowds that converged on Ramlila Maidan were animated not by the prospects of some specific piece of legislation but by a general sense of disenchantment for which “corruption” became a portmanteau expression.

But the life and character of a movement are often as independent of the intentions of its leaders as of the motives of its participants. The movement has to be looked at “from the outside” to determine its character and outcome. The point to consider therefore is: what has the pervasive disenchantment that found expression in the Hazare movement ultimately yielded?

In an obvious sense, it has resulted in, or heralded, at least five major shifts. First, it has led to a shift towards the urban middle class and away from other classes in terms of socio-political influence. True, the gathering at Ramlila Maidan drew people from all classes, but the predominant presence was of the urban middle class, whose assertiveness and weight have, consequently, increased. Second, it has led to a shift towards non-political actors belonging to the so-called “civil society”, and away from political actors, in terms of influence in decision-making. (In this sense it represents the continuation of a trend that started with the formation of the national advisory council). Third, within “civil society” it has led to a shift of influence away from those who are willing to work within the political framework (not the same as being pro-government) towards those who are willing to challenge it. Fourth, it has led to a shift from the secular domain to the domain of the quasi-religious in the language and symbolism of protest. (Even “Bharat Mata”, one must not forget, represents a quasi-religious symbol). And fifth, within the political sphere, it has led to a shift towards the communal Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party, and away from secular formations, a fact underscored by the Star News-Nielsen opinion survey (The Telegraph, September 4).

These shifts are not just happenstance; they are integrally interlinked. In the old system, where vying for power was confined to political parties, the influence of any class, including the urban middle class, had to be exercised through its relative weight inside the political parties. And even though the leadership of political parties usually came from the urban middle class, the compulsions of electoral politics meant that its influence had to be balanced against that of other, numerically stronger, classes, even inside political parties. Its political influence therefore fell far short of its economic weight, a contradiction that got accentuated as its economic weight increased greatly under neo-liberalism. Greater assertiveness on its part, therefore, necessarily requires by-passing the electoral process, and hence the traditional political system. Statements made at Ramlila Maidan about parliamentarians being anpadh and ganwar, though subsequently regretted for not being de rigueur, were authentic expressions of this middle class angst. And if middle class activism is to by-pass traditional parties and the parliament that stands at the pinnacle of the political system, then it must be expressed through some other agencies; the obvious candidates here are the “civil society organizations”, especially those that are willing to challenge the legitimacy of the political system.

The situation, however, is ironical. The political system, based on the Constitution that emerged out of an implicit social contract forged during the anti-colonial struggle, represents, despite all its distortions, the highest water-mark of our social awareness, compared to which the contemporary social consciousness of the average member of the urban middle class constitutes a marked retrogression. Hence, any recession in the primacy of the political, any special privileging of the influence of the urban middle class over that of other segments of society, any ceding of ground by Parliament to those elements of “civil society” which challenge the political system, necessarily means social retrogression.

“Civil society” activism that is not centred on concrete demands addressed to the political system, cannot do without quasi-religious symbolism; it necessarily carries within itself the germs of socio- political inegalitarianism. Consider, for instance, even an apparently unexceptionable “moral” crusade against “corruption”. In a society where religion forms the basis of morality, any such “moral” crusade necessarily tends to become quasi-religious. Since the majority religion in India is intrinsically inegalitarian and upholds the caste system (eminent historian Suvira Jaiswal has even argued that the caste system is the core of Hinduism), any relapse into religious symbolism is socially retrograde. The dalit scepticism about the Hazare movement represents an intuitive appreciation of this fact. The point, in short, is that the different shifts essayed by the Hazare movement are inter-linked and occur independently of its leaders’ intentions.

The implications of these shifts for democracy have been much discussed, and need not be pursued here. What is of concern here is a different point, namely that these shifts are significant not just in themselves, but for an even stronger reason: they in turn are transitions to a further, and altogether different, shift. The urban middle class has no clear agenda to pursue. It can neither perceive nor suggest any way out of the disenchantment it shares with others. It does not even relate that disenchantment to any underlying structures, let alone to any immanent tendencies of capitalism (one, incidentally, does not have to be a socialist to do this): its perceptions are limited to dichotomies like “honesty-dishonesty”, “moral-immoral”, “greed-sacrifice”. Not that one should pooh-pooh these terms, but they are never located in its discourse within any structures. No wonder then that it is in need of “messiahs”, and can only think of curbs on “corruption” through the institution of the ombudsman as the panacea for disenchantment.

Too pusillanimous to visualize putting any obstacles to the immanent tendencies of neo-liberal capitalism, it takes the path of least resistance by targeting the State alone, which happens to be in conformity with the proclivities of corporate capital. Far from confronting the immanent tendencies of capitalism, it conforms to those tendencies and becomes implicitly an agency for carrying them forward. Consider, for instance, the emphasis on “corruption” and the suggestion that it essentially resides among State personnel, that is the bureaucracy and the “political class”. The immediate inference that will be drawn from such a campaign is that any payment of taxes to the State is money “down the drain”, and hence the demand will be for a reduction in the “tax burden”. This, in turn, will necessitate a reduction in State expenditure; and since State expenditure on “security”, interest payments and basic salaries cannot be cut, the reduction will have to be in sectors like health, education, other social services and transfer payments to the poor. This, in turn, will necessitate the further privatization of a whole range of activities and services like education and health.

In short, the consequence of the hullabaloo over “corruption”, seen primarily as an integral part of the functioning of the State, is to delegitimize the State and usher in further privatization, and hence commercialization, of a range of activities still undertaken by the State. This can only hurt the poor, and it amounts to a carrying forward of the agenda of financial and corporate interests, which want precisely a combination of tax reduction and privatization of what have hitherto been considered as State responsibilities.

The irony here is striking. Much of the big ticket corruption that has attracted attention recently, such as 2G spectrum, has been associated with privatization of State property; but the effect of fuzzy, moralistic movements such as Hazare’s that are bred in opposition to such “corruption” and draw sustenance from the middle class is likely to be further privatization. Such movements, notwithstanding laudable intentions, tend to end up furthering the agenda of corporate and financial interests.

The author is a former professor, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


Anna Hazare, corruption and the middle-class (Shashank Kela)

In Perspective on September 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm

From: Himal SouthAsian

Web Exclusive

06 September 2011

Anna Hazare, corruption and the middle-class

By Shashank Kela

The movement around the Jan Lokpal Bill was driven by an agenda that chimes with the concerns of the middle class.

The polemic around Anna Hazare’s movement gets curiouser and curiouser. Until recently its composition seemed fairly clear – it was a movement of the middle-class, by the middle-class, for the middle-class, the word being used in its widest sense to signify the whole range from lower middle-class to somewhere below the very top. Many things seemed to bear this out – the flag-waving nationalism, the patriotic songs and slogans, the Hinduised idiom, most of the faces visible on television, interviews with volunteers of India Against Corruption. However Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam’s largely positive report from Ramlila Maidan during the late fast (carried on kafila.org) presented a somewhat different picture – according to them, most of the participants in Delhi came from lower-middle-class to working-class backgrounds, not just at Ramlila Maidan but middle-class localities elsewhere in Delhi. Later in the same article they assert that the vast majority were ‘semi-literate workers and peasants’, though for this no evidence is cited. More generally, a sector of the (left oriented) intelligentsia has been busy castigating its confreres for being suspicious of the movement and holding aloof from it; for failing to recognize its popular dimension (see various posts on Kafila).

The class composition of the movement matters, not merely for bona fide Marxists but all those who belong to the dissenting tradition of the left, the tradition that nourished a whole generation of European intellectuals from the 1950s to the ’80s, who called themselves men and women of the left (even when, like Leonardo Sciascia, they acknowledged Marxism’s failures and all but repudiated it). From this point of view any estimation of a movement led by the middle-class is bound to be coloured by the fact that it is the middle-class that, despite its protestations, controls the state. It does so in the most concrete way since the overwhelming majority of government functionaries and elected representatives belong to it; and by the fact that the economic policies of the state, both before and after 1991, have been designed almost exclusively for its benefit.

Clearly the middle-class has every right to protest on issues that affect it alone, or everyone else; and certainly its size is large enough for it to be taken into account as a popular force. It is also, as Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam point out, incontestably part of the people – though, equally incontestably, there are many areas of conflict between its interests and the interests of that other part of the people which lives on less than 20 rupees a day – more than two-thirds of all Indians.

So, is the movement middle-class? Class is sometimes in the eye of the beholder – one man’s peasant is another man’s farmer, relatively prosperous when measured against the condition of his landless labourers. Perhaps an uncontroversial, or relatively uncontroversial, statement would be that the movement was middle-class to begin with but is widening out. The signs are mixed and confused. In Chennai, from where I write this, the demonstration organized by the local chapter of India Against Corruption was dominated by the well-heeled; but there were sketchy reports of plebeian participation from Chattisgarh. And there is no real reason why this should not be the case for corruption affects everybody – why shouldn’t the peasant, the sweatshop worker, the labourer be in agreement with the call to end it?

Setting the agenda

Yet even after acknowledging this, one is left with an impression and a fact. The impression remains that most participants in the movement, in the fast at Ramlila Maidan and the actions in support of it, belonged to the middle-class across the whole of its spectrum (which means that the majority in some places may well have come from its lower echelons) rather than the labouring poor. One pointer to this was the flag-waving, the Vande Matarams, the fervent patriotism which, even if it played up to the media, was nonetheless heartfelt: to suggest otherwise would be regarded as an insult. The poor rarely go in for these displays of patriotism – since their country, or those who govern it, have not treated them well, they are likely to be critical of it even if they possess no other template to judge it by. I’ve attended my fair share of plebeian demonstrations and can scarcely remember seeing the national flag in one. Fervent displays of patriotism are a luxury of the middle-class which can afford to say: my country good or bad. For the poor and oppressed, the way their country treats them can be, quite literally, a matter of life or death (as it is in Dantewada, for example). Which is not to say that plebeian patriotism does not emerge in times of national emergency (Britain during the second world war), but this patriotism tends to be diffident, ironic, critical. The flag-waving at Ramlila Maidan and elsewhere merely reinforced the feeling that it is the middle-class that determines the idiom of the movement. Meanwhile there seems no doubt that its cadre, comprising the volunteers of India Against Corruption (who count for rather more than Anna’s ‘team’), is overwhelmingly middle-class: that being the case, it is clear that their perceptions and prescriptions will set the agenda for the movement as a whole.

In one sense, of course, it has already been set. We have been told repeatedly that this movement is only about corruption, narrowly defined – that is to say the taking of money to provide services that should be provided gratis or in order to obtain illegal favours, and the failure to provide services. Other issues have been mentioned – the taking of land from farmers, the rot in the educational system – but in an anodyne and cursory way, in generalities couched so as not to alienate anybody. Meanwhile the chosen instrument for tackling corruption (even for those like Prashant Bhushan who evidently do not subscribe to the movement’s narrow definition) is the Jan Lokpal bill.

Before going further, let us get some red herrings out of the way – the government draft is a bad joke, Anna Hazare had every right to protest (so had Baba Ramdev), and the agitation at Ramlila Maidan did not challenge the primacy of parliament. The relevant law can only be enacted in parliament: no one disputes that. Anna and his followers had every right to mount as much public pressure as they could for their version of the law to be passed. However their continuing insistence that only their draft is valid, and the refusal to discuss the NCPRI draft is indefensible. The logic behind this can probably be formulated as follows: since so many people have mobilized behind our version, it alone is legitimate (in actual fact most participants in the movement have not mobilized around this or any other version, but around an idea and a figure). This attitude is not surprising, which doesn’t make it any the less short-sighted, self-serving, even stupid, given the volatile nature of Anna’s constituency. Meanwhile the original insistence that parliament pass the bill within a very limited deadline, without extensive discussion by the standing committee, smacked of authoritarianism: which other social group could make a demand of this sort and get away with it? Which other social group could get parliament to pass a resolution formally referring its conditions to the standing committee for consideration?

Having got these caveats out of the way, two questions present themselves. One is that, given the strictly limited nature of Anna’s campaign, can it really be as open as it is claimed to be? And, two, does the movement’s prescription – the Jan Lokpal bill – appear capable of addressing its limited notion of corruption without doing serious damage to India’s democratic institutions (such as they are)? I reckon that the answer to both questions is no and no.
To say that the movement is open and variegated is to imply that it is capable of moving in new directions, incorporating new ideas and new social groups. If new kinds of people, sections of the labouring poor, for example, join the movement, they will bring to it their own agendas and these are unlikely to be restricted to its narrow definition of corruption. The hypothetical adivasi labourer whose wages under NREGA are pocketed by contractors is likely to have other questions as well: the parlous state of state schools and dispensaries (assuming his village has any), the disappearance of forests that once provided a subsistence (mining, heavy industry, dams, forest department?), lack of water (tube wells, industrial use, industrial pollution, an upstream dam?), the pittance paid for work in the unorganized sector (lack of regulation?). These questions, and others like them, inevitably widen into a critical examination of the process of ‘development’, the character of the state’s institutions, their opacity and unaccountability, the interests that determine economic policy – in short, the framework of exploitation in which individual acts of corruption are incubated.

The context of corruption

To believe that corruption can be addressed without addressing wider questions of inequality and justice, of freedom and opportunity, is to live in cloud cuckoo land. Doubtless many of the participants in the movement would dismiss these questions out of hand, or argue that whether or not they are valid, an end to corruption within the existing system remains a feasible aim. This amounts to an assertion that India can magically reproduce the structural order of western democracies in which capitalism flourishes but routine bribery and malfeasance of this kind are absent (needless to say, other forms of corruption exist). This position betrays a near total ignorance of the complex history out of which this order emerged, its virtues and vices – a long tradition of municipal freedom, hierarchies based on estates exploded into classes, the structural violence of the industrial revolution (best told in E P Thompson’s classic work), the sequence of working-class struggles that brought about rights and services we take to be axiomatic, the displacement of the system of expropriation upon which industrial growth depends to Europe’s colonies, which is to say most of the rest of the world. However Indian elites have always believed that it is possible to replicate the economic trajectory of the West in an altered global context, with a very different social system – to preserve caste as a system of social interaction while abolishing untouchability (this was Gandhi’s position); to convert the majority of farmers and peasants into industrial workers even as technical advances increase productivity per worker (thus lowering the number of workers needed in each individual factory); to abolish subsistence occupations, flout every environmental consideration, set aside the state’s duty to provide primary education and health, all in the name of mitigating poverty. It is a set of convictions that would be ludicrous if their consequences weren’t so appalling.

The connection between a culture of bribery and the systematic denial of social services to the poor may not be obvious but it exists. State atrocities in Dantewada, the reasons impelling hundreds of local struggles from Kashipur to Koel-Karo, these are the other side of the coin of corruption. Yet the Jan Lokpal bill – megalomaniac in its ambitions and hopelessly optimistic in its assumptions – proposes to deal with it, not by reforming our institutions but by adding one more to them, as opaque and unaccountable as the rest. We have been told by Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan that their proposed Lokpal will be accountable, and to the ordinary citizen to boot. How? Why, the citizen can file a complaint in the Supreme Court against the Lokpal and abide its decision. What this means is that the Lokpal will be accountable not to the ordinary citizen but to the Supreme Court, another unelected, unaccountable body. The irony is profound.

A number of bureaucratic appointees are already in the happy position of the proposed Lokpal – they can be appointed by the government but not removed by it (remember the debacle of Prasar Bharti?). One would have thought that the Supreme Court had better things to do with its time than determining which official deserves to sacked and on what grounds. Judicial usurpation of the executive’s domain has already done considerable harm to the polity – especially since the record of the Supreme Court in defending civil liberties and the rights of the poor has been less than inspiring. Its judgments, apart from a brief activist phase in the late 80s and early 90s, have always tended to defend the rights of the state and the propertied against those of the poor, witness Narmada, Bhopal etc. The recent judgment on the Salwa Judum (a full six years after it began burning, looting and killing) is the exception that proves the rule – grounded doubtfully in law, it will doubtless be decently interred.

The Lokpal’s lack of accountability would not much matter if its size were small and its mandate limited. After all, the whole machinery of the state does not answer to the sacred representatives of the people – the judiciary is structurally distinct, while constitutional authorities such as the Election Commission and the CVC, ostensibly answerable to parliament, operate more or less independently. The difference is that their functions are circumscribed and temporary. The CVC operates a small machinery and its power is recommendatory; the EC mobilizes the entire machinery of the state, but only for a limited period and with the limited purpose of conducting free and fair elections. The Lokpal in the Jan Lokpal bill is a different beast altogether. The gamut of its functions presupposes a very large standing staff, hence the proposal to place the existing vigilance structure, the CBI, and an unspecified number of additional officials under it, all of whom would answer to the Lokpal and no one else.

It can be argued that the potential damage this machinery might do is limited since the Lokpal can neither make laws nor interpret them. Even if this was true, it would be only sensible not to trust solely to the good faith and moral probity of twelve men and women (however honest otherwise) without more tangible safeguards. Alas, it is not: the increasingly complex and murky nature of favours granted and received make it conceivable that the Lokpal will feel impelled to adjudicate decisions that belong to the executive; that it will act, at times, as a super regulator, exposed to all the temptations of the role (the TRAI did not exactly cover itself with glory in the spectrum affair). Nor is it likely that its machinery will become suddenly incorruptible: we can assume that not all its investigators will prove immune to bribes, from a corporate house in order to deflect investigation or an official to cover up his indiscretions. As for service provision, citizen charters and grievance redressal officers might be a good idea in trying to get tens and thousands of schools, dispensaries, public hospitals and other offices to work, but why place them under the Lokpal? Enlarging its standing machinery and lack of accountability can only produce a standing invitation for abuse.

But these, it will be argued, are the vices inherent in government. In that case, the logic of creating a monster responsible only to a small board of nominated members becomes even less obvious. At the very least, the Lokpal must be made accountable in a different way if these defects are to be avoided. This cannot be done until the state’s institutions are made more transparent and democratic: in which case there would be no need for extending the scope of the Lokpal’s authority. Much of this reform needs to be worked out – methods of making the bureaucracy and the police accountable to ordinary citizens for the performance of their duties, of altering a structure that treats two thirds of Indians as cannon fodder for economic growth (whose benefits flow unequally to the other third), denying them basic social services and the barest modicum of social security.

However since the middle-class doesn’t see these as problems, it prefers to throw the responsibility of corruption on the political system and grasp at the most superficial and authoritarian of solutions. Anna Hazare attracts so much support because he is a cipher, someone with no uncomfortable ideas, unlimited moral zeal and deafening patriotism; this is why the leaders of the movement are content to restrict their discourse to the Jan Lokpal bill. If they actually began talking about truly uncomfortable things: about Dantewada, Kashmir, the north-east, of adivasi struggles, about conditions of work and employment in the unorganized sector, of how the poor are treated, they would rapidly find the crowd behind them dwindle to nothing.

Which is not to say that the political system is not corrupt and deeply compromised. For those lucky enough to find comedy in politics, the performance of the Congress during the past weeks and months has been a never failing source of delight: witness the spectacle of P Chidambaram, Manish Tiwari, Kapil Sibal et al tying themselves into knots with serene unconsciousness and heartfelt conviction; not to mention the great panjandrum, Manmohan Singh himself – more robotic, and marionette-like, more vapid and empty than ever. The BJP and its fellow travellers have been scarcely less entertaining: one gets the impression that what they truly deplored in the beginning, before the movement’s political possibilities presented themselves, was the government’s irresoluteness in dealing firmly with Anna. Which is not to say that the BJP would not have acted in much the same way – the real problem for almost every party is that it is their core constituents, the kind of people usually seen at political demonstrations in Delhi – well fed, well clad, loud, hectoring – that were among those prominent in Ramlila Maidan. No wonder their spokesmen looked sandbagged and couldn’t figure out what to do; no wonder the professionals of administration signal desperately for conciliation and compromise.

Politics and the middle-class

Yet the fact remains that both politicians and officials are derived from the middle-class and reflect its attitudes – of getting ahead, bending rules, making money. The doctor who takes a cut from a pharmaceutical company to prescribe its drugs, the executive who fiddles his expense account, the entrepreneur who ignores safety standards and pollution regulations, pays his workers a pittance and bends rules to acquire land, the prosperous landowner who ‘buys’ a government job for his son can scarcely blame politicians for doing the same things on a much grander scale. The corruption of politics stems partly from the way in which elections and parties are funded. A campaign for the public funding of elections, stringent audits of party finances, and laws mandating strict disclosure would probably do more to contain corruption at the very top than the Jan Lokpal bill…

But discussions about structural reform can go on forever: they are unlikely to interest those who believe that the state is fine as it is, and needs only to be made less corrupt in order to conform to the American or European model. Which brings us back to the central question: how to look at a movement whose sole demand one disagrees with and whose capacity to become more variegated one disbelieves in? The usual objections don’t apply: I don’t think, for example, that it is ‘communal’. Some of its members may be, many of them may not like reservations either, but that doesn’t mean that the movement embodies these attitudes: this may change, but the question remains open. Nor do I believe that it should take a stand on any and every issue under the sun – an honest discussion on Kashmir, for example, would clearly be too much for flag-waving patriots to swallow. But I do believe that its avowed refusal to take a stand on anything except corruption is self-serving, dishonest, and ultimately unworkable; its remedy against corruption dangerously authoritarian. And in the unlikely event of the movement becoming more radical, I have no doubt that the middle-class would swiftly jump ship. The government would probably pass a bill strong enough to satisfy middle-class opinion, and those protesting against wider abuses would find themselves confronted by a state that has recovered its determination to deal ‘firmly’ with them.

There is plenty to worry about in the way that the fast at Ramlila Maidan was resolved. The Jan Lokpal bill, as a number of people have pointed out, represents a rejection of politics. Behind it lies the belief that what is wrong with the system (and not much except corruption is assumed to be wrong) can be set right by nominating the right, incorruptible people to positions of authority and vesting them with exceptional powers. This is simple-minded. Suetonius, the biographer of the first twelve Caesars, deals with ‘the effect of of absolute power on twelve representative men’: it was in a word, ‘disastrous’ (Gore Vidal). There is a reason why corrupt politicians are better than well-meaning despots, and a great deal of history to tell us that reason.

For politicians are minimally accountable to the electorate in a way that judges or super-bureaucrats, for example, are not; which is why parliamentary democracy is planted on three pillars, no more, no less (with the judiciary playing the role of wild card in the pack). This does not imply any notion of parliamentary infallibility. Parliament has passed bad or regressive laws before, with little or no discussion, and will doubtless do so again. But imperfect though it is (and in need of reform), it remains the best forum we possess for making laws. The Jan Lokpal bill would concentrate too much power in the hands of too few people without adequate safeguards. It would make the state less accountable, partly by sweeping the real problems under the carpet, which is why it is attractive to the middle-class, and, paradoxically enough, to the proliferating breed of technocratic politicians who seek to make an opaque and domineering state even stronger – at the expense of its legislative branch and the popular (read plebeian) will.

Finally it seems worthwhile to consider why the fast created such a seismic upheaval. Those with long memories will doubtless remember bigger demonstrations that led to no such result. To claim that this was a consequence of the media frenzy around it is merely to restate the problem in different terms (what made the media, especially the television media, so shark-like). I believe that the underlying reason can be found in the fact that the agitation represented middle-class opinion which the average politician automatically genuflects to, if only because he belongs to the same class. Yet the fast and the proposed bill were also an implicit attack on his probity and behaviour – the reason for the mixed feelings on view in parliament and outside during the passage of the resolution. It is possible that the standing committee will patch together some kind of compromise from the various drafts before it. Equally, it is possible that parliament will come around to the view that an authoritarian Lokpal is desirable simply because the middle-class thinks so (and it is the middle-class that sets the parameters of intellectual debate). If so, the denouement is unlikely to be reassuring.

Meanwhile the movement continues and analogies fly about: unfortunately they suffer from a ludicrous sense of disproportion. Anna Hazare’s movement is not remotely comparable to the Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt, either in the courage of its participants or its wider implications. There is a considerable gulf between staring down a military dictatorship in a police state, where the ruling elite has grown accustomed to pocketing millions, and a campaign against corruption in a democracy whose freedoms exist for the middle-class (though very imperfectly for the poor), and where it is economically ascendant. Nor is it surprising that the Egyptian bourgeoisie led the struggle against Mubarkism: political freedoms and civil liberties matter to the middle-class, for all kinds of reasons, as the historical record shows. However its showing in building anything like a just economic order is considerably more spotty.

The year 1789 is the emblematic example of a revolution that commenced with the bourgeoisie but widened into something deeper, wider, more radical and, yes, terrifying than it had bargained for. But this is to compare little things to great, choppy seas to a cyclone, and none of the signs point that way. It is 1848 that provides an apter though still ludicrous comparison – ‘the springtime of the peoples’ saw a wave of revolutions across Europe led by the bourgeoisie in different countries, all of whom promptly sold their working-class allies down the river as soon as disorder threatened (which is to say their demands became too dangerous). As the French saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

~ Shashank Kela worked for many years in a trade union of Adivasi peasants in western Madhya Pradesh. He is now a full-time writer in Chennai.

Gandhian facade (Praful Bidwai)

In Perspective on September 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

From: Frontline Magazine, Volume 28 – Issue 19 :: Sep. 10-23, 2011


Gandhian facade


Anna Hazare’s campaign may lead to a new Lokpal Bill, but it has legitimised middle-class vigilantism and other kinds of civil society mobilisation.

NOW that Anna Hazare has declared victory, it is time to take stock of one of the most powerful recent mobilisations of people in India, focussed on influencing policy or lawmaking processes. The victory, however, is largely symbolic. The original demand of the movement, carefully built around Hazare’s fast, namely, that the government must withdraw its own Lokpal Bill and instead pass the Jan Lokpal Bill (JLB) drafted by India Against Corruption (IAC) by August 30, fell by the wayside.

Even its greatly diluted version, namely, Parliament must pass a resolution on the three contentious issues identified by Hazare, was not conceded. Under this, Members of Parliament would resolve to enact the Lokpal Bill in Parliament’s current session to set up independent ombudsmen at the Centre and in the States; with jurisdiction over all government servants; and including a law requiring all government departments to make “citizens’ charters” that set limits on the time taken to provide public services such as ration cards and driving licences, and punish breaches of the norm.

On August 27, Parliament discussed a highly truncated form of the demand and passed a Sense-of-the-House motion drafted by the Congress’ Pranab Mukherjee and Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley. It said: “This House agrees in principle on the following issues: a) Citizens’ charter b) Lower bureaucracy also to be under the Lokpal through appropriate mechanism c) Establishment of a Lokayukta in States. And further resolved to transmit the proceedings to the department-related Standing Committee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations for the Lokpal Bill.”

This is not a binding commitment. Nor is there a deadline by which the Standing Committee must write its report and Parliament must pass the Bill. So the motion was a face-saving formula for Team Anna. According to reports, Hazare’s core supporters had decided on the morning of August 27 that he would have to end the fast within a day if his health were not to be seriously jeopardised.

At any rate, the balance of forces had shifted over the preceding few days, with the government calling an all-party meeting, appointing Pranab Mukherjee as chief negotiator, MPs across parties defending Parliament’s legislative supremacy, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh talking directly to Hazare, and the cracks widening within Hazare’s core group. Eventually, Parliament asserted its primacy in lawmaking, but also cast a duty on the government to produce a strong Lokpal law.

Meanwhile, the entire political system was delivered a shock. Segments of it were exposed as dysfunctional. An attempt was made to set up a direct opposition between Parliament and the people. That it succeeded at least to the point of creating total panic and disarray within the government for days should occasion serious introspection.

It is easy to lay the blame for this on the colossal ineptitude of the Congress and the several near-suicidal decisions it took. Having first underrated both the middle-class support for and the amazing degree of organisation and media management by the IAC campaign in April, Congress leaders panicked and took the extraordinarily ill-advised step of establishing a joint drafting committee with Team Anna, giving it the same representation as the government – instead of a broad-based committee with diverse political and non-governmental organisation representation (NGO).

This laid the basis for Team Anna’s claim that it represents the people in a unique way, in contraposition to government – which easily morphed after the Ramlila Maidan spectacle into the assertion that it alone represents the people. Soon, Arvind Kejriwal would say that Parliament may be supreme in lawmaking, but the people come first; Parliament must listen to “Us the People”. Kiran Bedi would famously equate Anna with India. Democracy thus collapsed into majoritarianism with all its arrogance and intolerance.

Instead of fielding political veterans and skilled crisis managers, the Congress got a bunch of lawyers to negotiate the Lokpal Bill, whose technical approach messed things up. Meanwhile, Congress spokespersons abused Hazare’s team as “armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists… funded by invisible donors” (with foreign links), and alienated people further.

Even more inept was the decision to arrest Hazare pre-emptively on August 16 and lodge him in Tihar jail, in gross underestimation of public sympathy for his right of protest – apparently against official intelligence reports. The mistake was magnified when Hazare was released. He refused to leave Tihar unless he was allowed to fast publicly, thus garnering more sympathy.

It is simply incomprehensible that the Congress did not depute Maharashtra leaders such as Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde or even Prithviraj Chavan earlier to talk to Hazare bypassing his hard-line supporters, and that it did not convene an all-party meeting until August 24.

Yet, a far deeper failure is involved here, in understanding the depth of genuine popular or grass-roots revulsion against corruption, in two senses. The first is corruption that ordinary people suffer in day-to-day life when they have to pay bribes just to survive or to realise a right, that of getting their entitlements, such as ration cards or freedom from police harassment.

The second is corruption in the larger sense, including plunder of public money by powerful interests through manipulation of policies and fiddling of contracts, irresponsible and unaccountable governance, and abuse of power, itself distributed in a skewed and iniquitous manner in this extremely unequal society. Both forms are related to the social and governance system, and the unequal access to privilege and power centres inherent in it. When the poor protest against corruption, they often protest against the system.

By contrast, the upper-middle-class elite or the 10-15 per cent upper crust of society does not suffer the first form of corruption, certainly not to a degree remotely comparable to the poor. And it is often the beneficiary of the second kind. Its resentment arises, if it is genuine at all, from having to pay bribes to obtain a privilege, like admission to a top-rated school or jumping the queue to get a reserved train seat.

Deep distrust

Middle-class anger is directed not at the system or the real wielders of power in the corporate world and government but at soft targets such as MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats. It is easy to single out politicians because they are typically portrayed by the media, including popular films, television channels and newspapers, as arch-villains – irredeemably corrupt, and venal and crooked by choice, just as business tycoons are glorified as wealth creators who contribute to social welfare. Underlying this is a deep distrust of representative democracy and mass politics. Our hierarchy-obsessed, casteist middle class cannot possibly accept political equality between itself and the unwashed masses.

Focussing on corruption offers a nice escape from this society’s myriad problems, including mass poverty and deprivation, stunted growth of our children, pervasive lack of social opportunity, economic servitude and social bondage, absence of social cohesion, rising income and regional inequalities, and the impossibility for millions of people to realise their elementary potential as human beings, not to speak of communalism, patriarchy, growing militarism and decreasing human security. Corruption here performs the role that population growth did a few decades ago. Then, the elite blamed all of India’s problems on the poor breeding like rabbits.

Originally, Hazare’s movement spoke narrowly to this middle class, reducing the issue of corruption to paying bribes to government officials. The campaign in April was Facebook- and Twitter-driven. It mobilised upper-middle-class people in big cities through the technology of returning free missed calls. A telecom company provided the technology, and somebody paid for the calls answered (13 million by August 15, says the IAC website).

Support for the movement snowballed after Hazare’s wrongful arrest-release. Multiple scripts got written into it as peasants, trade union workers, dabbawalas and other poor people joined the protest. But that did not transform the campaign’s quintessentially upper-middle-class character or its vigilantism. Meanwhile, its leaders mistook general support for the anti-corruption cause as informed agreement with the JLB. They built a dangerous cult of personality around Hazare as a demi-god, on whose command people were ready to fast unto death. The government deferred to Hazare’s campaign, as it always does to movements with an elite character. There were many continuities between the campaign, motivated by hatred of all politicians, and recent agitations against affirmative action, driven by hatred of the “low” castes. That is one reason why Dalits, low-caste Hindus, and large numbers of Muslims are cold towards Anna’s movement or oppose it.

The campaign uses a strongly chauvinist Vande Mataram Bharat-Mata-ki-Jai-type idiom, based on an unthinking, conformist nationalism and illiberal and conservative ideas, including hero worship and absolute obedience. This fits in with the involvement of Hindutva forces in the campaign, frankly admitted by Sushma Swaraj in Parliament on August 17, confirmed by BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s letter supporting Hazare, and reinforced by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak-ideologue K.N. Govindacharya’s August 26 statement confirming significant RSS presence at Ramlila Maidan.

The Hazare movement’s legitimisation in media and society creates an unhealthy precedent. Other intolerant movements can create a lynch-mob mentality and demand death to the “traitors” or the building of a temple at Ayodhya – because the People want it. That is positively dangerous.

Is the media’s job to support or to report? – Editorial EPW

In Commentary on September 5, 2011 at 7:02 pm

From: Economic & Political Weekly, September 3, 2011, vol xlvI no 36


Indian Media’s Anna Moment
Is the media’s job to support or to report?

The cameras have been switched off. The microphones have fallen silent. But the cacophony generated by the saturation media coverage accorded to the agitation led by Anna Hazare for a Jan Lokpal Bill continues to ricochet. Questions are being asked, as well they should, not just about the extent of media coverage, especially by the electronic media, but on the content of the coverage. Given the profuse expressions of appreciation by the Anna Hazare group at the end of the protests to the media for its “support”, a key question that the media needs to ask is whether its role in such a situation is to support or to report. By becoming participants in this particular campaign against corruption, has the electronic media forfeited any semblance of professionalism that had survived previous occasions where it had gone overboard? Or will it take the time to pause now and analyse why it decided that the saturation coverage of the campaign, at the cost of scores of other important news developments across India, was justified?

From the coverage of the April fast by Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar, where television anchors were waxing eloquent about how this was India’s Tahrir Square, to August when a leading anchor announced that this was “an inflexion point” in India’s history, it was apparent that the electronic media had bought into the protest, setting aside scepticism or distance essential in the interests of accuracy and balance. The story had been reduced to good and evil – with “civil society” of the Anna brand as good and the government as evil. Even if one argues that some of the coverage was justified, particularly after Hazare’s arrest and the drama of his release that followed, when and how did the media decide to accord the protests non-stop uncritical coverage? One reason could be that the response in April to the fast had alerted news media that this was a story their largely middle class urban viewers would follow. Television revenue is based on viewership. Over the two weeks in August that all news channels, with the exception of Doordarshan, focused exclusively on Ramlila Maidan, news viewership increased while that of sports as well as Hindi movies dropped.

A second factor could be that the people who staff our media come from the same class as those leading the anti-corruption protests. The Anna Hazare group included journalists and technology savvy young people. They knew how to talk to journalists; journalists knew how to relate to them. Such a cosy relationship is not possible with adivasis fighting for their lands, dalits agitating against exclusion, north-easterners and Kashmiris demanding repeal of oppressive laws or anti-nuclear agitators who resist the imposition of a dangerous technology. On the other hand, corruption, particularly someone else’s corruption, is a comfortable cause to support along-side “people like us”. For the electronic media, this story was tailor- made – a fixed location, colourful crowds, a 74-year-old Gandhian-type figure on fast, and a campaign against something as generic as “corruption” that had universal appeal. “Team Anna” provided quotable quotes, considerable drama, and full access at all times. Plus, the protests were concentrated in Delhi and a few large cities, with rural India represented by Anna Hazare’s village, Ralegan Siddhi. So even in terms of logistics, this was an easy story to cover.

It is how the media converted a protest into a “movement”, a few cities and a village into “the nation” and a compromise into a “victory” that is even more worrying than the extent of the coverage. Almost from the start, the protests had been dubbed “a second freedom movement”, “August Kranti”, etc, placing them in a historical context with which they bore little resemblance. Second, the size of the gatherings at various places was vastly exaggerated by media treatment. Close camera shots hid the actual size of the crowds while reporters used terms like “sea of humanity” rather than approximate numbers. As a result, viewers were led to believe that the numbers had grown from thousands to tens of thousands to millions. Anchors were constantly telling viewers that “never before” had so many people gathered for a protest, a blatant inaccuracy that slipped by unquestioned.

The constant repetition of terms like “nation”, “freedom struggle”, “victory” by the media enhanced the size and significance of the protest. As a result, in popular imagination, the Anna-led agitation will be remembered as one consisting of “millions” of people across the “nation” fighting “a second freedom struggle” when in fact it was a popular, largely urban upsurge against corruption and for a law to curb it. None of this should matter if indeed the media helped push an insecure and indecisive government into moving on a law that was long overdue. The danger lies in the precedent it has set. It suggests that as long as a group, regardless of its agenda, knows how to handle the media, brings in viewership, and confines protests to logistically convenient locations, it can get coverage which, given the power of 24 × 7 news television, can be leveraged to negotiate with the government. In a democracy, where media should act as a check on all power – not just government power – such a scenario is worrying in the extreme.

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