India’s ‘New Gandhi’ And The Power Of Mass Movements Against Neo-Liberalism

Human Wrongs Watch

By Amaresh Misra*


Till a chubby, fragile, ageing Gandhian Anna Hazare reminded India the power of mass movements, several myths about political action had built up, especially since the beginning of the liberalisation era in the early 1990s. 

The media today would like to see itself as the harbinger of the revival of the Indian street. But this same media, over the past two decades was painting an entirely different picture.

Time and again commentators and columnists used to remind us that since economic liberalisation pumped in capital in the Indian market and society, the era of mass protests and people oriented politics is over.

We were told with repeated emphasis that what politics needs is deft management and gloss, not the dust and heat of streets, alleys and villages.

The organizing skills of an advertiser, the smooth English of party spokespersons, the economist’s approach towards political issues, the administrative approach towards people’s issues, the technocratic juggling of numbers, the bureaucratic interpretation of constitutional issues was considered more important than a direct feedback from people and their socio-economic life.

It is only the bureaucratic-technocratic-economist-managerial mindset that could have stopped enquiry into a simple issue like the Batala House encounter (police action Indian Mujahideen terrorists), as it would “lower the morale of the police”.

It is again the same mindset that would think of sending the army to combat Maoism in Chattisgarh and Central India; politicians of yore would have laughed at clichés mounted by contemporary political honchos as the ABC of politics tells you that in a Parliamentary democracy what the electorate wants is more important than administrative issues like police morale – and you do not send armies to resolve contradictions with your own people.

People Verus Parliament

It is again the technocratic-bureaucratic-economist-managerial mindset that seeks to deal with a political tactic like fast unto death with arguments like the “Parliament is sovereign”, it is “people vs. Parliament”, “Anna Hazare should talk to the standing committee”, and the like.

The Indian constitution begins with the line “we the people”; it does not say “we the Parliament”. It should have been obvious to all that according to the Indian constitution, sovereignty rests with the people, and the Parliament represents them.

Moreover, simple political logic would tell you that in a democratic country like India, it is undemocratic to curb mass initiatives with conditions.

When a political party applies for permission for a mass rally or meeting in any Indian district, does the district magistrate or the police ask for the number of people the party purports to bring to the ground, the exact issues it is going to raise, how, why and the like? Has any political person of any party heard of such absurdity?

Disparities Ignored

The truth is that the bureaucratic-technocratic-economist-managerial mindset got its social sciences wrong. In effect, it tried to erase the study and discourse of liberal arts and political economy in the public arena. When statistics like 70% Indians earning only 20 Rupees (less than half-a-dollar) a day came out, it remained just that: a figure.

There was little debate-discussion within government or the new post-liberalisation intellectual circles about the political implication of the statistics – that behind these numbers lies the suffering, agony and simmering rage of people who breathe and think and who are likely to see through the economic disparities created by the new economic policies introduced in the early 1990s.

The same bureaucratic-technocratic-economist-managerial approach was visible in the debate over the Sacchar Committee report (on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community of India).

Neglect, Pain And Suffering

Again statistics ruled the roost. The fact that for the dominant minority, these statistics hid a long history of neglect, pain and suffering – and that this minority would react politically – did not become a matter of avid debate: a sort of warped ‘statisticalization’ of hard reality became the norm on other pressing issues of farmers, massive corruption in implementation of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), and similar problems.

Worse, political leaders with a bureaucratic-technocratic-economist-managerial mindset were encouraged by all parties – especially Congress and BJP. This led to BJP’s defeat in 2004 and the now the Congress stands at a crucial crossroads.

No Real-World Indian Politics

The greatest tragedy of the Congress has been that party managers did not allow a hard-boiled, rugged, real-world Indian politics, commensurate with the pro-poor policies of Congress President Sonia Gandhi (widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s son) and Rahul Gandhi (the grandson of Indira Gandhi), to prosper.

Congress managers smothered their own baby. They torpedoed the agenda and political vision of their own leaders.

If backed by popular-hardboiled politicians, linked to ground realities, Sonia Gandhi’s pro-poor policies would have led to a Congress tsunami in the Hindi-heartland, a revival seen only in the Indira Gandhi days.

Popular Discontent

But the managerial approach forced disconnect with the people. It encouraged all sorts of shady ‘broker-dalaal’ elements to flourish and take over the reins of the party at the state and district level, eclipsing mass leaders representing the poor and the middle classes.

This unholy alliance between managers and dalaals (brokers) actually epitomizes Indian political culture, beyond any single party. This alliance fails to understand mass dynamics. It, for instance failed to see that the past twenty years of economic reforms have created a new desire for political reforms.

Corruption Following Nepotism

In the pre-liberalisation era, the Indian society, following the mixed economy logic, was plagued more by nepotism, the ‘sifarish’, rather than the ‘rishvat (bribe) culture. Films of the 1970s, which railed against sifarish, are enough to prove the point.

Barring the top layer of establishment, money as such did not play such a big part; in the post-liberalisation era, the amount of money pumped into the economy increased ten-fold; privatisation created a scope for crony capitalism, and corruption became related directly to capital generation.

Corruption which was mainly restricted to certain sections of the government sector, extended to the corporate sector, the bureaucracy, judiciary, lower levels of the Police establishment, the stock market, education, health, each and every government office, the banking sector, aviation, and the political class.

Illegal Trading

Hoarding, illegal trading and the black market, which constituted the underground of the 1970s, entered the mainstream. The life of the common man became unbearable. A new class of employees earning between 8,000 Rupees and 25,000 Rupees did emerge to create a new, huge market.

But by 2006-2007, this class began to feel the pinch of crony capitalism, as rents, prices of medicines, health and basic middle classes facilities like transport, petrol, diesel, gas prices skyrocketed.

The line between politics and business, politicians and criminals, became blurred. Politics was seen increasingly as consisting of money-media-muscle power. The concept of ‘masses’ and mass power in the political equation disappeared. This was really incredible – because India, unlike many Third World countries, has a flourishing Parliamentary Democracy.

The Last Straw

Several times over the past 64 years, Parliamentary Democracy has saved India from upheavals as it allowed mass representatives to be elected. For the first time, especially by 2000s, people started feeling that dalaals-corporate representatives, English speaking charlatans and criminals have seized and taken over the only avenue left to people: the Indian Parliament.

This was the last straw. This is why people did not the buy the logic that Parliament is a distinguished enough forum to frame bills and laws. Through Anna, Indian people have given the message that they no longer trust the Parliament. This is very much a constitutional-democratic and not an anti-democratic, anti-constitutional fascist urge.

Indian Parliament In A Serious State Of Crisis

With 14% members accused of serious crimes including rape and murder, the Indian Parliament is in a serious state of crisis. What the people on the streets want is not an abrogation of post-Independence Parliamentary Democracy, but a revival of its most hallowed traditions through sweeping and radical reforms.

These may include everything from the ‘Jan Lokpal bill’ (citizens’ ombudsman bill) to the right to recall MPs (Members of Parliament) to electoral reforms and the like. Political reforms are bound to lead to corporate reforms and reforms in the judiciary as well.

Hope And Energy

The hope and energy that the Anna movement has generated, the new democratic space for mass movement that it has created, will outlive Anna and the present surge. Politics abhors vacuum – it had become commonplace for commentators to say after 2009 elections that politics will forever revolve around money-media-muscle axis, that corporatisation of politics is here to stay and that mass politics is now dated.

Now, the Anna movement shows that post-liberalisation right wing commentators have themselves become dated.

They are out of touch with the aspirations of a new, working middle class that wants a clean society and a clean government for now. If its aspirations are not met, this class will soon gravitate towards a concept of people’s power – only an astonishing level of apolitical glibness can say that no Muslim-Dalit-OBC (other backward classes)face adorns Anna’s movement.

Rural Poor Facing Post-Liberalisation Corruption

Well, Anna himself belongs to the OBC Mali caste of Maharashtra (comprising of people belonging to specialist cultivator of flowers, vegetables etc. in the Indian state of Maharashtra). And the current movement is already finding a path towards villages. Indian peasantry and the rural poor face their own, harrowing levels of post-liberalisation corruption.

They too want reforms and a new land acquisition bill fulfils just one of their many aspirations. The combination of urban and rural discontent can create an explosive revolutionary situation in India. New players from amongst the people will emerge and take over the reins of politics.

As of now, the BJP-RSS are hopelessly out of touch with reality. Left parties too have yet to polish their old class concepts and grasp the new reality unfolding before their eyes. Regional parties have their limitations.

The Youth Crying For Gandhi

The Congress can still lead this revolution – but only by adopting its agenda, reshuffling the top party leadership, revamping the dalaal-managerial culture, and creating a new, pro-people leadership.

The youth involved in the Anna movement have already raised the cry for Rahul Gandhi to stand with the people. Any hardening of stances, and giving the mike to apolitical English speaking spokespersons, would be fatal both for the Government and the Congress party.

*Amaresh Misra is Convener, Anti Communal Front, Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee. *This article first appeared on IDN-InDepthNews. (Human Wrongs Watch)

2011 Human Wrongs Watch

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