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The long shadow of the Ramlila stage

How Hazare’s movement is different from earlier transformations — and why it might persist,anyway.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney
September 7, 2011 2:01:02 am

Does Anna Hazare’s movement portend a significant restructuring of Indian politics? This important question can’t be answered unless we summon the history of movement politics in India,and place the Hazare movement in perspective.

Movements and Political Impact

Thus far in the history of modern India,the movements that shook the basic structure of politics were those in which movement politics and party politics got fused. Movements that stayed pure,spurning,or not seeking,the patronage of political parties,made limited gains.

The first half of the 20th century witnessed the freedom movement and the anti-Brahmin movement in the south.

Both left lasting legacies. The first one was led by the Congress,the second supported by the Justice Party,a precursor to the DMK and AIADMK. Between 1921 and 1937,the Justice Party ruled Madras for twelve years.

After 1947,the two movements that dramatically reframed long-term politics were the linguistic agitations of the 1950s and 1960s,and the Ayodhya mobilisation of the 1980s and early 1990s.

More than half a century later,it may be hard to recall what the linguistic movements were all about. Despite the Congress’s pre-1947 commitment,Nehru had developed cold feet about a linguistic organisation of states. The communal carnage around Partition was so horrifying that language and caste,not just religion,seemed destructive to him. He wanted Indians to concentrate on economic development: all else was a needless diversion from the immediate and urgent national purpose.

As the language movements acquired momentum,Nehru caved and a States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) was set up. Several commentators,famously Selig Harrison,predicted that language differences would lead to India’s disintegration,much like what happened decades later to Yugoslavia and the USSR. But scholars now agree that the birth of Andhra,Kerala,Karnataka,Maharashtra,Gujarat; later Punjab,Haryana,Himachal; and,still later,the Northeastern states,saved India. Essentially,linguistic states permitted Indians to live with two identities: a regional identity and an all-India identity,without one undermining the other.

Movement politics,thus,profoundly shaped the basic state structure of modern India. In particular,three of the states — Maharashtra,Gujarat,and Punjab — were born despite the SRC’s recommendation to the contrary. Each was supported by a major political party,or the movement itself contested elections and won seats.

The Ayodhya movement was also hugely transformative. In the beginning,the VHP led it. But once,under Advani,the BJP decided to co-lead,the movement became stronger. For the BJP,it also became a stepping stone to power.

In contrast,movements that zealously maintained their civil society purity — for example,the Chipko movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan — showed high moral courage,but their achievements were regional- and/or issue-specific. Delhi was not shaken to any significant degree.

Hazare Through the Prism of Democratic Theory

By insisting that elections are not enough for meaningful democracy,and that there has to be greater governmental accountability during the five years between elections,the Hazare movement seeks a fundamental change in Indian politics. Unknown to itself,and rarely with sophistication,the movement’s vanguard has begun to make an argument known to democratic theorists for a long time.

Theorists have argued that democratic deepening requires (i) accepting that elections are necessary,but not sufficient,and (ii) putting in place institutions and procedures that make citizen preferences more relevant to governmental decision-making on the one hand,and that rein in the misconduct of the powerful between the elections on the other. According to theorists,India is an unparalleled elections-based democracy,for no society in history has made elections work at such a low level of income. But India’s record does not respond well to a more demanding theory of democracy,which also takes note of how well politicians behave and how much citizen welfare matters between elections.

The Hazare movement’s proposals are basically aimed at achieving greater correspondence between democracy and popular will between elections. Though its desire to force its will on Parliament was undemocratic,the overall thrust of the movement is about deepening democracy. If it succeeds,Indian politics will be qualitatively transformed.

But the path chosen to achieve results defies historical patterns. The movement has rebelled not only against the government,but also against the entire political class. It has unwaveringly held on to its civil society character. It shows no desire — yet — for electoral power,nor has it allowed political parties to dominate its thinking or strategic evolution. Should we,then,expect it to wither away — as did the powerful peasant movements of the 1980s,once the “more serious” electoral issues of Mandal and Mandir emerged?


There are four reasons the Hazare movement is likely to be resilient,and will defy historical patterns.

First,grievance alone can not sustain a movement. Resources are always necessary. The Hazare movement has struck a deep chord with India’s new middle class. It,thus,has an internal source of finance,which the government cannot legally cut off. India’s middle class did contribute mightily to the Ayodhya movement,but it is now bigger and richer: it is economically privileged,while feeling electorally underprivileged. This is a politically explosive combination.

Second,the grievance itself is a potential winner. There were arguments for and against Ayodhya,Mandal,JP,dams,tree-hugging and linguistic states. But what arguments can anyone marshal in favour of corruption? Arundhati Roy has tried,saying corruption can be good for the poor,but there are no takers. Both those opposed to Hazare’s argument,and those not willing to give up corruption have only one choice: talk about what is the best way to reduce it. That is an exceptional circumstance for a movement.

Third,India’s government,perhaps its political class in general,has lost the support of TV media,another privileged and powerful child of reforms. TV did not go to Ramlila Maidan only to cover a spectacle: it is clear that it shares middle-class anger against the political class,though the sources of its resentment remain less than clear. Perhaps market forces are the greatest reason. The middle class is TV’s largest market.

Fourth,social media,too,needs to be taken note of. As we dramatically saw at the Tahrir Square,but also elsewhere,governments cannot easily stop communication via cellphones,Facebook and Twitter. With incomes rising,social media are bound to grow. India’s middle class will use these tools for its goals. Back in 1975,the government could control the media. The technological world has changed for ever. Anger can be more powerfully expressed,and is less easily controlled.

Government Response

Thus far,the government has basically used the stock principles of old-style politics: entice and neutralise,or punish and neutralise. When it makes arguments,it has relied on legalities. To hear the home minister defend in Parliament Hazare’s arrest was to witness legal acumen — except,as the opposition so effortlessly pointed out,the moment was political,not legal. Politics without law can be dangerous; but politics based entirely on law is profoundly confining. So many of the modern world’s democratic politicians have been lawyers; the best ones have always embedded legalities in a political imagination appropriate for the times.

Forces unleashed by India’s economic reforms are now clashing with an old structure of politics. How to incorporate the concerns of the middle class,which will only grow,is the new challenge of Indian politics. Faced with a novel moment not comprehensible in older frameworks,political imagination is the best way forward for the government and politicians. A punish-and-neutralise strategy is awfully myopic.

The writer is a professor at Brown University. His books include ‘Democracy,Development and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India’

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