Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Anna Hazare and individual mobilisation

The first time I attended a demonstration, I was struck by an odd fact. Most of the audience was poor, composed of party members trucked in from different parts of Bombay and, perhaps, out of town. The speakers were all middle class graduates. Those attending didn't seem deeply involved in the cause being discussed, they were just there to make up the numbers.
The same pattern played out repeatedly in succeeding years. I did attend a few demonstrations composed of motivated individuals, but these were inevitably small. For example, I was part of a group that would march on August 6 demanding an end to all nuclear weapons. I don't think we ever had more than a hundred people at any public meeting.
It was different in England, where I noticed a greater homogeneity between protestors and those who addressed them. Though the demonstrations I attended in England were fairly small, far larger ones, such as marches against the Iraq war, drew thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of individuals in Europe and the US based on shared beliefs rather than party membership. Labour unions and political parties were often part of such marches, but a substantial portion of the demonstrators seemed to be independents who had just turned up because they believed in the cause.
The anti-corruption crusade is perhaps the first large-scale demonstration in India that has not involved political parties drumming up support and trucking in the public. The middle-classness of the movement has come in for criticism, but I can't imagine poor people spending valuable hours to protest in favour of something as abstract as the Jan Lokpal bill.
In the latter stages of Anna Hazare's fast, various unions showed support by striking work, and they probably had a party-political background; but the crowds at Ramlila Maidan appeared to be composed of individuals and small groups of friends and family members without strong party affiliations. In that sense, the Lokpal movement has something in common with the Arab Spring. It's probably the first time a nation like Egypt saw such individualised demonstrations. As in Egypt, all established parties in India seem to have been taken unawares by the intensity and persistence of the demos; politicians are used to being able to label crowds, and they were left playing catch-up in this instance.

This might also tell us something about the changing nature of Delhi. I've argued the city is taking on the aura of an imperial capital, but, contrarily, it is also becoming less dominated by politics. In past decades, a substantial portion of the middle class population of the capital was directly connected to the government. I haven't seen statistics, but I'm certain the percentage has fallen dramatically.

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