Photo courtesy: Yahoo! News India
If we were asked five years ago, what kind of Indian people would see as a reformative role model for the 21st century, many would have said a young, dashing heir to a political dynasty or a loudly articulate NGO activist of some sort. Few, if at all any, would have predicted a 72-year old Gandhian villager. And yet, the youth of India have proclaimed such a man the new Messiah with all the vigour and noise they can summon. Anna Hazare has become the unexpected poster boy for revolution.
In the last week, the masses have taken to the streets in numbers and a passion that has been scarcely observed in independent India. People have taken off from work, school and universities to express solidarity with a 72-year old man fasting in a maidan in far-off Delhi. The question is why? Popular media has not stepped beyond the obvious non-sequiturs – ‘Enough is enough’, ‘There is an Anna Hazare in all of us’, ‘India’s second freedom struggle’ – the last coined by the man in the topi himself. Is it enough of an explanation? Could it really be that simple?
The choice of Anna is an odd one. On the surface, young people between the ages of 18-30 in India are more often seen touting Che Guevara t-shirts than reading up on histories of revolutions. We have been the biggest beneficiaries of shiny economic progress – our access to iPads, designer shoes and A-league universities has never been better. Yet our experience with the system and governance nationally has also never been more frustrating.
So it is not an underprivileged, oppressed people that are taking to the streets, but an empowered, privileged mob – people who are capable of articulate and verbose snatches of TV fame.
There is little presence of the malnutritioned, diseased or economically backward classes in the Ramlila Maidan; instead news channels are full of sound bytes by jeans-and-topi clad young boys and girls babbling excitedly in English of their enthusiasm and passion.
Somehow, Anna appeals to Gen Y. Somehow, young India sees him as their leader, bridging all class, linguistic and regional divides. Somehow, young India, after witnessing the Arab Spring has finally found a revolution it can claim and fight for.
In his analysis of the recent London riots, Slavoj Žižek states ‘…The implication is that the conditions these people find themselves in make it inevitable that they will take to the streets. The problem with this account, though, is that it lists only the objective conditions for the riots. To riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.’
I can’t help but see similarities in the London riots and the Indian monsoon uprising. The discourse around Anna Hazare’s protests has been enormously tilted to convince us that corruption is why the people have inevitably taken to the streets. That corruption has become a universal objective reality in the Indian lifestyle. But like Žižek, I am of the opinion that an objective notion of corruption ignores the implicit realities of people’s subjective conditions. Where Londoners’ subjective sociocultural realities led to explosions of anger targeting retailers, the average Indian’s individual disenfranchisement in politics has led to an equally explosive taking to the streets – albeit in a peaceful nonviolent manner.
We vote, but with little hope or eagerness; we pay taxes, but with too few expectations of benefits. So when Anna says ‘Don’t wait to vote once in four years; in fact, don’t trust in MPs enough to vote at all. Just take to the streets today and fight for your rights’, we all cheer raucously.
Žižek also quotes Zygmunt Bauman who characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’, and identifies that they were mostly a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. One can equally project this rationale that ‘defective and disqualified’ Indian citizens are manifesting their political desires of change of reform, unable to effect them in the ‘proper’ way of voting and trusting elected representatives to draft laws.
Finally, Žižek identifies what he calls the ‘spirit of revolt without revolution’, that there is a sentiment of authentic rage that doesn’t translate to an effective program of reform. We are rebelling against the UPA by deifying Anna Hazare, but we don’t know what we want to come after that. Are we really going to trust the government once the hoopla dies down?
In the days to come, there is no doubt that a political showdown of sorts will occur. Even now, the protests stand delicately poised on the edge of violence. All it needs is that little spark to fan it into a blaze. We can only hope that someone has the foresight to have skilled firefighters in place in case it does. And that a few people hold on to a vision of what comes after, the revolution behind the revolt.