Roving thoughts and provocations

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Indians Against Democracy

This is the first in a new NYRblog series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
A horse and cart outside the Taj Hotel, Mumbai, India, 2010

Growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, I often heard people in upper-caste middle class circles say that parliamentary democracy was ill-suited to the country. Recoiling from populist politicians who pandered to the poor, many Indians solemnly invoked the example of Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew. Here was an Oxbridge-educated and suitably enlightened autocrat, who suffered no nonsense about democracy, and, furthermore, believed firmly in the efficacy of publicly caning even minor breakers of the law. Devising his wise policies with the help of experts and technocrats, he simply imposed them on the population. Lee Kuan Yew’s success in transforming a city-state into a major economic power was apparent to all: clean, shiny, efficient, and prosperous Singapore, the very antithesis of corrupt and squalor-prone India.

Such yearnings for technocratic utopia may seem to have little in common with the middle class protests against “corruption” that recently gained much attention before abruptly losing steam at the end of the year. Led by Anna Hazare—an army veteran described in the foreign press as a “simple man in a Gandhian cap” when he went on a hunger strike last summer— the movement was presented by sections of the media in both India and the West as a long overdue political awakening of the middle class, even as India’s “second freedom struggle.” With his unambiguous denunciations of venality in public life, Hazare seemed to have alerted tens of millions of otherwise apolitical Indians to the possibilities of civil society, mass mobilization, and grass-roots activism.

And yet over the past few weeks the movement has dramatically collapsed, with its support dwindling and the key reforms it supported stalled by Indian politicians, who are determined not to cede their legislative authority to someone they see as an interloper. As he gained prominence, Hazare’s articulate spokespersons had trouble shielding his own less appealing views from public scrutiny. It turns out, for example, that the so-called “Gandhian” methods that he relied on to create a “model village” in his native central Indian town included flogging and beating; he also advocated hanging for corrupt politicians. And then there was his barely disguised Hindu chauvinism; he was ready, he claimed, to go to war with Pakistan in order to maintain the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir as an “integral” part of India.

Questions are now being raised about how Indian television networks portrayed the movement: whether, as India’s leading scholarly journal, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) asked recently, middle class reporters providing a “saturation” of mostly adulatory coverage of Hazare to an essentially middle class audience exaggerated his influence and impact, converting “a protest into a ‘movement,’ a few cities and a village into ‘the nation.’”

In fact, all along, there was little about Hazare and his conspicuously middle class followers that suggested support for greater democracy—which in an overwhelmingly poor country like India has always been synonymous with the promise of social justice and dignity to the majority. Over the past two decades, as India’s economy has opened up to globalization, the ranks of India’s middle and upper middle classes have grown—current figures, in the generally boosterish discourse of investment consultants, range from McKinsey’s cautious but still generous 150 million, or less than 20 percent of the population, to the wild-sounding 300 million.

The international image of an inexorably “rising” India is largely due to these Indian beneficiaries of global capitalism. As Amartya Sen points out, “since the fortunate group includes not only business leaders and the professional classes, but also the bulk of the country’s intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement gets, directly or indirectly, much aired — making an alleged reality out of what is at best a very partial story.”

With this mostly urban constituency in mind, Hazare’s vision was narrowly focused on the alleged misdeeds of elected officials—above all those in the ruling National Congress Party, which has traditionally sought votes from the Indian poor—and bureaucrats. Among other things, he called for the establishment of an unelected anticorruption agency, which, lavishly budgeted, would have extraordinarily wide powers of surveillance, policing, and prosecution—and, by implication, make the state more efficient and technocratic and less encumbered by the unruly and lengthy processes of parliamentary democracy.

The current Indian government has been marred by a series of corruption scandals, particularly one involving its auctioning of the mobile phone spectrum, which resulted in the loss of an astounding $39 billion to the national exchequer. And yet, by failing to elaborate what he meant by “corruption,” Hazare left many important questions unanswered. For instance, is corruption really a malignant tumor in India’s political and economic system, one that can be excised with some effort, or, is corruption, in many ways, the system itself? As Katherine Boo points out in her new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a chronicle of lives in a Mumbai slum, “in the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions.” But few of these critics of corruption acknowledge that, as Boo writes, “among powerful Indians, the distribution of opportunity was typically an insider trade.” This was demonstrated most recently by a series of taped phone conversations, made public in late 2010 by the news magazine Outlook, between a corporate lobbyist and some of India’s most famous businessmen, journalists, and politicians (some of them can be found among Hazare’s more well-off supporters), which revealed how powerful businessmen not only influenced economic policy-making, ensuring clear playing fields for themselves, but also managed to install their own candidates in senior ministerial positions, such as the telecom minister accused of underselling the mobile phone spectrum to his preferred bidders.

AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
Anna Hazare greets his supporters during the twelfth day of his hunger strike in New Delhi, August 27, 2011

Keeping the definition of corruption deliberately vague, and speaking of it in mostly moral and sentimental terms, Hazare’s campaign acquired some support from the urban poor, even as he worked to put the democratic system at the mercy of a few self-appointed guardians of morality. Hazare never focused on the distress resulting from income inequality, which has doubled in the last two decades, or on the gross abuses of corporate as well as state power: the dispossession, for instance, of the rural poor by mining companies, or human rights abuses by Indian security forces in Muslim-majority Kashmir. There was more clarity to be had about the aims of Hazare’s movement from its affluent supporters, which included glamorous figures from Bollywood, the media, and India’s iconic companies. Many of them call for an end to the state’s subsidies for the poor and low-caste Indians. These “rising” Indians see social welfare programs as wasteful, and endangering the apparently smooth working of the free market, even though, as Amartya Sen recently observed, they “don’t question things such as subsidy on diesel for rich people….Whenever something is thought of to help poor, hungry people, some bring out the fiscal hat and say, ‘My God, this is irresponsible.’”

In part, such responses reflect the misgivings that have emerged as India’s extraordinarily ambitious experiment in mass democracy has collided with its equally bold experiment in free-market capitalism. The complaints against democracy I heard growing up had already become more strident in the 1980s and 1990s, when many previously suppressed and voiceless Indians began to challenge the supremacy of upper-caste politicians, and the “unwashed” masses began to throw support behind their own leaders–rustic politicians with alarming manners–such as Uttar Pradesh’s Dalit “Queen” Mayawati and Laloo Prasad Yadav of Bihar–who embodied, in nervous middle class imaginations, the “Caligulan barbarity” of India, as Salman Rushdie put it, portraying a politician based on Yadav in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

Over the years, as India embarked upon rapid economic growth, an expanded middle class and businessmen seeking greater political influence gravitated to authoritarian figures within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist party that held power in Delhi from 1998 to 2004. The most prominent of these is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who has attracted many of India’s leading businessmen to his state by offering low corporate taxes and special economic zones and suppressing all trade union activity. Accused of complicity in the murder of more than 2,000 Muslims in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, Modi is nevertheless hailed as a “dynamic” leader by India’s leading businessmen, such as Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani—and has been recently praised by Hazare. (Dogged by court cases stemming from the massacre, however, he is unlikely to realize his ambitions to become prime minister.)

In the 2000s, many middle class hopes and expectations came to be invested in Manmohan Singh, prime minister since 2004. Though he belonged to the National Congress party, he seemed to embody the superior wisdom of the technocrats; educated at Oxford, he had worked as a World Bank and IMF economist, and had never been elected to the Indian parliament. Yet under Singh growth in India has remained wildly uneven—and deeply compromised by corporate influence on political processes. A U.S. diplomatic cable released this year by Wikileaks shows a senior Hindu nationalist politician admitting that virtually all economic growth of recent years has been concentrated in the four southern states, two western states (Gujarat and Maharashtra) and “within 100km of Delhi.” In another cable about Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister being groomed to be India’s next PM, Hillary Clinton is revealingly blunt: “To which industrial or business groups is Mukherjee beholden?”

During Singh’s reign as prime minister, India has also witnessed a strong backlash against globalization among the poor. The most striking instance is the militant Communist movement representing landless peasants and indigenous forest peoples in Central India—these are Indians fighting their dispossession by mining companies that are backed by the Indian government. Early last year, India’s Supreme Court censured the government for creating an informal militia against Communist militants. Claiming that “the poor are being pushed to the wall,” the court blamed increasing violence in the country on “predatory forms of capitalism, supported by the state.”

Since then Singh has also lost his main constituency: the beneficiaries, both real and potential, of “rising” India. Periodicals such as Foreign Affairs, The Economist, and The Financial Times that in 2005 hailed India as a “roaring capitalist success story” now wonder if India is descending into a Latin-American-style oligarchy. In recent months the global recession has also begun to affect the Indian economy. Inflation is running into double digits. Industrial production has declined; at one point, the rupee had fallen nearly 20 percent again the dollar; and foreign capital—the mainstay of India’s remarkable growth in the last decade—flows steadily out of the country. As though sensing the prevailing winds, India’s biggest companies are putting the bulk of their investments abroad.

Among the middle class Indians convinced that “India Shining” (in the election slogan of the BJP) is on the verge of becoming a superpower, these recent setbacks have been met with stunned disbelief, followed by rage against the most visible target: a corrupt, social-welfarist state. Not surprisingly, the demand raised by Anna Hazare’s middle class protesters was mind-numbingly simple: political corruption must be eradicated from India in order to make the country more business friendly and speed up its tryst with greatness. Initially, Hazare’s message benefited greatly from a rightward shift by India’s corporate-owned dailies and 24-hour news channels, where pundits spoke excitedly of the politicization of previously apathetic businessmen and salary earners, hailing the rise of civil society against a venal and inept government. But when it came to concrete legislative action, the absence of broad support for this authoritarian-minded movement became clear.

In reality, the Indian government is paralyzed between its old promise of basic sustenance and justice to the poor majority, and its increasing—perhaps, unavoidable—embrace of a form of capitalism that, geared toward private wealth creation, makes such social democracy unsustainable. Hazare’s insistence that the government, overruling parliament, adopt his plan for an anti-corruption czar, was far less about protecting the rights of the masses than establishing the grounds for a Lee Kuan Yew-style technocracy: one that with arbitrary and unlimited power over all Indian citizens could bypass democratic institutions, enhancing the political power of an unelected, unaccountable, and fundamentally anti-political elite.

Few assumptions about India’s middle class, or even about the “free” Indian media, as carriers of democratic values have emerged unscathed from his movement. The social media networks that helped Hazare were far from being hard-wired for democracy. Citing an extensive survey that revealed urban youth in India to be profoundly right-wing, the Indian novelist and TV anchor Sagarika Ghose pointed out recently that Facebook and Twitter, crucial to the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, are “dominated” in India “by young people openly pouring scorn on ‘pseudo-secular liberals,’ minorities and the so-called ‘anti-nationals.’”

Shrinking into irrelevance, Hazare’s movement still offers an important lesson: that the much-vaunted civil society really is an open space in which the Moral Majority and Tea Party, Gaza’s Hamas, Egypt’s Salafis, and India’s RSS can flourish just as well as such progressive movements as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab liberals who many assumed were the source of last year’s uprisings. Civil society can host an insurrection of the masses, as in Tahrir Square, and also stage, as in India or Thailand, a revolt of the elites. As for the idea that middle classes in developing countries ensure the spread of democracy, it seems just as persuasive as the communist teleology that made revolution by working classes in developed countries look inevitable.

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