On February 23 this year, India’s principal trade union confederations jointly organised a mass rally in the national capital. Inflation had seriously been eroding security of livelihoods. And despite acute concerns among the working class, official thinking showed little inclination to go beyond the standard story line that the labour market needed to be “reformed” – that enterprises in other words, needed the power to hire and fire at will.
The trade union rally was a way of showing the world that there was another way of looking at things. It was a way of saying that securing working class livelihoods was a viable strategy of dealing with economic downturn.
It was an alternative discourse that the many news channels based in Delhi and elsewhere proved fairly indifferent to. The following day, newspaper coverage mostly focused on the massive traffic snarls the rally had caused. Delhi’s main English language newspaper, and India’s largest, ran a full page of coverage under the banner headline: “Red wave sweeps city, halts traffic in central Delhi”. In three chosen samples of public reaction, representing presumably the whole range of opinions heard that day, one of the sufferers of the days’ traffic chaos was quoted saying: “If I find out which party is behind the rally, I will never vote for it”. Others complained of vital appointments missed and tasks left unfinished because of the traffic disruption.
On August 16, Delhi saw another mass gathering on the streets, this time to protest a local police decision to arrest a 74-year old social campaigner rather than let him begin an indefinite fast. Anna Hazare had once before gone on hunger fast at a prominent spot in the capital city, to prod the government in to bringing in a law setting up a watchdog to enforce standards of probity in public life. The event captured the news agenda for four days. It ended in what was gloatingly called a “capitulation” by the government and an agreement to draft a law in consultation with a team of civil society activists nominated by Hazare.
There was no feast of concord following that fast. The dialogue between government representatives and Hazare’s nominees deadlocked at every stage in a conspicuous lack of cordiality and basic courtesy. And the Hazare team chose to blithely disregard widely-shared concerns that its proposals for a constitutional authority (or Jan Lok Pal) to investigate and prosecute charges of corruption -- and where necessary nominate the judges to try them -- caused serious violence to the principle of the separation of powers. It had a maximal agenda, to bring the highest political and judicial authorities under the jurisdiction of the Lok Pal. And it showed little patience with reservations that were expressed on both counts.
Hazare decided to resume his protest fast on August 16 because the government refused persistently, to bring his maximal demands into the Lok Pal bill. And the government responded to the threat with a characteristic mix of indecision and bureaucratic obfuscation, culminating finally in a preventive detention that it later proved anxious to disavow any role in.
Within moments, Delhi’s news channels had fanned out across the city to provide saturation coverage for the ensuing demonstrations. Traffic was thrown out of gear in several parts of the city when the crowds came out, but the media cared little. As Delhi’s leading English newspaper -- and the country’s largest -- put it in its main local news page on August 17: “City Centre Comes Alive With Marching Throngs”. And elsewhere,under the headline “Massive jams in city but few were complaining”, the newspaper made a special effort to record that city commuters with nerves frazzled by the chaos, were “pacified” by others who explained the issue at stake.
Clearly, the media had sanctified Hazare’s movement, bestowed it with the legitimacy that the trade union agitation did not deserve. There is no serious mystery here: the working classes lack the serious purchasing power to be of interest to media advertisers. And when the advertiser is king, the working classes can be passive consumers but not active shapers of the news agenda.
A credible profile of the people who came out on the streets to protest Hazare’s arrest still remains to be done. Anecdotal accounts indicate that they include a sizeable number of professionals, a fair smattering of students and a number of political activists with an overt association with the Hindu nationalist “volunteer” organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS obviously is not going to let an opportunity pass to serious discomfit the government and the ruling party. As for the rest of the crowds that have come out for Hazare, they clearly belong in terms of purchasing power, to a higher demographic group than the average trade union member.
India’s trade unions ran a campaign for the enforcement of existing laws that safeguard working class rights. They won little by way of a media audience. Hazare’s flocks want a new law that will put the existing institutions of parliamentary democracy under the powerful sway of a body constituted on principles not of popular representation, but transcendental virtue. The agenda is clear and has enabled them yet again to capture the news agenda. But the law that has been drafted to realise it, virtually foretells endemic conflict with other institutions established under the constitution.
The principal focus of concerted public action today, is a shifty, ill-defined target. And “corruption” is in the discourse of most of those who have joined the Hazare campaign, a term of wide amplitude, referring to a host of anxieties that have lately manifested themselves in the middle-class consciousness. The economic downturn since late-2008 has not shown up in official economic statistics, but it is a part of peoples’ lives in India. Inflation has become a more perceptible threat than ever before in two decades. The vaulting ambitions of India’s bulging “youth demographic strata” are under stress, making nonsense of the beguiling prospects held out by the media just over two years ago. And as the global economy itself lurches into a possible double-dip recession, the promise of India’s emergence on the world stage as a superpower seems rather dim.
Political corruption is a convenient target onto which this whole complex of anxieties could be shifted. And the seeming urgency of creating an authority superior to all others, meshes neatly with elite convictions that representative democracy has been a colossal failure. But if failure is encoded into the genesis of the institution that Hazare and his flock have designated as the ultimate solution to the anxieties of Indian democracy, it must be asked what their reaction would be when this reality becomes undeniable. It should be asked if the target could then shift from “corruption” to “politics” itself. If representative democracy could itself fall victim to awakening Indian middle-class rage.