In 2011, the world experienced a level of popular protest and civic unrest not seen since the velvet revolutions that peacefully dismantled the Communist imperium. The democratic domino pushed over in Tunisia has so far clattered across Egypt, Libya, and into Syria and Bahrain. Stealthy rustlings may be heard behind Burma’s bamboo curtain. Tech, grunge, anarchist and carny met in Zuccotti Park and occupied Wall Street. Furious anti-government crowds gathered in Athens’s Syntagma Square. Young idealistic Israelis camped out in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in the name of social justice. Covetous Londoners ransacked their city in the dog days of August, in the name of premium denim goods. The anti-Putin protesters in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square were orderly. Residents of the Chinese fishing village, Wukan, were stoic. In every iteration, in every corner of the globe, it has been a year of citizen ire at the status quo—and very usually, at the people in power.
A glacier of anger is melting, people say, and the consequences are seeping into the street. The Indian streets are, on first gloss, no exception.
Alongside the persisting Maoist-led insurgencies, there are new mass protests, surging up and unsettling political routines. Many, of course, have been in train for a long time—the disputes over land and mining rights, the Naxal and Maoist insurgencies, caste violence and khap justice. Others have acquired new momentum, like the citizens’ movements in Goa and elsewhere against real estate ‘developers’ and environmental predators. Still more protest movements have emerged quite recently, such as the Jaitapur mobilisation against the siting of a nuclear plant. And then there was the protest that enchanted the Indian mainstream media and social media at once: Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal movement, designed to bring accountability to the country’s corrupted political system.
It’s all so immediate, theatrical and deafening that a quieter thrum of truth may be obscured: the Indian powers-that-be have gotten off very, very lightly this year. Or perhaps it would be more apt to say that they have gotten off lightly so far.
No Indian protests have threatened to overthrow the regime. Cities have not as yet shut down. But only a fat, myopic political complacency would interpret surviving this year as a reliable predictor of surviving the next. And only a fat, myopic economic complacency would assume that continuous growth itself will ease the tensions and dissatisfactions that are manifest in our season of multi-directional protest.
In fact, economic growth serves to enlarge every Indian’s imagination of the possible life they might lead. It brings more and more Indians into contact with the fruits of prosperity, invites them into the global department store of desirable lives. And it also provides them with the very tools that have crumbled political authority elsewhere: mobile phones, viral virtual campaigns, a domain of public opinion that can quickly be mobilised. Tools that they can effectively deploy to leverage India’s own robust stock of home-grown political protest—from the fast to the bandh, rasta roko to gherao, that compendious, ever-generative ‘grammar of anarchy’ as Ambedkar termed it.
Do our politicians realise how lucky they were to have survived so well in this volatile year? By now, it’s become something of an Indian political trademark to be persistently unable to turn possibility into reality. In other democracies—Greece, Italy, Spain—the citizenry has not been so patient, so forgiving.
Most Indians will enter 2012 with their noses still pressed to the window—without the educations and skills they need to make a living, unable to rely on such health as they might be lucky enough to possess, uncertain as to what petty disaster might subvert their hard-won, incremental successes. India’s public institutions—the legal, educational, policing, health, financial and infrastructural systems that successive governments were supposed to be responsible for—have proved totally unable to absorb and regularise the risks of everyday life.
In the past, uncertainty was squeezed out of Indian society through the existence of highly repressive social codes. Ritual purification secured social pacification, a society of narrow life possibilities. Your social future—if not your physical one—was all too certain in such a society.
The political commitments of independent India—expressed through constitutional democracy, through free elections and affirmative action—have done much, rightly, to dissolve those imprisoning codes, and to expand the range of life possibilities. But there has been no parallel success in devising an effective calculus of risk alleviation. With the genuine possibilities of India’s globalisation come, inevitably, still more volatility—a world of butterfly-wing-flap-induced economic causalities that are increasingly difficult to grasp. A government’s failure to assuage uncertainty may be accepted more readily in a society where there are few grounds to be optimistic about the future. Ours has ceased to be such a society.
After the political crises of the 1970s and ’80s, electoral participation gradually expanded. People manifestly believed that their criticisms of their government—and their hopes for their own futures—could be addressed, at least partially by democratic involvement. Now, India’s democracy may be edging into a new, more troubling phase.
The rich urban elites long ago removed themselves from electoral politics. In recent years, significant numbers of the poorest have turned to that netherworld of Indian democracy, armed in their anger. And in 2011, some in the urban middle class seemed inclined to beam into a secessionary state demarcated by the geography of mobile phone towers. Meanwhile, for all the hagiologically named, chronically corrupt government schemes on offer, the government hasn’t really been listening to its people. Instead, with old-style noblesse oblige, it has continued trying to buy them off with a pittance. Our leaders haven’t fully grasped the fact that the citizenry is beginning to see through the ruses employed to win power.
India’s highly competitive democracy has created a professional class brilliant at that task of winning power—and sadly irresponsible at using it. A handful of leaders across the country may use their power constructively: even as they master the art of caste-crossing deal-making, some have also managed to govern with a degree of public responsibility all the more effective because of being driven precisely by their self-interest rather than abstract virtuousness. But our democracy’s collective deliberative wisdom, as represented by the national Parliament, is for the most part a depressing farce; most of our 25 or so legislative assemblies are no longer even pantomime.
The protest-swells across the country are testimony to the raw power of irate imaginations, but to see it as a unique moment—India’s Age of Resentment—is to miss its deeper historical significance. Over the past century, irate imaginations have revitalised Indian politics as much as they have troubled it. Fired with new expectations or pushing for old necessities, gesturing toward universal principles or particular remedies, the irritable Indian is testing our democratic institutions and political judgement. Democracy is in part a system of anger management—it seeks to inject civility into raging disagreement and to direct popular anger and resentment towards constructing a more secure future. That dimension of democracy is one we’ll need to cultivate during the next phase of our democratic career.
Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Professor and director, King’s India Institute, King’s College, London