City City Bang Bang, Columns

Protest as strategy?

Is a protest along the lines of #notinmyname the best way to counter the current climate of anger and hate that seems to have gripped the country?

At one level, a protest like this is an organic emotional reaction to a set of events and hence should arguably be accepted at face value. But it is equally, part of a larger battle that the liberal side is fighting, and losing.

As is usual in any liberal enterprise, there have been a few critiques of this venture already. This can in part be attributed to the reflexive need that seems to exist to undercut any argument as being not pure enough in one way or another. Depending on the fashion of the day, the criticism might vary, but in general one can be sure that hours after any influential liberal argument is made, a counterpoint will emerge, arguing why the former is not liberal enough or how it is rooted in privilege, and why it will, contrary to appearances, do more harm than good. The desire to be narrowly right wins almost every time against the need to be broadly consequential.

In this context one of the arguments against these kind of protest, uses a different logic. Here the argument is that the protests are the wrong way to go about countering Hindutva, not in ideological terms but in a strategic sense. Raking up issues dear to the Hindutva project ends up strengthening its hands. The need, this argument goes is to change the contours of the debate- focus on farmers, for instance, rather than beef.

This is worth thinking about. The truth is that today the liberal attempt to build a counter-narrative ends up directly feeding the mainstream narrative. The intolerance debate and Award waapsi directly bolstered the appeal of the supporters of this government. The nationalism argument is designed to draw strength from those that object to any part of it.

The power of a negatively framed argument, one that is founded on the presence of the counterpoint, is that it is designed to thrive on its opposition. The key source of right wing energy today is not state action but liberal reaction. That something will displease liberal commentators is a much greater source of glee than the primary action, whatever that might be. Objections become evidence; the mere fact of disagreement becomes a validation of the position of the right. In such an instance, should the very idea of a head-on protest be rethought? Is protest meant merely to convey one’s feelings or should it be evaluated as a strategic instrument capable of bringing about change?

This is a contentious question. It could be argued, in this case, for instance, that the protests worked in that they were directly responsible for PM Modi’s statements against using violence to resolve problems. This is a conclusion that is open to debate, for it is also possible that such a statement had been planned in advance to coincide with the PM’s visit to Sabarmati Ashram where such invocations are a bit of a ritual. Also, in the unsubtle code employed by the right, the invocation of Gandhi is usually a sign that whatever is being said need not be taken too seriously.

Regardless of whether the protests worked in an immediate sense or not, it is clear that a meaningful counterpoint to the present government’s position needs a new source of energy. Part of the answer lies in choosing a different set of issues, as has been suggested by critics of the current protest. It is astonishing as to why the widespread and obvious distress amongst farmers has not been better gathered into a pressing national issue and why unemployment which, experts across the ideological spectrum broadly agree is emerging as India’s single biggest problem, has not become a pivotal theme for the Opposition.

From the liberal perspective, a deeper and more pressing need is to reimagine the language that is used as a default mode of expression. The old labels have stopped working (regressive, communal, intolerant, bigotry, dissent), and the assumption that these represent universally accepted benchmarks of values has been exposed as being untrue. This change has not yet sunk in- and the liberal insistence on smugly using frameworks meaningful only to themselves is a key factor in their inability to become part of the mainstream dialogue.

But pressing as the need for other modes of opposition, both in terms of content and form, might be, there is a role for organic protests of the kind we saw last week. While it is important to take a strategic view of what is most capable of causing change, a  purely instrumentalist view of protests robs it of vitality and purpose and renders itself morally hollow. Besides, a push back of this kind has its own benefits. It serves to draw a line in the sand, and pushes up the cost of state inaction. The cost may not manifest itself in electoral terms, but there are other constituencies, including the international community, that potentially get affected.

Change is a complex system with many components. The change ecosystem needs to operate simultaneously at different registers. Different modes of action have different roles to play. There is a role for protest, but in the current environment, it is limited in nature. New issues that are more resonant need to be pursued and most importantly, a more sophisticated line of attack, one that is more nuanced and subversive, and uses a new vocabulary  needs to emerge. If the other side is too strong to be overwhelmed, it needs to be distracted, diverted, confused, divided, made suspicious of itself, goaded into overreacting, led to pursue unproductive paths- in short employing a strategy pretty much like what the liberals use so effectively on themselves. Of course, in one sense the entire debate is academic- in the absence of any meaningful Opposition, any talk of strategy is an exercise in futility.

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