Politics, Writing

Civil disobedience, middle class style

Mass protests have, historically, been used by the truly powerless. But beginning with the Jessica Lall verdict, there’s a change in the profile of the protestor and in the nature of the protest itself. Aided by media, it is now the middle class that is leading the charge.

It is spring again for protests laced with the spirit of civil disobedience, or so it would seem. The recent success of the Anna Hazare-led movement has given rise to many hopes that the citizen does not have to wait outside the doorstep of a moribund political system, hoping for a few scraps of responsible governance to fall her way. Direct action is possible and can force the political machinery to move even if it does so with an air of creaky reluctance. The combination of a leader who appears to stand outside the usual categories of politics and ideology, and a middle class hungry to find anyone they can trust with the responsibility of leading the charge on the issue of corruption, has found vociferous support in an activist media, eager to find causes dear to its constituency. Together, this unlikely coalition of disaffection has delivered what looks like a major victory for the citizen.

The desire to directly influence the state into taking specific action is a growing strand of behaviour among the educated middle class. Usually this has taken the form of taking up specific causes that directly involve the middle classes – issues like the Jessica Lall murder and the Ruchika verdict. Following the 26/11 carnage, the desire intensified and took the form of organised protests and attempts to petition the government directly and aggressively. Aided by media that sees every cause as a marketing opportunity, the movement has got bigger, more focused and louder. The leadership of Anna Hazare gives it an added depth of legitimacy by giving it a touch of Gandhian authenticity.

Historically, protests of this kind have tended to be used by the truly powerless, who are left with no other choice but to put their own bodies on the line in order to reverse the power asymmetry that exists between the state and the citizen. Whether it was the Chipko movement or the protests against the Narmada dam, the idea of civil disobedience came from lacking other means of getting an audience for one’s perspective and involved issues of survival of one’s way of life. Beginning with the Jessica Lall verdict, we find a change in the profile of the protestors and in the nature of the protest itself. Aided by media, it is the middle class that is leading the charge now.

The alienation of the middle class today and its perception of itself as the victim is a product of many variables. The rise of consumerism has created the citizen-consumer, a class that sees the taxes it pays as a down-payment on reciprocal services to be provided by the state in the form of governance that is of specific use to the payer. The sense of entitlement is more pronounced, and the rise of the corporate sector in the public consciousness has created a new vocabulary of accountability mirroring what is seen in the world of business. The central role that money plays in all sectors of our life, combined with its ability to place a material value on everything, helps corruption from both sides. At one level, it translates all power into assets that can be leveraged and makes its use in extracting rent seem almost legitimate. The secular language of business makes it easier to see corruption in terms of demand and supply and look upon it as a transaction where both sides win. It accelerates access to services in a transparently predictable way;a bribe becomes the price of entry. This is true in the world of politics and business, where corruption gets treated matter-of-factly, indistinguishable from other normal transactions.

Meanwhile, it was interesting to see how many celebrities were part of the Anna Hazare movement. After a brief honeymoon with the notion of celebrity, perhaps what we are now seeing is an acknowledgement of the limits of that idea. The realisation that, for all the surface glitter and apparent power that they have, they are in fact nothing more than virtual apparitions projected on giant virtual screens controlled by those who exercise real power is perhaps what lies beneath their frustration. An Aamir Khan or Anupam Kher finds it easy to attract cameras and microphones by the dozen, but when it comes to really changing anything, their power seems largely nonexistent. The surface has been revealed to be just that – a surface glittering with its own emptiness. The dilemma of the celebrities represents in some way the magnified version of the middle-class problem – reconciling an inflated sense of self-importance with the reality of their eventual powerlessness.

Perhaps this is why we are the seeing the middle class adopt the means otherwise used by those who did not have any other choice. Civil disobedience of the middle class comes from a very real sense of anger at our system of governance and seeks to tackle a very real issue, but at its heart it comes from the frustration on seeing oneself in the mirror and realising that what stares back is something small and quite insignificant.

TOI Crest April16,2011