On October 17, 2011, at a Palo Alto residence, a few executives, industrialists and entrepreneurs-turned-volunteers met with Prashanth Bhushan, the lawyer/activist member of Team Anna. Bhushan, a slight figure with an air of intensity, sat in the middle of the room and was quiet for the first half hour of the meeting. When he did speak, it was measured and to the point. It was established that Bhushan was in Palo Alto to gather support for the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, which has received unprecedented support from the Indian media and janata alike.
I was the only media member present at the session and was told not to quote “anybody on anything.” (And here I thought the India Against Corruption movement was a bare-all-bar-none movement.) Bhushan’s agenda was to mobilize and appoint NRI Ambassadors to support processes in Delhi and, in the long term, to help combat the problem of corruption in India by transitioning from a “representative” to a “participatory” form of democracy. This meeting proved that IAC was keen on expanding its reach beyond India’s shores, capitalizing on the global feeling of dissatisfaction with status quo.
2011 was the year the common man decided he had had enough. From Aleppo to Yemen, from Delhi to San Francisco, demonstrations and protests showcased the might and spread of people power, a phenomenon worthy of sustained television coverage and superscripted newspaper headlines. Whether imperfect democracies or tyrannical dictatorships, the squeeze of a global recession was felt by the middle class and the poor throughout the world, and the added spectacle of the rich getting richer became too much to bear. So men and women all over the world arose, ready to risk their livelihoods and their lives in the belief that the combined voices of the many would penetrate the gated walls of those in power.
The engine of these demonstrations was powered by social media and energized by frustration. Armed with little more than sleeping bags and smart phones, men and women organized rallies, marches and sit-ins—statements of dissatisfaction. From Martyrs Square in Cairo and Tripoli to Central Park in New York, these congregations took to heart Gandhi’s powerful message of non-violence and trusted in the power of the collective to change the world.
The Arab Spring
The death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi is the latest fallout from the mass protests in the Middle East that began with, ironically, the death of a far more insignificant man, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia. Bouazizi set himself on fire after harassment by municipal officials, and his sacrifice led to revolutions that toppled three dictators in the region, and prompted populist measures in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to forestall similar conflagrations. When the dust settled, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya were taking the first painful steps towards the creation of governments that were for, of, and by the people.
The term Arab Spring is a metaphorical comment on the events that played out in Tunisia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iran and others. The term is neither limited to events that occurred in the spring of 2011, nor to Arab states only. It refers to the rise of youthful energy for a cause; the burgeoning thrust and joist of a rebellion; a popular uprising and the hopeful domino effect of its impact; a wellspring of fury demanding a complete overhaul of authoritarian strongholds. The phrase “Arab Spring” was first used in 2005 referring to the beneficial effect of the Iraq war on U.S.-Middle East relations. It is tacitly named after the Prague Spring, the 1968 socialist-democratic reform movement in Czechoslovakia that muted some of the country’s hardcore communist rule for a short period of time.
Beginning with the ouster of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, the Arab movement quickly gathered momentum in neighboring Egypt with Hosni Mubrak’s resignation. In Jordan, King Abdullah dismissed the government to appease the protesters, and in Iraq, President Nouri al-Maliki said he would not run for a third term… As I write this, power is still in the hands of tyrants in Syria, and Yemen and Saudi Arabia has managed to successfully quash the uprising with the help of neighboring Bahrain and in Libya, NATO had to intervene. The record of success for the Arab Spring is still being written, even though the social media driven protest movement has become its lasting legacy.
India’s Fasting Season
Democracies aren’t immune to unrest. Call it corporatocracy, elitism, or power-mongering, but democracies inevitably begin to resemble oligarchies with a defined class prerogative. Inspired by the people’s movements in the Middle East, crusaders in India decided to appeal to the constituents of a largely apathetic nation. Even in a country largely inured to political and bureaucratic corruption, the breaking point was reached with the exposure of two telecom scandals involving mega-sums (just the 2G Spectrum scandal is believed to have siphoned out 39 billion dollars). In the midst of the monsoon season in India, Anna Hazare rallied tens of thousands of middle class citizens to get off their angled sofas and present themselves for a civil discourse on corruption. Twitter feeds and status updates tested the capacities of Internet servers, and the Anna movement grew with each hash tag post.
“These movements demonstrate the power of public opinion and the power of people in shaping laws and policies,” confirms local SF Bay Area activist, Unmesh Sheth, President of Indians for Collective Action (ICA).
Hazare’s message found resonance with Indians around the world, many of whom surely left to pursue their dreams in countries where opportunities were not stifled, and political connections did not determine success or failure.
Unlike the uprisings in the Middle East, in India the movement was given wing by the educated middle class, who were most aware of the laws subverted and citizens’ right to information. The impoverished and undernourished continued to grind away at their daily jobs with just a brief sideways glance at the television drama unfolding, complete with a hero clad in homespun cotton, a villainous government and an intrepid, iconic, ex-Indian Police Service officer, Kiran Bedi, as the unlikely heroine. Sheth agrees that it is the middle class in India who take to the streets protesting and demonstrating. “They are the proxy for the poor,” he claims.
The aims of the movement, titled India Against Corruption, do not necessarily find universal approbation. The biggest criticism against IAC has been that the poor are not part of the conversation.
While the man on the street is heartily sick of corruption and ready for change, IAC has a limited and unusually clear manifesto. The Anna movement is not intended to overthrow India’s democratically elected leaders with a Gandhian alternative. Rather it is to strengthen an anti-corruption bill and include high ranking ministers and the judiciary in its purview. Asked about IAC’s limited focus ICA volunteer, George Kohli disagrees, “I believe that this is just the beginning.”
Bhushan emphasized that the Jan Lokpal bill was just a means to an end. The larger goal was to move from a system of “representational democracy, open to bribery, to a system where the people, the actual stakeholders, participate.”
Comparing IAC and the Arab Spring
In Wall Street Journal blogger Paul Verghese’s words: “Indians are not fighting to obtain basic democracy. They are fighting for better laws and stricter enforcement of current laws to make their democracy better, stronger and more effective. This is the biggest difference between the Arab spring and the Anna Hazare movement.”
In India, the citizen’s right to protest government policies is a fundamental right as incorporated into the constitution and hence poses no real threat to the individual. Protests in India are not uncommon. It forms the very bulwark of India’s democratic structure and often creates more noise than benefit. In the Middle East, most of the countries that struggled to supplant their autocratic leaders through peaceful protests were subdued brutally and quickly.
The events following Anna Hazare’s protest movement discounted any possible comparison between the Arab turmoil and the Indian struggle. Anna Hazare was a man armed with impressive fortitude and a stubborn insistence on the potential of his Jan Lokpal bill. He presented his bill to India’s leaders and was invited to form part of the Joint Drafting Committee to hash out differences in the government’s version of the same document, as it existed. Failing to arrive at a compromise, Anna Hazare, took to the streets and instrumented an “Indefinite Fast” (not to be confused with a fast unto death). With solid media support, he entered jail as a celebrity and dramatically refused to countenance his release when officially allowed to do so. This scenario could never have played out in Iran, Syria, or Libya where thousands of protesters were murdered, jailed, tortured or had to leave their countries for fear of reprisals.
Corruption in India is deeply entrenched, a social evil that has become synonymous with Indian governance. For the Indian middle class, Anna Hazare’s movement represents the first step in the reformation process. Its success and its future shape is still anybody’s guess.
Anna Hazare’s greatest critics insist that the watchdog organization that he is intent on creating could be difficult to monitor and could end up becoming part of the problem. Other detractors say that orchestrated comparisons between Anna Hazare and Gandhi are little more than political grandstanding. But credit needs to be given to the fact that Anna aims to incorporate the country’s frustration into the democratic process. Yes, he does undermine the workings of the parliament and supersedes elected representatives, but he is backed by an inexorable wave of anti-corruption sentiment and a swell of popularity. Anna is now one of India’s own institutions, hallowed in government hallways as an apt representative of people power.
Support in United States
On October 20, I received an email update from Sheth on the U.S. NRI IAC roadmap meeting of October 17. “Most people who met on Monday displayed tremendous energy and commitment to support IAC movement. I firmly believe that NRIs can make tremendous impact with this coordinated effort,” going on to add, “this coalition is about including everyone united to support goals established in this meeting.”
Those present at the meeting nominated Unmesh Sheth and Prakash Aggarwal as the Ambassadors. Kalyan Raman and Mohan Uttarwar, with mentoring from Raj Mashruwala, were nominated to undertake the support of the referendum on the Lok Pal and the Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India(FDRI) was appointed as the channeling organization.
The Jan Lokpal bill, framed by members of the IAC movement, is likely to be taken up in the December/January session of parliament. One member of the Palo Alto assemblage asked the critical question, “Is there any apprehension that the government may not be sincere?” The answer was quick and blunt, “We are working on that assumption.”
Other organizations that have shown support for the IAC include NRI Indians against Corruption (NRIIAC.org) Indians for Collective Action (ICA), Lok Satta, SEVA, and Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India (FDRI). Sheth points out that “the underlying roots of each organization is pretty much the same. We want to give the marginalized poor a voice,” adding, “IAC is the real thing.”
When questioning a handful of Indians on the street about the IAC and or Occupy Wall Street movements, the majority answered that they support both movements, though I did encounter some fringe responses: “I don’t like protests. Just a waste of time,” and “Protesting on Zuccotti Park is OK, but in Times Square—interfering with tourists and all?” Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street
In early February 2011, thousands of state workers filled the square around the Wisconsin Capitol, yelling, “This will not stand.” They had taken umbrage at Republican Governor Scott Walker’s controversial measure that would strip the state’s public employee unions of their bargaining rights and impose greater salary pay cuts to pay for budget shortfalls. The tenacity of the protesters drew instant comparisons to the Arab Spring. But after a series of setbacks at the state courts and state legislature, the protests lost momentum by end of May. At the height of its energy, the Wisconsin protests drew close to 100,000 people and by June 16, that number had dwindled to about 1,000. However, energy from the movement was channeled into a recall process for several Republican Senators in Wisconsin (Walker is immune from the recall process till 2012) with limited success. As of now, a petition drive is on to collect enough signatures for the recall of the Governor.
In contrast, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) did not have a flashpoint that arose of any particular policy disagreement. It began very quietly and organically with a group of disenfranchised youth camping in front of the Grecian colonnades and glass-fronted skyscrapers of Wall Street. Numbering in the hundreds to begin with, these young people represented a generation whose future appears to be in jeopardy in an age of economic uncertainty and income inequality.
Despite ostensibly sharing the disaffectedness of another movement that created a fair amount of noise in 2010, the Tea Party, OWS was largely ignored by the media in the beginning. Media personalities quick to broadcast the Tea Party’s message of dissatisfaction with government carefully refrained from comment, with even the home town paper, the New York Times, not caring to provide any coverage. Fox News dismissed the protesters as “dirty smelly hippies.” Even National Public Radio (NPR) only started covering the event a week after the first protest.
But the movement not only persisted, it grew in strength, as its demands for justice against Wall Street excesses and focus on jobs and education found a chord with other young people around the country. And smart social media use, in an eerie parallel to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, provided the impetus for growth and allowed non-participants to support the movement with money and pizzas. Today OWS seems to be a movement that is gaining a foothold across America, one city at a time, and across the globe, one country at a time From New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia to Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Jose, public squares have filled up with iPhone wielding reformists. OWS protests range from disapproval of corporate greed, disproportional economic distinctions, foreclosed homes, to demands for debt relief, infrastructure investment, campaign finance reform and lower college costs, and even to complaints about security at airports and hormone injected produce. Critics decry the movement as not having a clear objective, but the real point is the presentation of a mass outcry.
Travis Storms, a student at Santa Clara University was camped out in front of the San Jose City Hall, as part of the Occupy San Jose movement. “I’m here because my mom is on disability. Her pay has been cut and the government refuses to help.” Christy Wong, another volunteer says, “We are against greed. I need to be able to convince my kids that they’ll have a future to look forward to.” But both Storms and Wong cannot give an answer as to what the solution should be. They both believe that protesting is the solution, because the “government cannot solve the problem.”
It is not entirely true that the only comparison that can be drawn between the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street is that both involve “frustrated youth loosely organized using social media.” Yes, the bloggers and social media updaters in the United States aren’t at risk of being mowed down by brutal despots. But brutality does not necessarily validate the process of people’s involvement. The goal of most protests is ultimately the same— to ignite opinion and force participation in a national process.
In America, the last time anything like this occurred was in December 1964 when 25,000 people marched in protest against the Vietnam War and the size of the protest was the largest that America had ever seen. It led to Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to run for a second term.
Globally, the movement has spread through social media updates and websites. On October 15, 2011, a manifesto was published called United for #GlobalDemocracy. The document did not hesitate to link the movement to the Arab Spring. “Inspired by our sisters and brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, New York, Palestine-Israel, Spain and Greece, we too call for a regime change: a global regime change. In the words of Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist, today we demand replacing the G8 with the whole of humanity—the G7,000,000,000.”
The Arab Spring, the India Against Corruption and the Occupy Wall Street movements are historical game changers. They stem from political and social dissonance and yet are peaceful attempts to effect change. All three have resulted in reevaluations of governmental process. Whether these global movements will be successful in their objectives remains to be seen. But their lasting legacy will be the message that meaningful progress and social justice can only happen when the citizens of a country do not abdicate their responsibilities to their representatives, and that the disenfranchised and the weak can be a powerful force if they act collectively. The revolutions of 2011 are warning shots to repressive regimes the world over and a rallying cry for social equity, much like previous revolutions, except the pitchforks have been replaced by smartphones, and the manifestos are released 140 characters at a time.
With inputs from Vidya Pradhan.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer.
The phrase “Arab Spring” is now part of every vernacular. In the words of Thorbjoern Jagland, the Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, “We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context, namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy.” This year the Peace Prize was awarded to Tawakel Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist and founder of the group, Women Journalists Without Chains along with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee from Liberia.
Let’s create the Facebook page: Anna Hazare for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. It’s about time!
The Role of Social Media
There is a new player in politics and that is social media. Despite filters, blocks and shutdowns of popular websites, social media has emerged as a reckonable participant. The inventions of the late Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have become indispensable currents of discourse be it social, political or intellectual.
Critics have typically decried Facebook and Twitter as platforms of vanity and self-obsession. However, as the Arab Spring has proven, when harnessed, these social media sites can be used as a rallying center, a community hub that is good for a great deal more than organizing like fests. Wael Ghonim, a Google employee, landed on the Time 100, a list of 100 most influential people in 2011, for sparking pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt with his Facebook status updates and protest events. His We Are All Khaled Saeed Facebook page (named for an Egyptian man tortured and killed in Alexandria) had 400,000 members before Tahrir Square got flooded with protesters. Since then every push for democracy has featured social media, be it blog sites, Facebook, Twitter or online conversation boards.
On August 15, India’s Independence Day, Anna Hazare and his cause had about 500,000 mentions in status updates, and Twitter messages. A couple of days later that number catapulted to 9 million, supporting the viral spread of his popularity and cementing Anna’s status as India’s cause célèbre.
A recent New York Times report stated that about 200 Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have been created in just a few weeks seeking volunteers to spearhead the Occupy Wall Street protests in different cities. Over 900 protest events have been set up on Meetup.com. There are 10,000 to 15,000 posts an hour on Twitter on average about Occupy Wall Street, with most people downloading and sharing links from news sites, Tumblr, YouTube, MoveOn.org and Trendsmap. Smart devices that act as megaphones to protesters’ thoughts and activities have become partners of the protest movement.