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Anna advocacy: Politics as performance and spectacle

John Samuel analyses the relevance and irrelevance of Team Anna’s media-driven mode of advocacy, which unfortunately sought only to transcend politics, not transform it

India Against Corruption

One of the positive outcomes of the recent mobilisation for the Lokpal Bill to challenge corruption at various levels of government is that it has revitalised political debate in India, particularly among the apolitical class. Though in terms of substantive demands, Team Anna has achieved nothing new (they simply changed the goalposts on some of their earlier demands) they did succeed in putting corruption at the centre of political discourse. They also showed the possibilities for a new politics.

The ongoing debates and discussions in cyberspace, in media, in drawing rooms and in public spaces in a way signify the relevance of social mobilisation. It is the political debates about the nature and character of 'representative democracy', new modes of mobilisation and the relevance (or irrelevance) of the 'old' left in new India etc that are more interesting than the advocacy campaign itself.  

The Anna movement is indicative of number of trends.  Here are 10 broad observations on some of the changing trends.

 1) There is little space for the politically aware middle class to join a political party or mainstream political process as political parties are still in the old mode, allowing no room for horizontal entry beyond the usual feeder mechanisms. Even today, in most political parties (except for the left parties) lineage matters more than political vision, commitment or grassroots experience. One in every six MPs is there because of his/her family connections.

2) The software of Indian politics is changing though the hardware has not changed. The political and policy process in India has changed significantly in the last 15 years. There is a new middle class with more access to knowledge, technology, social networking, income and global exposure. Modes of power, social legitimation and leadership have changed significantly in the last 20 years. However, the structural character of the Indian political party system is still based on a model that emerged in the early-1980s, the post-Emergency period in Indian politics.

3) Modes of communication determine modes of mobilisation and also modes of politics in many ways. Look at how the profile of political leaders has changed with televised political communication. Few have worked directly with the people or mobilised them at the grassroots. Many have walked onto the political stage through the TV studios. They are telegenic and articulate and derive their political legitimacy in the television studios, though they may not be at ease with the dust and sweat of the road or the noise of the masses. Many of them have been lawyers or relatively better-educated members of the urban upper-middle class. Consider Kapil Sibal, Manu Abhishek Singhvi, P Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat.

Telegenic politics has caused journalism itself to become a ‘performance’ in the TV studios or on the road, eclipsing the old modes of analytical journalism and nuanced critique. This kind of instant journalism is all about playing to the moment and performing for an imagined community. Mass politics has been submerged under this form of media politics. The market and the media have collided to create an instant ‘sensex’ of politics. 

It is here that new-age advocacy actors from the non-party political/civil space have begun to outsmart the old politicians by performing media politics and utilising network modes of mobilisation. They are the telegenic civil society counterparts of the telegenic politicians.  They belong to the same class: articulate, urban, upper-caste middle class. The people were to them largely the means and not the end of democracy. Rhetoric often preceded the reality of a billion people.  In a world where market, media and telegenic performance determine political clout, the new civil society too has learned the art of politics as performance, competing for TRP ratings in the marketplace of media mediation.

But now in the age of social media and new possibilities of communications, the name of the game is changing again. Here, the civil society actors are ahead of the old political class in shaping perceptions of power through communications. The power of influencing perception has become more important than the real power of the people on the ground. Politics itself has been reduced to a ‘virtual’ game in the marketplace of perceptions.

4) When mainstream political parties are reduced to an electoral network that merely wins or loses elections, other actors fill the empty political spaces. That is precisely the reason for the relevance and space of new advocacy networks and organisations -- from KSSP to Narmada Bachao, to the RTI movement, to the right to work (NREGA) campaign to the present anti-corruption campaigns. Look at all the key legislations (including the campaign for political participation of women) in the last 15 years. None of them came from the mainstream political parties. Most of the demand first emerged in the political-civil space beyond political parties; then political parties responded by absorbing the demands into policy agenda. This is bound to happen when the sole preoccupation of political parties is winning or losing an election, and then staying in power.

Ideology has taken a backseat -- except in empty slogans and rhetoric. The politics of electoral convenience has replaced the politics of conviction. Political opportunism has been elevated to the position of 'smart' politics -- hiring media experts, advertising professionals, campaign managers, and slogans coined by copywriters of ad-firms in charge of designing the best campaigns to grab more seats (by hook or by crook). This is a far cry from the idealistic politics of the Nehruvian phase in post-independence India.

When ideology (or political vision/mission) is replaced by a mix of identity- (caste, creed, language) and interest-based electoral arithmetic, the politics of transformation is reduced to pressure politics and redundant, ‘instant’ rhetoric. It is in such spaces that civil society activism find its relevance and influence in the mainstream political landscape of India.

5) Whether one likes it or not, the middle class has always shaped the broader political discourse in India and elsewhere -- from communism to capitalism to fascism to Hindutva.  So the role of the middle class in Indian politics is not new. Most of the ideologues and political leaders have come from the Indian middle class, and largely from the upper-caste.

Anna Hazare happened to be simply a signifier: here the old idealism met with new modes of mobilisation -- beyond the usual institutional network of political parties. There is also a message: those in government or power can no longer simply take the people for granted. And in the age of social networking, mobilisation and public opinions can also be shaped beyond mainstream media and mainstream politics. This gives rise to the possibility of a new politics beyond the electoral games we witness every five years.

6) The rural-urban divide has political implications in India. In independent India, there have been four major political transitions -- the end of the 1960s Nehruvian era;  the end of one-party rule following the Emergency;  the emergence of telegenic politics in the 1990s and the age of globalisation; and assertive Hindutva competing for the vote-bank late-’80s onwards.  Almost all of these periods have had an urban middle class link -- even in the case of the Naxalites -- in shaping the discourse.

7) However, it would be rather simplistic to compare the new social network-based mobilisation of the urban middle classes to the Gandhian mode of political struggles for freedom against colonialism and imperialism. Politics against injustice, oppression and domination preceded the methods of Gandhi. Gandhian methods did not define his politics. His politics and ethics shaped his choice of methods and communication. Gandhi’s politics was the politics of the masses and not the politics of the mass media. Gandhi worked and lived with the people, listened to them, educated and empowered them and spent a lifetime experimenting with his ideas and methods, without compromising the ideal of transformation. Gandhi sought to transform politics, not transcend politics.

Here, in the media-driven performance of Team Anna, method preceded politics. This was the politics of instant performance, seeking to influence the perceptions of a particular class, rather than a mass politics to challenge and change the situation. It sought to transcend politics rather than transform politics.  It sought to create symbols devoid of substance.  It is interesting to note how Team Anna team played to the needs of the media market. The  protest performance began with the backdrop of an image of Bharat Mata (Mother India), appealing to upper-caste Hindu sentiments, and when this was criticised for its saffron leanings, the backdrop was changed to an elegantly designed photograph of Gandhiji  with the charkha, and the waving of the national flag to ‘nationalise’ and ‘secularise’ the performance of the fast. This colourful performance of protest, where Kiran Bedi played the cheerleader on the ‘stage’ and Anna pretended to be Gandhi was a spectacle of politics aimed at the media. The masses became simply a means to show power rather than the real source of power. This was a mockery of Gandhian principles, practise and methods of politics. The media followed Gandhi’s politics. Here the politics of performance followed the media.

9) Anna was just a symbol in a campaign primarily promoted by Delhi-centric upper-caste and middle class actors. Anna, an ex-armyman from rural India of the jai jawan-jai kisan variety with a bit of the Gandhian touch and grassroots NGO background, was set against an urban backdrop, with mass media filling in the gaps: Anna symbolised the ‘old’ India onscreen, and young India was represented by the youth on the streets, the whole performance televised. Kiran Bedi put up a good performance for the media, of the elite, post-retirement ‘civil service’ transiting into ‘civil society’.  ‘Civil society’ itself became a residual space for the new elites to find their niche within the media mediations. Bollywood star Aamir Khan added the celebrity quotient to the new ‘civil society’ performers manufactured by the media.

You have to admit it was a smart experiment in new modes of advocacy campaigning -- making strategic use of symbols (Anna too was one), media and networking. This was not a political struggle or a satyagraha of Gandhian politics. It was a smart, urban-based advocacy campaign. Though there are many interesting lessons to learn from it, India Against Corruption’s campaign cannot be compared with the salt satygraha or even the anti-Emergency campaign.

How can a Bill drafted by four or five people make the rather tall claim of being a people's (Jan) Lokpal Bill? They hardly consulted people on the ground in a diverse country of more than a billion. They sought to connect with people through media, rather than the other way around, adding soft-saffron and celebrity characters for the ever-hungry TV cameras.

10) While I think the mobilisation is indicative of a trend, I do not agree with the content and modes of Team Anna, particularly its claim to be a ‘second freedom struggle’ or mass-based politics. Bringing thousands of people out on the streets in a few cities of India through media and networking is not a substitute for substantive politics in a country of 1.2 billion people.

In a parliamentary democracy, the role of parliament is cardinal. Political parties are the main political force in the country that sustains the health of a representative system of democracy. I also think there are a large number of committed and aware politicians with a sense of integrity. Just because a section of politicians and political party system is corrupt does not mean that the political class as a whole is corrupt.

While it may be important to challenge and influence those who hold power in the state, it is also important to recognise the limitations of the quick-fix, 11-day wonders of televised mobilisation. Because such advocacy campaigns can create the illusion of a sound democratic political process when actually these televised quick-fix mobilisations can undermine real political or democratic struggles on the ground. The campaign for the so-called 'Jan' Lokpal Bill was an example of a relatively successful advocacy campaign for a policy change, and not an example of a political struggle for freedom or against injustice.  

However, the Anna Hazare spectacle has illustrated that politics in India in the next 10 years may be dramatically different in terms of modes of mobilisation, composition of leadership and the issues that would arise. The mode of mobilisation of those who are born in the 1980s has shifted. The anti-corruption campaign just happened to be a space to voice a discontent with the mainstream political party process in India where lineage matters more than real politics. If political parties do not change their hardware and present modes of operation, many of them will not be able to mobilise people in the years to come.

(These are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views or positions of any of the organisations with which he is associated)

Infochange News & Features, August 2011