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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 28, July 2, 2011

Between Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev: Understanding the Civil Society

Sunday 3 July 2011, by Harish S. Wankhede


The current populist rejuvenation of civil society in India has offered many questions to the intelligentsia. It has invoked ‘quick’ diagnoses for the current ills (corruption and black money) by organising a rendezvous of different antago-nists under the banner of ‘Civil Society’. One has to answer whether such heightened valorisation of civil society is in a real sense healthy for democracy or not. Further, the absence and disinterest of the ‘political Left’ to mobilise and provide leadership to this movement is also a crucial aspect. I would like to argue that with the downfall of the Left-progressive forces as the leader of the people’s struggle, the popular movements are galvanised by the new avatar of civil society. The current movements have peculiar characteristics which distinguish them from the category of ‘popular upsurge’ or ‘democratic revolution’. The civil society in India today is contaminated with the bourgeois ‘laid-back’ attitude and the masses are engaged through communal-emotive appeals.

Civil Society Movements and the Role of the Political Left

THE two Left parties (CPI-CPI-M) kept a critical distance from the current civil society mobilisa-tions. Support was extended to Anna Hazare but they cautiously avoided the participation of their cadres. Both the parties were deeply engaged in the Kerala and West Bengal Assembly elections and had almost no energy to indulge in another issue. Later, the election results of these States put both the parties in disarray and depression. Here, another Left outfit, the CPI-ML, tried to get some limelight in the Hazare show. However, it was hardly accepted by the organisers as a crucial part of the platform. In one of the occasions, when the leader from this front was about to make her speech, she was not only forcefully stopped by the organisers but also humiliated by the audiences for her ‘Communist’ background.1 The Left parties in general had no impact over the functioning and objectives of this specific movement.

In the earlier days, the critical distance of the organised Left parties, mainly CPI-CPM, from such ‘urban centric’ non-political activism was justified on the ground that it was a ‘vehicle to counter and disrupt the Left movement in India’.2 Further, the voluntary groups/NGOs were seen as instruments of imperialism which mainly attracts ‘petty bourgeois youth embedded with idealism’.3 However, it is also a fact that the Communist Parties in India have not taken recourse to nationwide mass mobilisations against anti-people issues for a long time now. Most of the recent mass upsurges have adopted non-Left characteristics or the populist Gandhian mode. (The Chipko movement earlier and Narmada Bachao Andolan later are the two most popular social movements in contemporary India.) The civil rights movements (Khairlanjee or anti-caste atrocity struggles), environmental activism and the general NGOisation of social movements (movement for the Right to Information) have not seen impressive participation of the Left. Such antagonism to the ‘people’s struggle’ have really curtailed the space of the organised Left. On the other hand, respectable space is created for civil society activism and its ‘non-political’ nature has now been celebrated by sections of the society and state.

The civil society has expanded its limits and is now pursuing those issues which have a national appeal and attached to the general concerns of the people (issues of corruption and black money are real handy items). It has taken a backdoor entry into the policy and law-making processes which are basically a parliamentary function. With the rise of such concrete mobili-sations against the state, the role of the political Opposition has been reduced to a mere passive audience. The Left parties, on the other hand, remained occupied with ‘big’ political issues and on most occasions tried to mobilise people against imperialist war (impressive protests were held in the Capital against America’s war on Iraq and also against the nuclear deal). However, the neglect by the Left to develop an open dialogue with the civil society on various people-centric issues have provided enough leverage and attention to the ‘non-Left’ sections to mobilise the people.

The current civil society leadership has no respect or connectivity with the organised Left political parties. It has developed its own political discourse, capacity of agitation and has influenced sections of the people in a substantive way. However, the credentials and motives that the contemporary civil society represents, are not only a significant threat to the Left movement in India but also detrimental to the need for an impressive democratic and secular ‘people’s struggle’. The recent mobilisation by Hazare and Baba Ramdev needs a critical scrutiny from the perspective of the Left.

The Two Factions of the Civil Society

THERE was a bogey of news showing the comple-mentary association of Hazare and Ramdev against the issue of corruption and black money. It appears both of them are fighting the same battle against the Congress-led regime and supplementing each other in their respective struggles. Both of them have emerged as the most visible face of contemporary civil society, pressurising the government to take crucial steps against corruption. However, there is a concrete political and cultural divide between the two parallel movements. After the agitation at Jantar Mantar, Hazare attracted the courtesy and respect from the government and is now with his team comfortably drafting the proposal of the Bill (with all the state-sponsored remunerations). Ramdev’s protest, on the other hand, took a dramatic turn. He was not only humiliated and strangled during the protest but was also turned away from the Capital immediately. He is now termed as a stooge of the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh (RSS) and the files of the property he has amassed are now being opened by the Income Tax Department.

The question is: why is there such differen-tiated treatment when both of them are raising almost identical issues of corruption, ‘black money’ and about the government’s nepotism? The answer lies in the fact that there is an overt distinction between the two, based on its specific class/caste sensibilities, political culture and the audiences they appeal to. The government cracked down on Ramdev because he had the potential to create a mass hysteria against the government led by the Congress, whereas Hazare was passive and could be used to mobilise support for the government’s ‘pro-people’ action in the later days. The distinction is also done by the urban educated elite (mainly in New Delhi) who stayed away from the populist-communal agitation of Ramdev but cautiously lent its support to the quasi-intellectual protest led by Hazare and his team. Such duality within the movement demonstrates the limitations of civil society to produce a viable alternative to the ideals of parliamentary democracy.

The Class Distinctions

HAZARE has been popularised as a modern-day Gandhian, which is one of the important forces to attract the ‘not-so-political’ middle class in India. The team which is associating with him has typical middle class credentials (one ex-IPS officer, two reputed lawyers and a popular social activist). It has also attracted certain ‘secular’ motifs by allying with the English speaking sadhu, Swami Agnivesh, and one or two Muslim leaders. The middle class sensitivities are attracted towards this group because it has a sophisticated appeal based on the norms of democratic struggle and peaceful gathering. These professionals showed a determined ‘non-political’ aggression to formulate the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ and are cautiously associating with the government. Thus, this team ensembles certain celebrated ideals of classic bourgeoisie, mainly secularism, recourse to democratic protest and due respect to the process of law and constitutional validity. A standard example of civil society activism in liberal democracy!

In contrast to Hazare’s secular-Gandhian avatar, Ramdev in his saffron attire got easily painted as a fundamentalist Right-winger. First, he disobeyed the state orders and a ‘five-star’ agitation was launched at the Ramlila Ground without permission. This act was seen as provocative and disturbing. The middle class usually avoids participating in such protests which have impetus to disturb peace and security. Secondly, his overt nationalist rhetoric and association of people with communal credentials (Sadhvi Rithambhara and later Uma Bharati) sealed his fate as a communal sadhu. The views delivered during the protest were political and not in ‘good taste’ (demands like ‘technical education in non-English languages’ and ‘hang the corrupt’). The politically concerned sections among the urban middle class therefore kept a safe distance from the Ramlila Ground during those days. Lastly, it had no intellectual or professional support from the influential sections (on the contrary, the notorious khap panchayats voiced their support for the agitating Baba making matters worse). The only celebrity who appeared during the agitation was the Bhojpuri film star and singer, Manoj Tiwari.

Further, it was a ‘mass mobilisation’ (around 30-40,000 people gathered during the protest) of commoners (mainly Ramdev’s followers from the North Indian States). People reached the spot by trains, buses or long marches. Their attire was conventional and they used rural dialects in their conversations. The media also telecast the other street protests at various urban centres (including the Bajrang Dal’s announcement of support at Bhubaneshwar in Orissa). Ramdev’s protest thus appeared quasi-lumpen and had conservative and violent standards (which are now overtly demonstrated by Ramdev’s own confession of ‘building an army of 11,000 youths’). He had a non-compromising attitude, which later on developed into an open confrontation with the state’s authority.

The Curious Middle Class and the Emotional Masses

THE individuals, groups and Non-Governmental Organisations which gathered at Jantar Mantar for Hazare’s protest had peculiar characteristics, different from Ramdev’s mobilisation. Most supporters at Hazare’s protest were curious visitors compelled by the media to demonstrate their ‘social’ responsibility. During the ‘protest show’ some people specially dressed to impress the audience, some of them wanted to have their ‘15 minutes of fame’ and some only went for photo-ops (later uploaded on Facebook for comments). The venue of the protest became a curious landscape for the residents of Delhi, and they visited it to have a ‘feel’ of vibrant air.

There were also bands and skits performed by the ‘concerned’ students. Many even got their faces painted to express solidarity with the cause. In the evenings, some curious parents (with utterly branded attire) could be spotted with their kids, sitting on their cars eating ice-creams. What they would otherwise do at India Gate, they were now doing at Jantar Mantar. Importantly, the protest attracted celebrities from the entertainment industry (Raza Murad and Anupam Kher) and even A-list stars (Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan) helped the event get the right PR. Thus it was a comfortable protest, one where the elite could easily quench their thirst by paying Rs 25 for a litre of mineral water, sold right outside the protest site.

Both the movements were described by the media as the resurgence of civil society for a better change in governance and against corruption. However, the movement led by the middle class elites (most of them are accidentally upper caste too) under the leadership of Hazare is exclusivist and typical bourgeois in nature. It undermines parliamentary democracy and pressurises the government with its quasi-ethical sensationa-lism. On the other hand, Ramdev may be socially located among the OBCs (he was born a Yadav) and his agitation may have considerable mass appeal, but it is infected with dangerous communal venom (now openly supported by the RSS). The conservative and violent apparel of Ramdev’s agitation is accepted by the BJP and the Congress is comfortable with the ‘critical appreciation’ of Hazare’s team. Thus both the movements attract two distinct brands of audiences in their respective protests with contesting political values. Civil society appears as a collective unit against the government, but in reality it is ghettoised on caste/class considerations and has distinct political ambitions within it.

Conclusion: Understanding Civil Society

THE logic of civil society itself is problematic. Its members act as non-political actors but in a subtle way subscribe to a certain brand of political ideology. It limits the engagement of the participants on a specific and limited issue (mostly policy-related) without dwelling on the deeprooted reasons for the growing socio-economic maladies. More importantly, it disrespects the democratic process of elections and condemns all the political parties and leaders as ‘corrupt’ without distinction. The middle class elites treat the electorates as illiterate and feel they are not conscious enough to understand the ‘dirty politics’. There is an acceptable understanding amongst the professionals that elections are a farce and the political leadership is immoral. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility for these ‘concerned citizens’ to take the final call and clean the system. Importantly, the absence and distance of the organised Left parties from the democratic struggles have allowed these regressive and bourgeois forces to take the lead.

Hazare and Ramdev and their civil society avatar appear democratic and peaceful, but the growing importance of this brigade is dangerous for a functional democracy. This platform of independent assertions (Gandhians, NGOs, religious leaders and now the Maoists have also joined it) has little interest in strengthening the democratic process in a substantive way. It has the capacity to undermine the revolutionary process of periodic elections and can legitimise the non-constitutional modes (agitations, mass pressure and possibly violent struggle) to make policies and laws. A peaceful democracy will be in trouble when more such independent actors (without any comprehensive political agenda of democratic participation) of civil society will rise and confront the system. The idea of a civil society is not to turn democracy into mobocracy but to substantiate it with qualitative democratic participation.


1. See “Left member Shooed Away” in Hindustan Times, New Delhi, June 8, 2011.
2. Prakash Karat, “Foreign Funding and the Philosophy of Voluntary Organisations” in Marxist, 1988, pp. 2-3.
3. Ibid.

The author is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Ramlal Anand College (E), University of Delhi.

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