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The Indian Spring: Lessons for the world

December 30, 2013 16:13 IST

Arvind KejriwalThe Indian Spring represented by Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, which has culminated in the Aam Aadmi Party's impressive electoral debut in New Delhi, began around the same time as the Arab Spring in 2011 but they led to different outcomes in India and the Arab world, says Ramesh Ramachandran.

 

On December 17, as Tunisians observed the third anniversary of the self-immolation of a 26-year-old street vendor Mohd Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid that sparked protests in their country and triggered a wave of similar uprisings across north Africa and west Asia, people of New Delhi broke out into celebrations for the second time in less than 10 days.

A rank outsider, Arvind Kejriwal, 45, had just announced a referendum of sorts to ascertain the people’s wishes on whether his Aam Aadmi Party should take the lead for forming a government or not, after the fledgling party made a historic debut in the assembly elections winning 28 seats in the 70-member house and coming second behind the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies (32) but far ahead of the Congress’s tally of eight seats. Less than a week later, Kejriwal had staked claim to form the government, bringing to a successful culmination an unprecedented experiment in Indian democracy and bringing cheer to ordinary citizens who had had enough of the corruption and inflation that had peaked of late.

The contrast between Sidi Bouzid, a town 260 kilometres southwest of capital Tunis, and Delhi located 6,000-odd km away, could not have been starker. Three years after the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, Tunisia -- much like the rest of the Arab world -- is still coming to terms with the contagion that was unleashed on an unsuspecting society and government alike.

But the Indian version of the Arab Spring that began with a septuagenarian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on April 5, 2011 can draw satisfaction from the many successes it has notched up on the way. There is a sense of accomplishment in the air. The spontaneous public movement that captured the imagination of men and women, young and old, in cities and towns across much of India has finally paid dividends.

Not only does India today have a new Lokpal Bill that provides for a nationwide anti-corruption ombudsman, Hazare’s one-time protege Kejriwal has turned a people’s movement for good governance, transparency and accountability into a political party with a remarkable felicity of democratic expression.

That this was achieved without any blood-letting is a tribute to the virtues of democracy in general and the sagacity and maturity of the Indian voter in particular. Compare this with the less than two lakh people killed in the Arab Spring, including, but not limited to, 300 in Tunisia, 1,700 in Egypt, 2,000 in Yemen, 25,000 in Libya, 1.2 lakh in Syria and over 100 in Bahrain, all of which are yet nowhere close to overcoming the challenges such as corruption, unemployment, inflation and inequality that bedevils Sidi Bouzid as much as it does Chandni Chowk. The events that unfolded in those countries brought home the tragic consequences of choosing the bullet over the ballot.

The phenomenon sweeping across much of the Arab world did not leave democratic societies such as the United States, where the Occupy Wall Street movement gained traction, or India, untouched. No country was immune from its reach. Social media ensured that the word spread farther and anger travelled faster.

It sprouted wherever it found a ground made fertile by mis-governance. It spared neither the dictator nor the democrat. Five governments were overthrown, including two in Egypt, just as the ruling Congress party was ousted from power in Delhi but, unlike India and the US, the levels of disenchantment continue to remain high in the democracy-deficit countries in north Africa and west Asia.

The prevailing sentiment in Tunisia, which has seen changes wrought by the Arab Spring, is that people’s lives and their economic situation has improved only marginally but it is not likely to improve any further in the immediate future. Tunisia is likely to witness the approval of a new constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections in 2014.

In a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and the University of Maryland in the United States, more than 60 per cent of the 3,000 Tunisian adults surveyed said that they are not happy with the current political leadership and 86 per cent said that corruption is common. The situation is worse in Egypt, which increasingly resembles a police state, or, Libya, where militias run amok, throwing the country into further instability.

In Yemen, attempts are still being made for a national dialogue and reconciliation involving multiple stakeholders. “It is clear that the process of Arab transformation will need decades to mature and that its success is by no means guaranteed,” says Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the oldest international affairs think tank in the United States. Muasher’s prognosis for some of the countries affected by the Arab Spring is not encouraging.

According to him, Egypt, which can be expected to hold a referendum on a new constitution in addition to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, “is not out of the woods yet.” He sounds a warning for the Arab monarchies who have not succeeded in tackling the underlying political, economic, and social challenges their nations face.

“Jordan will continue to feel that it has successfully ridden the wave of Arab transitions without seriously addressing some of the key economic and political challenges facing the country. And it will probably get away with it, at least for now,” notes Muasher, who served as Jordan’s deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005 and foreign minister from 2002 to 2004.

 

At the same time, the Aam Aadmi Party’s ascension to the front and centre of the political landscape and discourse is instructive for a proud democracy such as India. We are seeing Kejriwal’s fourth avatar, this time as a politician, after the engineer-turned-bureaucrat quit government service to launch a non-government organisation. He was in every sense of the word an antithesis to the reticent and self-effacing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who for many had come to symbolise some if not everything that was wrong with the government and governance.

By any reckoning, the recently-concluded elections in Delhi that catapulted the Aam Aadmi Party to centre-stage had to be among the most secular electoral contests in recent memory because it was fought on the twin issues of corruption and good governance, and these are as secular an issue as secular gets. The usual considerations of caste, sect or religion were trumped by the near universal outrage against corruption.

Contrast this with many of the countries affected by the Arab Spring which descended into sectarianism, majoritarianism or plain terrorism; where people still yearn for the rule of law and many of the personal freedoms and human rights that many around the world take for granted. The Indian Spring also took under its wing issues other than corruption, such as crimes against women. The common man was once again at the forefront of the apolitical, secular protests following the December 16, 2012 gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi.

The Indian Street, similar to the Arab Street, had well and truly begun to take shape. The unprecedented outrage forced Parliament to pass the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill to tighten the legal framework against rape. Women have found the voice to assert themselves like never before. It has led to the arrest of a magazine editor on charges of rape and a retired Supreme Court judge finds himself at the centre of a row over the alleged sexual harassment of a law intern.

Having said that, if the groundswell of opinion in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi extends to even some of the other states of Indian union and/or the mandate decisively shifts away from the two blocs led by the Congress and the BJP to regional parties, then the 2014 parliamentary elections could throw up a more representative government bringing in its wake certain implications for the economic and foreign policies of India. Be it 51 per cent foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail; policies vis-à-vis Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka; National Counter Terrorism Centre; or setting up of new nuclear power plants, what cannot be overstated is that devolution of economic or foreign policies to more stakeholders than what is currently assumed should not be entirely unwelcome.

In a federal structure such as India’s, foreign policy in particular cannot be practised in a vacuum or in isolation or without consultations with all stakeholders concerned, including, but not limited to, the states, particularly those that share contiguous borders with neighbouring countries and/or share ethnic, linguistic, cultural or geographical affinities with them.

A foreign policy drawn up in the corridors of the South Block in New Delhi may have served India well in all these decades but contemporary realities dictate that in a federal set-up and in an era of coalition governments the views of the states are factored in at the time of formulation of a foreign policy.

The democratisation of policy-making and the salience of the states in shaping it cannot be continued to be treated as an exception; and the sooner New Delhi gets used to executing its foreign and domestic policies in a coalition with sometimes competing political interests, the better it will be for all the stakeholders concerned.

At the time of writing, protests reminiscent of the Arab Spring are happening in Thailand, where at least four have died so far, and Ukraine. The international community could draw the right lessons from the Indian Spring, which spawned the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. It has stirred even a 128-year-old party such as the Congress from its complacency and put others on notice. The three-time chief minister of Delhi, who had derisively asked “Who is Arvind Kejriwal? What is [Aam Aadmi Party]?” on election day, got her answer four days later when the votes were counted and how: Her party had been trounced and she herself had lost the election from her constituency. All of which can only mean one thing for political parties and governments everywhere: Thou shalt not mistreat the common man.

Ramesh Ramachandran is a Delhi-based journalist.

Ramesh Ramachandran