Questions have frequently been asked in India during the past three weeks about whether the type of uprising seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square could happen here, with a street-level rebellion occupying a city centre and spreading across the country to such a degree that it topples the national government.
Surely, it is generally said, India’s democratic systems, though flawed, make the country immune to such social and political upheavals. As a last resort, India’s non-political army could step in as a benign temper-calming longstop, as it does from time to time around the country.
India, people say correctly, is not an autocracy, so surely it has enough checks and balances in its parliamentary system to stop such an event happening. Indeed the nearest thing to an autocracy is the Congress Party under Sonia Gandhi, who heads the governing coalition and whose dynastic writ crosses swathes of government policy. Along with her heir-apparent son Rahul, she is however a directly-elected member of the parliament’s Lok Sabha (lower house), and her influence on the country depends on Congress winning national parliamentary and state assembly elections.
To an outsider, India must seem ripe for an Egypt-style eruption. Its parliament is frequently closed down by political rows, as happened for almost the whole of the pre-Christmas winter session. Its governing coalition is rudderless and steeped in corruption, and the ineffective opposition is so irresponsible and desperate to gain attention that it even tried to whip up unrest in the riot-prone state of Kashmir over whether the national flag should be flown on Republic Day.
More than 300m people live on a dollar a day or less, and twice that number on less than $2. Food prices have been rising at 18%. There has been frequent regional unrest over the poor losing their land to rampant speculation and industrial development, and top judges and army generals have joined politicians and other officials in building up illicit personal wealth.
The young are restless and ambitious and, though many are enjoying an upwardly mobile lifestyle that their parents could only dream about when they were young, many are underemployed or just without work, even after some form of tertiary education. Those under 35 account for about 60% of the 1.1bn population and, like Egypt’s youth, they are heavily into electronic communications and social media. Some have not just one but two cell phones – there are over 750m mobiles in use in the country.
This leads to two questions. First, what sort of subjects could trigger a rebellion? Second, could there be a national rebellion and, if not, could government-threatening uprisings develop in individual states, and might that lead to nation-wide contagion.
Land is most likely to trigger unrest, as has been seen in many parts of the country, notably in West Bengal’s violent eruptions that started four years ago over a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Nandigram and a Tata Motors factory at Singur. (Both projects were abandoned.)
The trouble starts with small farmers and landless labourers giving up land they have held for generations. They often waste the small amounts they are paid and then see developers making massive profits in later deals. Tribal people lose their village land in mineral-rich forests and mountains to companies like Vedanta, a controversial UK-based mining company, and to many more Indian operators that move in illegally with the support of local politicians and officials.
When 25,000 landless workers marched to the edge of Delhi in November 2007, I wrote on this blog that land “looks like becoming India’s most explosive social issue in the future, as those who benefit from land grabs become more greedy and those who lose out feel even further left behind”.
Until now however, democratic forces have calmed protests, negating chances of a mass rebellion. West Bengal has had all the seeds for a popular uprising after 30-plus years of rule by an increasingly corrupt and self-serving Communist-based Left Front state government. The Nandigram and Singur unrest was encouraged for political reasons by Mamata Banerjee, leader of the regional Trinamool Congress opposition party, and was inflamed by Maoist Naxalite rebels.
Democracy has now asserted itself in two ways. Mamata Banerjee hopes to oust the Left in state elections due in April this year. And Mrs Gandhi said during the protests over Nandigram and other SEZs that agricultural land should not be grabbed for development. That was a good and positive example of her influence, and it halted many projects as well as quelling the unrest. Since then, national and state governments have been working on new policies to give those who lose their land a permanent stake in industrial and mining developments, though progress is slow.
Corruption is another potential issue, but millions of people enjoy the spoils down through the system to village level (which is why 70% or more of economic aid is lost in transit), so it arouses condemnation and protest demonstrations (see pic above), but not potential revolt. Anger about corruption is also defused by elections, which politicians frequently lose if they are perceived themselves to have benefited excessively. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the once-jailed former long-term chief minister of Bihar, who was involved in multi-million dollar scams but did nothing for mass development, was trounced for a second time in state elections last year after his successor had smartened up the state’s performance.
Much is forgiven if there is development. Corrupt leaders of two parties, the DMK and AIADMK, have between them run Tamil Nadu state assembly coalitions continuously for 44 years. Operating in the style of Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, they have led strong economic, social and industrial development (including respectable SEZs). At the same time, their relations and friends have been awarded jobs and business contracts in the state and ministerial posts in Delhi – as has been dramatically evident in India’s current telecoms scam. This may not be ethical government, but it is a model of development that works.
The biggest threat to India of course comes from Maoist Naxalites, who are active in a third of the country’s districts and conduct armed terrorist attacks that security forces have not been able to quell. Home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram admitted recently that the two sides had reached “a stalemate”. The rebels thrive in tribal and other under-privileged areas where there is a lack of development and where India’s often-brutal security forces and forest officers harass the poor. They have yet to gain a hold in an urban area, though they occupied Lalgarh, 100 miles from Kolkata, in 2009.
There are of course other major social issues, as well as ethnic and religious clashes, that cause often-violent riots, for which India is famous. But the size and diversity of this voluble and argumentative country means it is very difficult to build a unified view on anything, and the main Hindu religion does not unify people to anything like the same extent as Islam. Protests usually peter out once the demonstrators have been placated with promises, or the vested interests that encouraged and facilitated them have achieved their political, monetary or other targets. Most recently, Gujjar tribals who blocked road and rail access between Delhi and Rajasthan for days at the end of December, eventually went home with just vague promises of action on their demands for economic advancement.
None of these issues is likely to lead to a nation-wide rebellion in Delhi. If the Gujjars or the 2007 landless had broken through police barricades and got to the centre of Delhi, there could have been bloody clashes, but they would not have been joined by the hundreds of thousands of motivated youth needed to challenge the structure of government. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that the youth are “highly risk averse, more politically right-wing than before, extremely socially conservative and disinclined to opt for rebellion”.
Another factor negating national unrest is the fact that different regions of India have different priorities. Patrick French recently told me that the questions he was asked in the south on his Portrait of India new book tour focussed much more on business issues than on Delhi’s preoccupation with politics. Concern about India-Pakistan rows similarly seems to dwindle as one travels south. And perceptions of corruption, as I said above, varies.
Since independence, no event has united the country in protest. Two of the worst outbreaks were based on religious divisions. North India’s anti-Sikh riots were encouraged after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 by leading Congress politicians but, after a few days retribution, the government stepped in.
Anti-Muslim riots at the end of 1992 after the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya faded away after some weeks. In the far north-east states such as Assam and Nagaland, there have been local uprisings for years which have no resonance or impact elsewhere. Even 21 years of unrest in Kashmir has been largely contained to that state.
It looks therefore as if there is no prospect of Tahrir Square being replayed in Delhi’s majestic Raj Path that leads past parliament to the presidential palace, nor even in the traditional Jantar Mantar protest area (photo above) off Parliament Street. Regionally it will not happen at Shivaji Park in the commercial capital of Mumbai, where Hindu and Marathi chauvinist demonstrations are held, nor in Bangalore where there are frequent Hindu-Muslim clashes and one of the country’s most corrupt state governments.
But, if democratic forces continue to fail to serve the people of West Bengal better, might the Naxalites draw closer to Kolkata’s Victoria Park (above) that houses the monumental Victoria Memorial? That would be a neat location in the former imperial capital for an uprising by the poor about how badly they have fared since the British left.