LONDON: Two countries in ferment, two governments paying the price for years of mishandling the links between social and economic change….. One prime minister losing credibility day by day as he ducks decisions, another asserting school prefect style toughness that splits society….. Both countries’ problems exacerbated by the power of social media, which generate tensions and passions that no democratic government can control.
One should not overdo the similarities between the problems that have faced India and the UK in the past two or three weeks, but they make striking contrasts. They raise questions about whether Britain’s suppressed tensions and rapid reassertion of official authority provide a better answer to social unrest than India’s muddled responses to continuing mass protests.
Britain was suddenly hit by five days of urban riots in early August that led to widespread street fights, burning shops and mass arrests – all alien to the country’s traditions. Prime minister David Cameron is importing a tough top US policeman to advise him on how to handle gangs that rule in many urban centres, and floated the idea of blocking social media during riots. With over 1,400 people appearing in law courts on a variety of riot-linked charges and nearly 1,000 being held in jail, judges have fallen in line with Cameron’s disciplinary approach to social problems and have issued irrationally stiff sentences, some now being mercifully over-turned on appeal.
India has been hit by a far more predictable, indeed almost inevitable, middle class-led resurgence of anti-corruption demonstrations that began in April. With literally tens of thousands of people on the streets, the government has been rocking around indecisively, unsure how to handle such mass public displays of the nation’s growing despair with an ineffectual parliament and corrupt and malfunctioning administration.
It was taken by surprise in April when Anna Hazare, a 74-year old publicity-savvy social activist, staged a hunger strike that generated country-wide mass protests in support of his demands for anti-corruption legislation. Invoking memories of Mahatma Gandhi (above), the leader of India’s freedom struggle, his aim was to wrest control from the government for drafting Lok Pal (ombudsman) laws that had been talked about since the 1960s.
The government bought Hazare off by agreeing to set up a committee with him and his supporters to draft the Bill. It assumed that it would eventually be able to ignore most of his demands because he would not be able to rebuild nationwide support five or six months later. Judging by previous experience, protestors’ enthusiasm and energy would be dissipated after one major upheaval and would not easily be revived.
I thought at the time that the government was being unwisely over-confident and was misjudging – as has now been seen – the strength of the deep middle-class opinion that was driving the protests. This was not a frenetic rabble, driven onto the streets by vested interests, but a largely young middle class revolt that had a life of its own, separate from the ambitions of attention seekers who thronged around Hazare.
The joint drafting committee failed to reach agreement and Hazare revived his movement in June, threatening a new hunger strike from the middle of this month. The government then messed up by jailing him when he failed to agree on the length of his fast and accompanying mass protests. It quickly reversed that decision and tried to release him, but he continued fasting in jail until terms were agreed for a 15-day public fast that started last Friday at old Delhi’s Ramlila festival grounds.
Sonia Gandhi, who heads India’s governing coalition, has been ill in the US (having had, it is widely assumed, an operation for cancer) since the crisis began, and that seems to have contributed to the governmental muddle that was being run by a team of four nominated stand-ins at the head of her Congress Party, plus prime minister Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi, her son and heir, reportedly insisted that the government cancel Hazare’s stay in jail when he returned from the US, but without her the administration seems rudderless (that is the subject for another later blog article!).
Hazare and his supporters are demanding a far stronger Lok Pal ombudsman than is possible in a parliamentary democracy, saying the post should have charge of top police and other investigative agencies and cover the prime minister. There are dangers here of India ruining the flawed but effective democratic balance that has sustained it since independence 64 years ago. The government is understandably resisting such proposals, but its ministerial and other spokesmen and negotiators have arrogantly infuriated public opinion, while at the same time trying, as they atre doing tonight, to find a solution that will end Hazare’s fast and the protests (picture above of Hazare in mass procession last weekend – AP photo).
But no-one is doing anything about dealing with those most responsible for the country’s endemic corruption, apart from sometimes arresting figure-heads when it suits the government politically.
The government has however shown flexibility, and that contrasts sharply with Cameron’s preference for the clip clop authority of firm government, with sound bites about rubber bullets and water cannons breaking up future demonstrations. Cameron (left) assumes he can stop a recurrence of urban unrest with strong arm police and judicial action, placing the blame for the riots on “slow-motion moral collapse” in a “broken society”.
He is showing signs of a blinkered upbringing among Britain’s elite. As Peter Hitchens, a right wing commentator scathingly put it: “He uses his expensive voice, his expensive clothes, his well-learned tone of public school [Eton] command, to give the impression of being an effective and decisive person”.
Cameron is seen by many as refusing to acknowledge that Britain’s problems are reflected across society – from those who recently ransacked and burned down shops, to members of parliament who last year were discovered cheating on their expenses, to top bankers who take unwarranted million pound salaries (some while their banks are still being baled out after the last financial crash by British taxpayers).
Both the UK and Indian governments are approaching their crises with simplistic answers. The UK’s is to get tough with rioters and looters – “teach them a lesson that it’s not acceptable” is a phrase I have heard depressingly frequently from friends in the UK this month. India’s solution is the Lok Pal Bill.
But neither solution will be enough on its own, and both might do more harm than good – Cameron’s disciplinary and elitist approach by increasing rather than decreasing resentment, and India’s by setting up a corruption ombudsman who will either be ineffective or will eat into parliamentary democracy.
The real issues that need to be tackled stem from greed and associated lawlessness – ranging from Britain’s unemployed rioters and rich members of parliament and bankers, to India’s corruptly wealthy politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.
So deeper solutions are needed. The UK surely needs to address the plight of unemployed poor, as well as changing attitudes to authority, making the police more effective and acceptable at a grass roots level. India needs to punish the corrupt at the top of the system – right at the very top – and then work downwards through society to the villages where gangs and goons run fiefdoms.
These are difficult tasks, but I’m tempted to think that maybe India’s muddle is more sustainable than Cameron’s harsh society, which so many people in Britain today sadly support.