Wake up govt, smell the coffee, the world has changed

by Akshaya Mishra  Sep 13, 2012 19:10 IST

#Civil society   #jal satyagraha   #Media   #ThisisNext  

In the age of television cameras, being innovative works. Check out the new form of protest: Jal Satyagraha - people staging non-violent protests half immersed in water.

Mahatma Gandhi, wherever he is, would certainly be curious about the new twist to the concept of satyagraha. In Madhya Pradesh, we had two such protests recently, one at Harda and another at Khandwa. Villagers in Tamil Nadu protesting against the Kudankulam nuclear plant resorted to the same protest technique today.

One should expect more variations to the idea of satyagraha in the coming days, as many variations as there are civil society groups, outfits organising disadvantaged people across the country into small fighter units. There is no point in being judgmental about the forms of protest. They are justified so long as they attract attention and stir concern in far off places. And give it to the television media. It could have proved itself to be nuisance in many ways but it has managed to blur the gap between the local and the national.

Activists and residents stand in the Bay of Bengal waters as they protest against the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project, background, on Thursday. PTI

Without the involvement of the media and civil society, the voice of the villagers around the Kudankulam plant or in Khandwa would never have had the same resonance. Both could be accused of playing the populist game and missing out on the big picture while obsessing over the smaller ones, but let's not be oblivious to one reality: both are here to stay. Both will continue to play a role in changing the equations between the people and the government. The authorities everywhere appear ill-prepared for the change in equilibrium at this point. They will need to change according to the new reality.

However, it is not as simple easy as it sounds. There are bigger dilemmas begging attention.

What's crucial in the protests is their content and import, not the form. The moral authority of governments to take decisions for people is being challenged everywhere. The range of protests suggests that the decisions of the government do not necessarily carry the force of legitimacy since they represent the majority of people.

Possibly, it has to with the fragmented nature of the polity itself where even the most successful political party does not even represent half the population of the country. Smaller parties have been appealing to small identities with identical sense of victimhood to strengthen their political bases. There is no overarching idea connecting the big parties and the smaller ones. While this disconnect is true at the national level, at the state level it has taken a different shape.

Ruling governments are seen to be exploitative, insensitive and prejudiced towards particular sections. They are seen to be pandering to the whims of deeply entrenched interests in a wide-ranging nexus -- coal mines allocations are a case in point. There's little hope among people that isolated protests would get a fair hearing from governments. But unlike earlier, they can take their protests to the national level through the media now. Civil society groups are binding them into an organised force. The trend is good from the point of view of democracy. The well-organised protests are a signal that democracy is reaching deeper and wider.

However, are governments prepared to handle the new-found assertiveness from the people? Obviously not. For entities used to utilising the police force to tackling people’s agitations as the last resort, it presents a hopeless situation when every police action draws widespread controversy and massive backlash. The governments, it appears now, are losing the right to use force to silence protests. Again, steeped in the colonial mindset, they are averse to negotiating and climbing down from their positions while dealing with people with problems.

They look blissfully unaware of the fact that the equation has changed between the rulers and the ruled with the middle people—civil society members and the media belong here—tilting the balance heavily against them. Obviously, this needs to change. If the current trend continues, the ruling classes will be forced to mend their ways. It might take time but it’s inevitable.

However, when governments turn weak, it is not a good sign for democracy either. At some point the country will find the balance. Till then we can expect more innovations like Jal Satyagrahas.

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