Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Arab Spring v/s Indian Monsoon - My Response to Paul Beckett's Article in the WSJ

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, August 19, 2011

My attention was drawn to an article written by Paul Beckett for the Wall Street Journal about the Jan Lokpal movement.  The article is so flawed that I had to write a response to the article on the website; I am reposting that here.

Here is the original article:

and here is my response:

I really cannot believe people are praising this piffle so much.

You may think this as an extreme statement, but read on, and you will understand why my irritation is justified.

Reading this makes me wonder if the author ever has even been in India - this guy is probably either 

1. An armchair critic, who thinks that some superficial understanding of the issues qualifies him to write an article, or 
2. A person with a clear anti-Anna Hazare and pro-Indian govt. bias.  I will give him the benefit of doubt and simply assume he is misinformed - and ask him to do a better job of journalism next time.

Here are the things that are wrong with this article:

1. The comparison between Arab Spring and Indian Monsoon is not based on the presence or absence of tanks, stone-throwing, dictators, etc., etc.  The point is that an entire population has finally woken up against decades of injustice - and that a people who, by and large, have always accepted the status quo have challenged it in previously unimaginable ways.  

In fact, the reason there is a crisis at all is that, in both Arab Spring and Indian Monsoon, the people's reaction was so unexpected that the rulers did not know what to do about it. Just as in the Arab context, the Indian rulers assumed that they could go on doing things "as usual" and no one would say anything in protest.  And people reacted in a way that no one expected.

2. Don't overestimate the freedoms Indians have.  We are a democracy, yes, but only certain people can win elections.  Politicians and bureaucrats have learned to misuse the parliamentary and democratic system in a way that makes sure access is granted to only a few and that you have to beg and bribe for everything.  It is this tyranny and slavery that Indians have gotten sick of.  So, the fact is, just as Beckett says about the Arabs, Indians are also asking for "greater representation and a switch to a democratic system."  

I'm sorry to say, the politicians India has do not represent us.  For many years, my parents simply did not vote because they felt the choices were so bad - they would only be replacing one thief with another.  Since my childhood, I have always heard discussions in which people would debate whether we have had enough of democracy and whether we should have a dictatorship instead - a clear sign that the so-called "representative democracy" has failed India.  Pay India a visit and see how bad things are.  It is not because India is a poor country.   India is NOT a poor country.  It is a rich country with a lot of inequity, like many African countries that have huge mineral wealth but the majority of its citizens living in abject, heart-wrenching poverty.

3. Mr. Beckett says that "no one, in contrast, is surprised by crowds taking to the streets in India to vent their frustration."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This one statement clearly shows that the author doesn't really understand India at all and doesn't know what this movement is about.  The fact of the matter is that the magnitude and reach of the protests in India have completely taken the government by surprise.  They were clearly not expecting anything like this.  

India has not seen protests like this at any time since independence.  Now, this is not to say that protests are disallowed in India - of course they are not.  But, in the past, when you have seen protests on the streets, they were not organized by the common people of India, but usually by political parties.  The people attending those rallies are usually their party faithful, the rally numbers inflated by truckloads of people carted from nearby villages to attend the rally in return for a free meal and some cash.  The current protests, in contrast, are completely spontaneous.  

The other reason these protests are a huge surprise is the kind of people who are participating.  The people participating in these rallies are people, who, in the past, would have said, "why bother?  nothing will change by our marching.  why get into trouble?"  The surprise is that they have shaken off that apathy and realized that unless they do something, nothing will change.  THIS HASN'T HAPPENED IN 64 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE.  Isn't that a monumental shift?  

Beckett comparing these protests to other routine protests that might be called by a political party shows how superficial his analysis is.  We have had "Bharat Bandhs" before, but they were not affairs in which the people of the country voluntarily refrained from going to work in support of the cause - they did not go out of the house in fear of being attacked by goons.  But this time, no one is forcing people to march on the streets, and they are voluntarily taking time off to participate.

4. Mr. Beckett says while Arab Spring wanted a complete overhaul, the anti-corruption movement in India makes demands that are "embarassingly modest and narrow."  Mr. Beckett thinks that the only points of difference between the government's lokpal and Anna Hazare's Jan Lokpal is only that Jan Lokpal wants the PM and the Judiciary and that the government's bill doesn't.  In Mr. Beckett's oversimplified style, "That's it."  

What is embarassing here is not the scale of the anti-corruption movement's demands, but Mr. Beckett's abysmal ignorance of the issues.  But again, this is what you would expect someone with only a superficial understanding of the issues to say.  To some extent, we should also blame Anna's supporters and the media for focusing so much on the issue of the PM and the judiciary, but the fact is that there are many differences between the two bills that are far more significant.  

For one, the government's bill would exempt all sitting MPs and MLAs from the purview of the Jan Lokpal.  This is a major issue for several reasons.  Several of the high-profile corruption cases that have hit the news in recent times have involved sitting MPs.  So if you have a lokpal that cannot investigate sitting MPs, you are missing out on the biggest scams!  For another, the government's bill would exempt all government officers below grade A.  This means that most of the forcible corruption that the people of the country are subjected to: having to pay a bribe to get a license, to get even a death certificate, to get a ration card, to get your telephone number changed, etc., etc., will have no redress as the junior clerks and officers who demand those bribes to do their job will not be accountable to the lokpal.  And everyone knows that the existing laws are not enough to prosecute those criminals.  

So the differences are very deep and very significant.  With the government's lokpal bill, nothing would really change for the people.  The PM and higher judiciary are actually a much smaller issue than the issue of MPs and officers below grade A. 

5. Mr. Beckett talks about the government being restrained, in that no tanks or bullets were used.  This is not a great achievement.  Only a total lunatic would attempt to use force against a movement like this.  They arrested Anna, and look at the response they got.  Had they fired on the crowd or used force, by now the government would have had to resign, so great is the support from the people for the movement.  

The people, on the other hand, and Anna Hazare's movement, deserve tremendous credit for not letting their emotions getting the better of them.  THERE HAS NOT BEEN A SINGLE VIOLENT INCIDENT IN THIS AGITATION!  The protesters have proved that Mahatma Gandhi did not live in vain in India.  It is very very easy for such large crowds to get violent, yet they did not.

6. Finally, Mr. Beckett makes a statement which is incredibly ignorant of the reality: "Nor does India’s protest movement yet really deserve to be called “mass” when tens of thousands of largely middle-class folks turn out in front of television cameras while hundreds of millions carry on their daily lives, oblivious and wondering how they will afford their next meal."  Does he have a clue?  The idea that "largely middle-class folks" are the people agitating is a canard spread by people who want to discredit the movement.  There are so many instances of documented support for Anna from people who are clearly not middle-class or urban.  Take a look at these samples:

Are these middle-class folks?  This is the problem with someone like Mr. Beckett who writes stuff based on secondhand information without an understanding of the pulse of the people.

7. And let me make one of my own points without reference to this worthless article from Mr. Beckett:  I will say that what is happening in India is far more of a mass protest than Tahrir Square ever was.  How many places in Egypt did you hear of protests happening?  Only Tahrir Square in Cairo and maybe, 2-3 places more at most (minor).  Turn the TV on and all you saw was this one place in Cairo.  

Compare this to the movement in India and you see people in tens of thousands marching all over India: New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Thiruvananthapuram, Udipi, Mysore, Coimbatore, Ahmednagar, Sholapur, Bhubhaneswar, Ranchi, Shimla, Patna, Raipur, Pune, Bhagalpur, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Jammu, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Dibrugarh, Madurai, Karwar - and this is only a small list.   So I guess I agree in one way with Mr. Beckett - this is no Arab Spring - this is the Indian Monsoon!


  1. You're right again. I hadn't read Beckett's piece, but I guess I had made similar points in my own blog post when I analysed the Indian protests:

    1. I have replied to your comment on your blog!

  2. Oh yes, and this one too:


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