Dreams at the barricades

We cannot help dreaming of the barricades. They call to us, the comfortable middle class. We have comfort, aspirations, material expectations. We have power over others, governments that dare not offend us too much. The most powerful in the land are made in our image, whether the soft-spoken professional who leads us, the successful, driven lawyer that opposes him, or the former consultant who we expect will succeed him. But still, we dream of the barricades. When they go up, we want to be on the right side.

What a pity, then, that the moment we seem to think will spark a new, politicised middle class is this one, in the service of a useless, misguided bill, and coalescing around a man whose ideas are regressive and authoritarian. What a pity that it is this that brought flag-wavers out on Tuesday night to cluster around TV cameras that miraculously multiplied their numbers.

Who would not sympathise with the plucky Gandhian crusader tossed into jail by a corrupt government that wishes to silence him? That's the telling of events we seem to believe — in spite of the fact that Anna Hazare is pushing for an absurd and dangerous piece of legislation, shows little of the tolerance that marks political Gandhianism, and has a profound contempt for democracy. Our acceptance of his telling of it underlines Hazare's political canniness, and the ham-handedness of this government when it comes to shaping narratives. But it reveals, too, a yearning for the barricades, for a righteous uniting cause.

When middle classes yearn for such causes, run like hell. When they mobilise, take cover. For their concern rarely extends beyond their own interest. That relentless focus on themselves is the reason that the bourgeoisie pushes an economy forward — but it means that their engagement with politics can be deeply problematic, if not moderated through democratic institutions.

Consider the specifics of this occasion. The right to protest, we are being told, is taken away. Really? I have seen, and participated in, my share of protests in Delhi shut down by the cops — and that's precisely the point, they're shut down. That is how the game is played: in challenging power, not in demanding it works for you. And most protests don't have the options this one was given; no public parks for their protest mela — a few stretches of road, sometimes, for an hour or so. Nor is it, as the BJP tried to claim today, different for political parties. When was the last time a party rally wanted a park for an unlimited period?

The rules must apply to other people. The middle class expects that in general, and thus, specifically, special treatment for this great historical Jan Lokpal moment. That the leaders of this movement will not agree to turn loudspeakers off after 9 pm is not a coincidence. Neither is it that they claim it is a "fundamental right" to dig up roads for shamianas.

I grew up in Calcutta, with its inclusive streets. In Delhi, the exclusionary nature of middle-class space still shocks me. Colonies cut off access to parks and roads, with no right to do so whatsoever; people assume the spot in front of their houses is theirs to dispose of. The same people wrinkle their noses up at slums by the highway; it is the middle class that has a right to appropriate public spaces, nobody else.

Just as it is the middle class that has the right to impose the Jan Lokpal on the rest of the country, regardless of the Constitution, of statute, of legislative authority.

The "right to protest" is a wonderful formulation, except that it is usually circumscribed in some way. Vocal, disruptive demonstrations still happen: Delhi is not Beijing. But Hazare refused to be bound in any way in the organisation of his protest, because he and his people are bone-deep certain that they are special and that exceptions must be made for them; because they believe that the entire political class is out to get them; because they knew it puts the administration in a spot.

Yes, this is an entitled, middle-class pretence at protest in every way — including in this latest flashpoint with the government. They are upset they were denied total, indefinite control of Jantar Mantar, the only place in Central Delhi where people from outside Lutyens' imperially sanctified zone can gather. They refused unlimited time and unrestricted control over the meeting grounds at Burari, which is actually where the Congress held its all-India sessions last year — too far, presumably, from the closest Café Coffee Day. For the capital's middle class, the denial of permission was outrageous because Delhi is their city, not that of the safai karamcharis or teachers or Bhopal families who seek permission for a few hours in Jantar Mantar, not even dreaming of a public park.

Just as they expect the lawmaking process to bend around their newfound outrage, just as they expect the already quivering balance of powers in India to deal with an outrageously powerful Lokpal, they expect that the normal rules of protest — that you actually have to fight some sort of power! — will be bent for them. More: they expect the levers of power — the Delhi police, the park authorities — to bend to please them, as Parliament must bend to accept their draft legislation. That the UPA has eventually bent, again, is a depressing reflection on how little the Congress's leadership cares for due authority, and how little they are willing to back up decisions once made. Rahul Gandhi swoops in to save people from the evil government once again! The act is getting a little old, and will be impossible to follow if he's ever actually prime minister.

A middle class shouldn't be apathetic. But this is not an engagement with Indian politics; it's an attempt to reassert control over it. The Jan Lokpal bill embodies that impulse, imagining a schoolmasterly figure who would restrain the wild, selfish impulses of the chaps the proles see fit to elect.

That people are on the streets defending a right to protest should move us. It does move us. The problem is that when the barricades call, it is difficult not to answer, regardless of the cause. So let us think hard, for once, about what and whose "rights" they are, unmolested, screaming themselves hoarse over.

mihir.sharma@expressindia.com

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