This new politics

Our reactions to the current protests triggered by the gangrape in the capital reveal a paradoxical state of mind. We welcome the spontaneous nature of these protests, underline the fact that most of the ordinary women and men who joined these protests were not mobilised by any organisation and caution against the entry of "political elements". At the same time, we criticise the protesters for the lack of a clear agenda, we blame the movement for allowing miscreants in, and bemoan the lack of clear leadership. We applaud the cause but regret the consequence. This could be seen as collective hypocrisy: we want politics, but not from the front door. Or, it could be read as a quest for a new kind of politics that doesn't look like politics in the conventional sense.

This is a subtle but crucial difference that leads to two opposite but partial readings of these protests. Those who celebrate these protests welcome the arrival of a new citizen-activist — conscious, determined and very angry — who will now hold political power accountable. They name this new actor according to their own taste — aspirational or egalitarian — and hope that this new citizen is going to usher in an India of their dreams. This romantic picture invites the critics to point out, rightly so, that many of these protesters are in the urban areas if not in the metros, they are mostly middle classes and overwhelmingly men, even on this issue. They do not forget to remind us that these protests are not quite spontaneous, they are invariably preceded by an intense media gaze and accompanied by live television coverage. Both these readings have an element of truth, but both of them miss the real point.

Urban street protests, first against corruption and now against the violence that targets women, are the beginning of a new kind of politics that has come up to fill a gap in our democratic functioning, that articulates pent-up grievances that have no redress in our system. The new citizen-activist has a narrow social profile, but not necessarily a narrow social vision. Product of our situation, this politics does not follow a prescribed script. This development institutes a new kind of uncertainty in our democratic life. It offers resources to deepen our democracy, yet it carries the seeds of destabilising the system. Like all democracies, it depends on how political forces handle or mishandle the situation.

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