Updated: Feb 2, 2021
The year 2019 was designated by Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy index as the ‘Year of Democratic Setbacks and Popular Protests’. The whole world was rocked by sporadic yet vociferous protests for issues ranging from something as innocuous as a bus ride fare to something as substantive as citizenship rights.
Popular protests since then have gained imagination. Anyone who closely watched the US elections, can vouch for the growing popularity of protests. Be it the ‘Make America Great Again’ supporters or those of Biden, protests have been ubiquitous. What started with the protests against the unreasonable killing of a black man George Floyd, culminated with the seize of Capitol in Washington DC. Perhaps it reached its zenith (or nadir) in a short span of time in US. Back home, two back to back intense winters of protests have had a chilling impact on New Delhi. Initially the Citizenship Amendment acts and now the Farm Bills, the government is caught off-guard.
A very generic reason for the growing number of protests around the world is people’s disenchantment with the economic and political system. A capitalist mode of economic organisation and a liberal democratic mode of political organisation unleashed post Cold War has not quite lived upto its expectations. Theoretically sound principles of politico-economic organisation have been faulted through perverted implementation. Global financial crisis of 2008 set the model cracking, while the migration crisis of 2015 widened those cracks. COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin. Our current politico-economic organisation has produced glaring inequalities and injustice. Top 1% of the world owns more than double of the bottom 6.9 billion people (Oxfam). To put the things in perspective the total population of the world is 7.7 billion.
A specific reason for growing number of protests is narrowing down of legitimate political avenues for grievance redressal and a growing tribal parochialism in the form of identity politics of region, caste, religion, race et al. Certainly when the institutions designed to strengthen the civil, political and Socio-economic rights of people fail to do so, people have no other option than hitting the streets. To make things worse, there are times when the state itself tries to crush these rights, for instance in Hong Kong.
Popular protests can be a sight of romanticisation or polemic vituperation, all at once, depending upon which side of the spectrum we belong. Our stand depends upon where we sit. In the end, protests signify grassroots democracy, which our leaders and political elites have overlooked. Certainly, if the leaders choose to listen to the streets once in five years, the streets are bound to get uneasy and chaotic. Perhaps, as a wake up call. A call for the representatives to wake up from their slumber in their ivory towers and listen to very people who put them in those glorified places.
But with the world already polarised, protests or for that matter any other way of democratic mobilisation only hardens opposing stands. It is a war of narratives, a long drawn out war to build legitimacy and gain popular consent. As without legitimacy no effort at a revolt will gain popular sympathy. A classic example is recent press conference in the Kisan protests at Delhi where an alleged government insider accepted a plan to sabotage the protests by using violence. To see how the war of narratives really pan out, one side gained sympathy by doing this press conference while the other side ridiculed them for staging a bogus character of doubtful credentials to garner sympathy. In a post-truth world of fake-fabricated-fictional news both the narratives are welcomed and internalised. The already opposing stands consolidate.
The leaders of all colours, hues and ideologies benefits from protests. The anarchy unleashed by protests is a reservoir of future leadership. The hardened political views helps mobilise all sides. In sum, quite paradoxically anarchy deepens democracy by increased popular participation in the public sphere.
It turns into a dystopia when the opposing sides remain unrelenting. When for their political gains both sides keep pitting people against each other. More often than not the end is often violent. Riots, killings and loss of property colour this dystopia. For instance Antifa - a movement to counter fascist forces set ablaze city after city in their protests. Certainly, the remedy must not be worse than the malady.
Today we need a socio-political system which is more egalitarian, more just and more fair. We need altruism and compassion. We need our leaders to climb down on their rhetoric and move towards rebuilding peace and solidarity. God has blessed us with reason, it is perhaps time we make use of this gift to peacefully negotiate rather than turning to our baser animal instincts and taking up violence. For, fervour is the weapon of the impotent.
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