Mind the Gap: Connecting the Movement to the Moderates in India and the United States

By Bellows, Abigail | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Mind the Gap: Connecting the Movement to the Moderates in India and the United States


Bellows, Abigail, Kennedy School Review


As pro-democracy revolutions swept the Arab world last year, citizens in the world's two largest democracies also rose up. In India, a massive anticorruption movement spearheaded by activist Anna Hazare started in April 2011 and boomed in August. In the United States, Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements sprung up in September. The uprisings provide a portrait of how citizens in formal democracies, where elections and political rights are already established, struggle for more functional democracies, where public needs supersede private interests. By all accounts, the movements have resulted in a surge in public outrage over corruption and inequality in their respective contexts.

While there are important differences between the movements, the similarities are striking. In particular, both movements claim to represent a majority of citizens. Hazare frames himself as the Indian "common man," in contrast to politicians. This is notable given the preponderance in India of politics based on caste or region rather than Hazare's universalistic grounds. Similarly, Occupy's ubiquitous "We are the 99 percent!" chant is boldly populist. While most progressive movements revolve around segments of the population, such as undocumented immigrants or the uninsured, Occupy asserts that 99 percent of Americans have a common economic stake--particularly when up against the 1 percent at the top--and that Occupy is their voice.

This article evaluates each movement's populist claims. I argue that while the aspirations of both movements are widely shared, the movements themselves have failed to capture the support of centrists who "should" be affiliating. As examined below, the movements' demands, leadership, and tactics have inadvertently alienated moderates. The article concludes by offering recommendations that could bring the movements closer to their broadest possible base. The analysis is limited to the first stages of these dynamic movements, through the fall of 2011.

CENTRIST GOALS

It is hard to deny that the rallying cries of the two movements reflect public opinion. In India, corruption is perceived to be the second-biggest hurdle to doing business domestically (Schwab 2010). According to a 2011 poll, 96 percent of Indians believe that the powerful in India can "get away with anything" and that government has a "culture of non-accountability" (The Hindu 2011). At the same time, the growing middle class, now accustomed to private-sector efficiency, has an increasingly low tolerance for bribe paying and the costs of government theft; this new expectation for accountability was on display in 2010, when a $40 billion telecommunications scandal sparked fury in the media (Malik 2011). The frequency and scale of such scandals has grown as economic liberalization has expanded. The Arab Spring "suddenly made change possible," according to one activist, while growth in the young middle class created a demographic with energy and money, restless for a noble cause (Balasubramaniam 2011).

Just such a noble cause appeared in April when Anna Hazare embarked on a hunger strike against corruption. The immediate raison d'etre for his protest was condemning the feeble anticorruption bill proposed by the ruling coalition. Hazare, like millions of others, perceived the legislation to be a betrayal of election promises to crack down on corruption. Hundreds joined Hazare on the hunger strike and hundreds of thousands more rallied in support. The newspapers rang with agreement about the need to fight corruption, and expatriates in London and Paris even held solidarity rallies.

Similarly, most Americans are united in their anger over rising inequality, joblessness, and foreclosures. In the wake of the 2008 recession, a record number of Americans--close to 50 percent--were classified as poor or low-income (Yen 2011). When reports surfaced in July 2009 that the same banks that had received federal bailouts had paid their top executives sky-high bonuses, the media buzzed with articles about Wall Street's excesses and President Barack Obama's seeming inability to rein in inequality.

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