Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jan Lokpal Movement: dependence on urban middle class and mass media

Some commentators have described movements like Jan Lokpal as overly dependent for support on the urban middle class and the mass media. The apparent dependence is both explicable and to some extent justifiable in terms of distribution of political power.

I received an email today from a gentleman who supports Jan Lokpal Movement. He echoed the well known view that the Movement has been missing the support of the “large population in villages, unorganized workers and people below the line of poverty”.
“This is really a massive force which is the real sufferer of corruption directly or indirectly. How to reach this class and involve them in this movement is a real challenge,” he wrote.
The gentleman has been “doubtful about our constant appeal to city population, middle class, people accessible through media to support anti-corruption movement”.
“By and large this class is connected with corruption and in some cases they are beneficiaries too,” he wrote.
I do not think this impression is entirely true because I believe that the Jan Lokpal Movement does have active and passive supporters in small towns and rural areas.
I do believe, however, that most of the visible support base of the Movement is present in urban areas.
In my reply to the gentleman, reproduced below, I have given some thought to the larger question of urban bias in movements such as Jan Lokpal.

    1. Politics – most of the power politics (Rajneeti) as well as a significant measure of the grassroots politics involving public causes (Lokneeti) – has been becoming increasingly urban-centric and is mostly conducted through the corporate-controlled media.
(Rajneeti, of course, gets the lion's share of media coverage and Lokneeti struggles for what is left.)
    Thus, politics is both the cause and the effect of the distribution of power in society, which has made the rural areas something resembling the colonies of the urban power centres.
    The colonisers do not usually feel the need to seek the views of the colonised.
    Seeking the views of the rural populace and engaging them in movements is also very hard and time consuming work; even the committed people are tempted to take the easy route.
    That's where the corporate-controlled media comes in.
    Long-standing, all pervasive problems of the people become "issues" only when the media decides to talk about them for reasons that have nothing to do with public interest.
    The political executive then uses the media to make a pretense of attending to those "issues" without doing anything meaningful.
    So the problems continue to fester even as the media flits from "issue" to "issue" deemed worthy by its owners and their political associates.
    (Media's "issue manufacturing" skills are particularly useful in election time, as also Rs multi-billion "media management" business of the political parties.)

    2. You are right in pointing out that large parts of the urban middle class are involved in corruption.
    I believe most of the urban middle class – people like us – are increasingly compelled to work in corrupt and undemocratic institutions, public or private. So it's an institutional compulsion for us to gradually become corrupt and undemocratic in behaviour.
    It's impossible, however, for some members of the urban middle class not to become aware of their own corruption and start thinking of reforming themselves and the larger society.
    Such people and the movements started by them need to be supported.
    So, the urban middle class-centric nature of people's movements like Jan Lokpal reflects the objective reality – the lop-sided distribution of political power, wealth, modern means of communication, and access to modern knowledge in favour of urban areas.
    It may not be an altogether desirable development, but it can be justified on the following two grounds.
    (a) It is very difficult for people's movements to fight centralised power and not get centralised themselves to some extent. Decentralisation demands not only a great commitment to democracy and large reserves of patience, but also material resources.

    (b) Those who are the primary beneficiaries of corrupt systems are morally obligated – more than others – to take the responsibility of reforms. They carry the heavier burden of guilt of being involved in corrupt systems. They also are better placed in terms of resources to start reform movements.
    Most of the rural population, the poor and the workers of the unorganised sector lack the resources to fight centralised power. The energies of the poor, in particular, are mostly used up in the battle of survival.

    3. I believe the sensitized city dwellers also have the responsibility to start highlighting and undoing the injustice done to the rural population, the poor, and the workers of the unorganised sector.
    I strongly believe that movements like Jan Lokpal will help bring the urban and rural people together and create a degree of common consciousness and feeling of solidarity.  
    That is because Jan Lokpal Movement represents a cause where the aspirations of the urban and rural Indians converge perfectly -- the need to lance the boil of corruption and bring about more democratic governance. Both need more democracy and participation in formulation of public policy.

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