OWS: occupying the Indian imagination
These are terrible times, these are wonderful times. Greed and concentrated power have plunged the world into economic ruin; but the ripples caused by the economic collapse have brought the people of the world together in their quest for change. The demand for change is pronounced differently in different regions of the world, but there is solidarity among the peoples with each other’s struggles. It’s amazing to see ideas and emotions travelling great distances and affecting change. The newest among these global ideas is ‘Occupy Wall Street (OWS)’.
OWS is akin to the recent anti-corruption movement in India in its desire for change and proactive mass involvement. Neither movement wants regime change. Both seek structural solutions. However they diverge markedly in their strategies and focus. OWS occupies Wall Street, whereas the anti-corruption movement occupied the legislature. The anti-corruption movement in India had a strong personality heading it with experienced professionals leading the movement’s management. (Anna Hazare, fasted for several days for the movement’s demands. People chanted ‘I am Anna’ in support of the iconic figure and some even fasted in solidarity with him. The core team of the movement included successful and well respected activists, leaders & ex-bureaucrats.)
The movement was sharply focused on forcing the country’s legislature to institute an independent anti-corruption body with clearly defined laws debated by the citizens of the country. OWS does not insist on any such singular solution, but articulates the problem statement with passion. Perhaps the OWS’s decentralized approach creates a more fecund ground for addressing the complicated issues behind the economic collapse. It is large enough in its scope for many concerns and many people to come together and harness their creative energies. It’s a global opportunity to have a healthy debate about the way the world operates, creating space for people to have equal say.
I see OWS essentially as a movement that questions growing inequality and shrinking opportunities for the ‘99%’. Another key aspect of OWS is its stance against the current corporate and financial system which is being held responsible, and rightly so. India has been witness to many recent protests and movements that tackle inequality and shrinking opportunities for one group or another. The Gujjar community protests, the Telangana regionalist protests, the anti-reservation campaign … the list of protests demanding equality and equal opportunities is very long in this large democracy of ours. However, barring a few specific instances (a recent Telecom scandal did bring to light corporate corruption and stirred debates about regulation and monitoring), there has been no strong concentrated wave of agitation against the financial system in India. This has a structural reason. The majority of the Indian population is out of the purview of the organized financial and retail markets. The stock exchange does not directly affect the lives of the masses. Though greed is frowned upon, it is the greed of politicians that completely occupies that aspect of the villain’s role in the collective psyche. The politician and the slowness of bureaucracy is a bigger nemesis.
It’s only recently that Indians have grown comfortable about displaying their riches and success. The last few decades have seen the growth of businesses and businessmen ‘in spite of’ the bureaucracy and politicians’ meddling. People view businessmen and their greed through the lens of aspiration where their corrupt practices are seen as the tactics needed to be embraced by the middle class to win. At any rate, the pinch the middle class is now feeling has more to do with government policies and the US-led global depression than with the financial system of India.
Lastly, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in the US has created a new ‘us’/‘them’ mentality which is being addressed through the OWS. However in India, the age-old reality of caste based division has made us accustomed to a certain level of disparity and alienation. It’s not a new discord for us to repair. As such, there is no shared resentment that will bubble up on Dalaal Street in Mumbai anytime soon. Will ‘OWS – version India’ ever happen? I don’t think so. Will there be protest movements in India that seek similar structural cleansing? Yes. India is witnessing a whole new paradigm of civil engagement now being created. Change is surely occupying the mind of each Indian.