An Indian Summer: Lokpal and the Framing of Accountability
This is a joint collaboration that I am currently working on with Deepa S. Reddy (University of Houston-Clear Lake). This paper focuses on the popular anti-corruption protests that unfolded in India in Summer 2011, and the dynamics of class, consumption, and cultural production embedded therein. A version of this paper was presented at the Seminar Series of the Center of South Asian Studies at University of Edinburgh in April 2012. An evolving abstract of the this project is presented below. An extended description of the paper, in the form of an e-mail interview, can be found here.
This paper focuses on the events of the summer of 2011 in India, during which large-scale popular protests against state corruption appeared to be gathering force, their visibility amplified further in the incessant gaze of 24/7 news media and various online social networking platforms such as Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. These protests came to be centered on the leadership of one Anna Hazare, a self-styled Gandhian, who would launch on a series of highly publicized fasts pushing for the drafting and then passing of a strong Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill whose reach extended all the way to the Prime Minister’s office. But curiously, it appeared not to be villagers or farmers but India’s “new middle class” who were responding en masse to Hazare’s call for accountability in governance. Hazare – who was quickly hailed as a “modern Gandhi” – seemed to be galvanizing a group that is typically billed as politically apathetic, one which might have been more likely to view Gandhi as an outmoded oddity.
Knowledge of and discontent over “corruption” is commonplace in India, and hardly limited to the consumerist middle classes, so the fact that it was this group that seemed most invested in the fate of the Lokpal debate requires some attention. And it is this framing of the Lokpal protests as middle class protests that will form the central problematic of this paper. We ask: what precise sort of “space of appearance” does the Lokpal debate represent? Within this space, how does the notion of the “new middle class” structure a shared imagination of corruption, dysfunction, and possible solutions? What does it mean to understand this public upheaval against corruption as a (middle) class uprising? And finally: what is the idea of India that is so spectacularly propagated in these moments of protest?
We contend that a proper understanding of the Lokpal protests demands a closer attention to ways in which the logics of consumerism were transposed onto those of citizenship during this time. The Lokpal movement’s popularity hinged on fostering a (heavily mediated) collective imagination of a corruption-free India, actualized through historical analogies with Gandhian modes, models, and morals of satyagraha and with anti-colonial nationalism. Central to the movement’s popularity, we argue, was a sophisticated branding campaign (run by an NGO, India Against Corruption) with “I am Anna” as its tagline: a campaign that allowed individual protestors to collectively impersonate Hazare and thus imagine themselves at the core of the movement. The movement’s “space of appearance,” thus, was constituted as a “space of consumption” from its very inception, which—following Appadurai—we argue, entailed a radically altered relationship between “wanting, remembering, being, and buying.” Moreover, such consumption in the political space generated by the Lokpal protests was itself an act of cultural production: the production of the cultural space of the “new middle class” and its articulation with contemporary Indian culture, politics, and society.
Aalok Khandekar: aalok[dot]khandekar[at]maastrichtuniversity[dot]nl
Deepa S. Reddy: Reddy[at]uhcl[dot]edu