Will Occupy Wall Street Protests influence India’s Indigenous Disenchantment?


Is Indian society blind to corporate gaming? As “Occupy Wall Street” like protests spread their wings across the globe, gripping places without a trace of radical Leftist inclination and known to have benefited enormously from the global capitalist free-market system, India has so far remained isolated from this infectious revolutionary zeal. Apart from a fairly innocuous rally against banking sector reforms organized by employee unions, there hasn’t been much.

How has India managed to escape this widespread outpouring of populist anger? One would think a nation with staggering inequalities of wealth and unaccounted assets totaling billions stashed in foreign banks would be ripe for pillorying.

The truth lies hidden beneath a startling fact: a vast swath of people in India live and work outside the formal economy.

This supplements the glaring disconnect between burning issues of capital markets and the grinding daily schedule of common people struggling to cope with the ballooning inflation of essential commodity items, with everything from rice and lentils to gasoline incurring price increases.

Moreover, mass movements in India are these days channeled by political functionaries who make it a point to ensure that the powerful industrial lobbies and Dalal Street bigwigs – India’s equivalent to Wall Street –are shielded from political fallout or popular anxiety. As a result, undue corporate involvement in the formation of post-election Cabinets has become a common phenomenon, reported only intermittently in the mainstream media. This usurpation of the people’s right to elect a suitable representative government is presupposing an erosion of democratic values and institutions throughout the country. The growing exasperation of being a mute witness to unfettered and entwined political and corporate corruption might trigger a massive upsurge against the system sometime in the not-so-distant future. While India has appeared to have withstood the uptake in populist discontent that forms the basis of the Occupy Wall Street movement, appearing almost blissfully unaware of it, a storm is clearly brewing over the horizon; the current quiet may be a mere lull before a major tumult.

Jayati Ghosh, eminent Professor of Development Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University believes “neoliberal capitalism had succeeded in reducing the power of worker’s organizations and fracturing the working classes across the world” resulting in a somewhat cold reaction to rising unemployment, social and economic inequity and injustice. Indeed, the change of atmosphere with the advent of liberalization has encouraged even one time fiery trade union leaders to rub shoulders with petty industrialists at high end clubs while the workers sit hungry outside their factories due to frequent lockouts.

Unfortunately, the Indian leadership is yet to grasp the hard reality that when consumerism leaves a vacuum of meaning and purpose in society as well as individual life, it is bound to inspire a mass revolution aimed at seeking social and economic justice. Redress becomes an ennobling pursuit. Initially, such protests might manifest themselves in fragmented, amorphous and rudderless patterns, but as Professor Jayati Ghosh says – they reflect not just indignation and outrage, but also a determination not to accept being trampled upon by States openly colluding with large capital.

The perpetual strife that India has been confronting in her rural and tribal hinterland for the last two decades is a reflection of not just the anarchy that reform and liberalization has brought in but also the tremendous consternation within the subaltern class. The neo-liberal framework has virtually ignited those districts abundant in forest and mineral wealth. They are a vital part of India’s territory not only from an economic standpoint but also as the repository of the country’s unique and indigenous tribal population. These are exceptionally backward areas thronged by dispossessed people with short life expectancy, poor access to healthcare, little to no education and an overall standard of living that is abysmally low even when compared to India’s national averages.

As a sense of uncertainty creeps in with the opening up of India’s forest and mineral resources to Multinational Corporations, the tribal populations dislodged from their land and discriminated in job markets are determined to put up stiff resistance. The ultra-left militant organizations have tapped into a vast reservoir of resentment, and are emerging as violent, radical vessels for dissent against a motley crop of vested interests. Though they brandish some of the rhetoric of reformists before them, the leftist militants are more likely to precipitate a genuine people’s democracy through armed insurrection than non-violent civic engagement.

Regrettably, the political leadership in India and states like West Bengal are yet to suitably address this issue. With a serious crunch in funding for developmental allocation, regional governments are left with little alternative to corporations, whose promises to stimulate local economies through investments manifests the only viable remedy for containing growing disenchantment amongst the rank and file. That this creates a real danger of succumbing to regulatory capture is not lost on most.