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Rise of the Fifth Estate

As anti-corruption civil society groups and activist-politicians dominate current political discourse in the country, we take a look at whether the democratic system is being threatened or strengthened in the process. Neyaz Farooquee and Samar Khurshid report.

delhi Updated: Nov 11, 2012 01:45 IST

By the way the year has been going, it would not be out of line to suggest that the award for Person of the Year go to the omnipresent "Press Conference".

Press Conferences - and public protests - have been the largest narrative of the year, snowballing into a phenomenon of their own.

From Aam Aadmi Arvind Kejriwal - who has, in quick succession, called press conferences with revelations against Robert Vadra and DLF, the Haryana government, Nitin Gadkari and now, the latest on Friday, against the nexus between HSBC bank and politicians - to old Congress-baiter Subramanian Swamy, who alleged in a press conference that the Gandhi's had been party to land grabbing, and of course Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, who have held fasts along with their press conferences since last year, the whistle-blowing press conference is slowly and steadily becoming part of our political discourse.

The civil society movement has been robust in India - JP Movement of the 1970s that accused the then CMs of Gujarat and Bihar of corruption and had similarly galvanised a generation and since various individuals have kept up healthy activism.

But while activists have been exhorting the public to demand its democratic rights all through Independent India, this current weekly supplying of proof against prominent individuals, in packaged public conferences, is new.

"Cases of corruption are not new in India or limited to the country. It's just that television has taken the smallest of scandals to prominence," says Biswajeet Das of the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University.

He adds that with the compulsions of a 24-hour news cycle, the media has little time to verify allegations.

"One has to just point a finger at someone. Now the onus lies on the "accused" to prove his innocence. But corruption is a complicated issue and the medium of television doesn't provide the depth to tackle it. It has become just a medium of mudslinging and rumour," he says.

Rise of 'the Fifth Estate'?
What exactly is this new society, a tribe which seems to be growing? Are they activists turned politicians performing the role of an adversarial and oppositional media? Are they playing the role of traditional civil society, rising to the call of the times or are they more in the mould of whistleblowers like Julian Assange? Or they part media, part opposition?

DL Sheth, former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, believe that both Kejriwal and Swamy, who are articulating their demands non-violently, are "playing the role that the opposition should be doing".

Sheth says that while government and civil society are ideally complementary forces in a democratic society, civil society becomes radical when public institutions fail to deliver.

Vikas Singh, former additional solicitor general calls them "attention seekers clamouring for power."

Anand Kumar, professor of sociology at JNU, says, "They are the ones who lose out because of corruption. So such a form of activism is a win-win situation for them."

Sheth says, "It is indeed a Fifth Estate. They have combined the tools of the fourth estate - the media - with their activism to get their message across."

Means and methods
As with the definition of this civil society, India seems also divided on its motives as well as its methods.

As says Subhash Kashyap, a constitutional expert from Centre for Policy Research says: "They have no constitutional mandate except that they are free citizens entitled to protest and express."

Others, of course, have raised this issue in the past - including President Pranab Mukherjee who, in his speech on Independence Day, warned that "endemic protests" can weaken a system and lead to anarchy.

However, many experts also continue to be far more tolerant of the form the protests have taken.

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta, while saying that: "a movement of this kind against the establishment will be disorganized and will be comprised of a motley crew from different backgrounds who will assemble against a single point, in this case corruption, and is not linked to any structure or establishment," adds: "That does not mean it is anarchic."

According to him: "The movement does not want to overturn the state; it wants to overturn members of the government. They cannot be accused of anarchy because they don't have an organizational locus."

It is not just the protests, but the form of the protests - public allegations made against individuals - that are becoming as controversial as the protests themselves.

Many believe that these movements - where almost on a weekly basis, individuals are being targetted in public press conferences - are taking advantage of a weak libel process, morally and legally questionable in itself.

Lawyer Ashok Aggarwal says "Libel parameters are very loosely defined and the law needs to be strengthened. Otherwise any person can make allegations against another with impunity. If it is in the larger interest, it is excusable. But, at times, innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Not just that, the tool of protest has practically become a form of blackmail."

What is most worrisome, point out experts is the potential damage to the democratic system.

Vikas Singh, for instance, is of the view that the IAC - and the media, for giving them coverage - are being extremely irresponsible.

"The media, attempting to outdo each other for TRPs are tarnishing overnight reputations built over years. And the IAC's tactics are damaging the very fabric on which our democracy was founded. These self-appointed representatives of the people are attacking elected representatives, thereby questioning the wisdom of the very people they claim to stand for."

Adds Kashyap: "By saying that all politicians are dishonest and that they have no faith in parties and elections, they are inviting anarchy; and this faithlessness in democratic institutions is the public perception that they are creating."

Biswajeet Das cautions "What Kejriwal is doing is dangerous because on live TV at best you can read an accusation. You don't have sources to verify your allegations during a live telecast," he adds:

Role of media
Hotly under debate is the role of the media. There are many who believe that Kejriwal, Swamy and Co have come into the system because the media was perceived to be not taking on the powerful.

Says JNU's Kumar. "The media has woken up and reinvented itself. Civil society takes one step; media takes the second."

Others, however, believe that Kejriwal himself is a media creation.

"Civil society groups have been able to provide the arresting sound and sight-bites and used the media - particularly television - to put across their views on corruption among politicians and public figures," says Daya Thusu Co-director of India Media Centre of the University of Westminster, UK who also points out that the shrillness of the debates and the nature of 24-hour television that presents saturation coverage of homogenised bytes of news has led to a "Bollywoodised news culture" devoid of nuance.

"A mediated visibility is helping both activists and media, much to the relief of both," says Biswajeet Das.

Is Civil Society using media or is media using civil society? This remains hotly contended.

Somnath Batabyal, lecturer at the Centre for Media and Film Studies, SOAS, author of 'Making News in India: Star News and Star Ananda' has a more cynical view.

"It's the skillful management of activists who exploit the media's penchant for scandal."

One suggestion says Batabyal, is that the government steps in and has a constructive role in creating a competitive public service broadcast, "like the BBC is the finest example."

He adds: "In the US, you have PBS. But knowing our politicians and party politics, this may be asking for too much."

The rot in the system
But what continues to be a contentious issue is whether the voids in the system led to the rise of these various groups in the first place or whether they will further weaken our democratic processes. Even government's recent public messages have alluded to some systemic problems which may need to be addressed.

Sheth says, "The failures of our system include non-democratic political parties which become the sole property of a single kin group. Even our laws and judicial procedures are archaic."

Kashyap says, "The fundamental problem is governance deficit. Democracy needs to be representative of the people. But 83% of Lok Sabha members had more votes cast against them than for them."

Advantage, disadvantage
To be fair, many do see positive fallouts of the new phenomenon, messy as it is.

For one, with public targeting of prominent individuals - industrialists like the Ambanis and politicians like the Gandhis, and also the leader of the opposition party - there are fewer holy cows in public life, which many see as a welcome trend.

Anand Kumar argues that the IAC has changed the people's attitude towards 'VIPs'.

"The media did not have the courage to take on the likes of Robert Vadra. Finally, Kejriwal and CO. have used the media to question them," he says.

He adds: "The movement is creative. If it's constructive or not, is yet to be proved," says Kumar.

Rajeev Bhargava, political sociologist, says: "People are now talking about transparency, accountability and the misuse of funds."

While he says that while these groups are "by no means perfect: it's tidy, messy, but not out of control," he adds: "We should be grateful to civil society for bringing these issues to the fore."

Questions and answers
Another dilemma that these movements pose - apart from those to the media, the legal system, and democratic institutions - is to the citizens themselves.

Twitter, Facebook, TV and all forms of communication are rife with the new quandary that the arrival of this aggressive forms of activism have forced - if you stand against IAC and Co, do you stand for Corruption? And if you are pro them, do you oppose the democratic process?

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that there are no easy parallels in our history.

While the Indian civil society movements took off a few months after the Arab Spring in 2010, experts are quite clear that the two have nothing in common.

"Absurd," is how Daya Thussu describes an attempt at comparison and most would agree - unlike the countries of the Maghreb, India is home to vigorous debate and discourse in a largely effective democratic polity.

As says Singh: "In India, there is an established system of removing someone from office. The Arab Spring movements, on the other hand, took place in non-democratic states where there was no other alternative but mass uprising."

But a history professor from Delhi University, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: "The civil society movements that we see today is not easily comparable. If anything it is closest to the JP Movement, but not the same because of its societal context - this is the first mass movement we have witnessed post liberalisation."

Describing the movement further, he says: "It is a mixed bag of fairly divergent views. Corruption may be the issue but there exist multiple ideological platforms and different motives within the movement. It is complex and has elements of both the Right and the Left."

The way ahead
Biswajeet Das isn't very optimistic about the future of these movements.

Comparing the momentum of the movement with the American New Left movement of 60s, he says: "They will certainly boomerang as people will lose interest after a time, very much what happened with the New Left."

The movement in the US was associated with student activism which opposed prevailing authority while rejecting the Marxist goal and helped transform American society.

Still, the voices are unanimous about the need for a current course correction.

"The Indian news media is selective in what it covers, perhaps much like the media in most countries, give or take the difference in degrees. The Anna Hazare coverage was a way of compensating for this disregard," says Arvind Rajgopal, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.

These activists have also been accused of having no road maps, declared agendas or ideologies and not much they stand for, except the vague broad umbrella of standing against corruption.

Dipankar Gupta believes only history can tell if the current anti corruption movement in India will be successful.

"Even during earlier movements like the one for Civil Rights, for Adult Franchise and the Suffragettes movement, nobody thought they would be successful. At the time, people thought of the activists as madcaps but now you can't think of a democracy without civil rights, adult franchise or the vote for women," he adds cautioning that the change might not, however, come for many years, decades even.