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Angst & Young

What’s driving people more than corruption is the frustration of being ignored by an apathetic polity. Sanchita Sharma explains.

india Updated: Aug 20, 2011 23:29 IST
Sanchita Sharma

The circus is in town, say critics, of the many hundreds taking to the streets carrying over-priced flags while sporting colourful Anna merchandise. It’s people telling the government it’s time to deliver or got kicked out, say supporters, who’ve ensured Anna stayed at the top of the trending charts for the past week.

Behavioural experts choose to call it a celebration of peoples’ power. “It’s patriotic fervour exactly like what we saw when skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni hit a match-winning six in the World Cup final. More than the Lokpal Bill, it’s about patriotism and being heard, about feeling good about who we are and what we do, which currently happens to be trying to rid India of corruption,” said Dr Samir Parikh, chief, department of mental health and behavioural sciences at Max Healthcare.

Whatever the cause or the outcome, the emotive show of support for the sprightly old Gandhian is good for a society frustrated with the government’s apparent inertia about controlling corruption. “The movement is a much-needed catharsis for society. People’s generic dissatisfaction against stressors – financial, cultural, familial and governance – have got harnessed into a role-model of a man who’s perceived closest to selfless national heroes we’ve grown up idealising, such as Gandhi, Nehru and Patel,” said Dr Parikh.

Like the millions of Egyptians who took over Tahrir Square earlier this year to boot out Mubarak, or the young Iranians who risked getting shot to protest the country’s disputed 2009 presidential elections, people are out because they’re angry at being ignored. “Youth looks for direction and Anna’s arrest touched a sensitive nerve. Everyone wants to have a say, they want to be heard, and Anna’s dilemma has become a symbol of an uncaring government and polity,” says Dr Sameer Malhora, head, division of psychiatry and psychotherapy, Fortis Hospital. “He’s become an icon, a logo for the common man. People say, today Anna, tomorrow us,” he adds.

Again, as in Tahrir Square in Egypt and, more infamously, in London last fortnight, news reports and social media tools acted as a catalyst in mobilising people within minutes. “Knowing that there were many others who felt like them helped people overcome their inherent hesitation of being disruptive,” said Dr Parikh.

In The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, Jonathan Kozol argues that society discourages action by promoting inert concern without actual action. People are taught to believe that it’s mature to politely assert our concerns without friction. It makes us complacent and though we want it change, we think it’s hopeless to try because the government is powerful and corrupt, which is the reason why the middle classes are the least likely to vote.

That has changed. “A month ago, everyone was angry, thinking, ‘but what can I do?’ Now when they saw others like them out in the streets, they thought, ‘Hey, maybe I can change things’. And if they can’t, they will always have the satisfaction of having tried,” said Parikh.

For a generation labelleld complacent for believing nothing is worth trying to change, and selfish for focusing on themselves and their careers, the almost blind belief in an idealistic corruption-free society caught everyone, including the government, unaware.

“For most people out there, the Lokpal Bill is incidental. They don’t want to understand it or worry about practicalities, such as implementation. Their angst against political apathy is driving them. And this time, they want to be heard,” says Malhotra.“It emotional, rather than logical, but then, emotion is more powerful than logic any day,” says Parikh.