Arab Spring was hailed as a Facebook revolution. A protester from Yemen was conferred Nobel Peace Prize while another protester from Egypt was also considered. In the midst of a global euphoria, protesters thought it was their season. Some across the world decided to occupy financial districts. Several millions in India joined fast against corruption.
The protesters thought that Revolution 2.0 could change power equations and underlying principles that governed relationship between the rulers and the ruled. They saw Ben-Ali fleeing Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak jailed in Egypt, and Gaddafi killed in Libya. They waited for Assad to crumble in Syria, Saleh in Yemen and the Khalifa family in Bahrain.
Anna Hazare, an Indian social worker, mobilised millions forcing the Parliament to agree to introduce an ombudsman institution. Wall Street occupiers couldn’t claim forcing someone in jail or on plane but they proclaimed the success of their social networking generated marches anyway.
Unless activity is treated as a surrogate for result, all this euphoria has actually produced no real change. Where change came, it rode on bombs dropped from unmanned air vehicles by NATO troops and with bullets supplied by foreign powers. Where NATO is afraid of despatching bombs and bullets, poor protesters are killed, tortured and maimed.
Elsewhere what is presented as change is actually a new package with the old substance inside remaining intact. Tunisia can claim completion of revolution. In Egypt the regime has survived, though a family has lost out. In Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, even a cosmetic change has not taken place.
Away from the Middle East, nothing has changed in financial districts. Goldman Sachs retains its clout in the White House. Obama may stay or go. Romney may win or lose. Goldman Sachs will dominate Wall Street and Pennsylvania Street in the same breath. The bankers in UK, Greece and Spain have nothing to worry. The protesters lose jobs and houses but the wizards of their woes don’t care.
In India, the anti-corruption agitation has proved to be a comedy of errors. In the meanwhile, scandal after scandal comes out in open, turning the political theatre into a tragedy of honest citizens.
Why have the protests failed when only 20 years ago another kind of protests brought down autocratic regimes not only in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union but also in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some countries in Africa?
First of all, the agitations of the 1980s and 1990s were real stuff which brought people on streets. The reformers went to jail; they did not merely press a ‘like’ button as an arm chair equivalent of courting arrest. They jumped over a wall until it was brought down. They did not forward text messages about the wonders of wall. They became the candles themselves. They did not merely take out candle light marches after those who actually took to streets were killed while they were busy sending mobile messages.
Secondly, revolutions of the 1980s, 1990s or for that matter, 1770s or 1780s were about politics of aspiration, not about politics of rejection. The revolutionaries wanted to create a new system, not merely bring down the prevailing one. There was unanimity about their objectives – whether they were life, liberty and happiness; or equality, liberty and solidarity; or simply liberty. The revolutionaries were not split between those who wanted republics of free thought or kingdoms of God or dominions of this or that tribe. They knew what they were for; and not merely what they were against.
The failure of protesters today is a failure to understand that people are motivated by aspirations rather than rejection. They may discard something as an instant reaction to excesses of a corrupt or authoritarian regime. But refutation alone cannot sustain a movement. People need a credible new paradigm they can accept.
Thirdly, protest fails when those who steer it do not understand a fundamental maxim. Good politics, like good life, is a game of additions. Bad politics, like bad life, is a game of subtraction. If protest is used as a method to ignite a candle, then quickly moving towards construction of a viable alternative capable of satisfying aspirations, it will be transformed into a successful revolution. If a protest mistakes technology for objectives, activity for results, and denunciation for creation, it is bound to fizzle out.
Perhaps, those excelling in social networking of protest have accomplished their task. They have sensitised us to what is wrong. Perhaps, those excelling in social engineering of aspirations may now rise to create what should be right, just, fair and in the interest of us all.
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