The recent massive streets protests against the brutal and deadly assault on a young woman in a private bus in India capital, New Delhi, have been likened to the Arab Spring of India, a definitive turning point in the country’s political evolution. Clearly, in both its composition and content, the protests resonate with, not only the revolutionary street demonstrations in early 2011 in many countries in the Middle East, but also with a number of other movements that have burgeoned in countries across the world over the last couple of years. In the wake of the Arab Spring, and supposedly drawing inspiration from it, demonstrators occupied the financial centers of the US and Europe, conjuring up images of the 1960s. Unrest over austerity measures in European capitals hit by the global financial crisis continued. In the UK and Chile, students took to the streets protesting against high university fees. And in India itself, the anti-rape protests came on the heels of an anticorruption movement, unparalleled in its mass participation, media attention, and longevity.
Separated by geography, political context, and the triggers that set them off, the protest movements across countries have, nevertheless, been strikingly similar in composition and content. In composition they reflect a broadening of political mobilization beyond particular disenfranchised groups. Their protagonists are predominantly young, urban, and middle-class, savvy in the use of social media as an organizing tool, groups that have been only peripherally and intermittently involved in political affairs. Even more remarkably, although they have occurred in very different political systems and regime types, they have all, in one form or another, been focused on reform in governance institutions. In authoritarian and democratic settings alike, discontent has focused on the same basic dynamic – the failure of the political system to deliver adequate services and opportunities for the majority, while catering to the interests of a privileged few. Even when protestors have mobilized around very specific issues, such as violence against women as in India, underlying their demands has been a recognition that the horrific incident in Delhi was just symptomatic of a more fundamental failure of governance in the country.
The simultaneity and persistence of the demonstrations across countries, writ large on the global stage, might seem to represent a new phase of political evolution. It has been suggested that the Arab Spring heralded the beginning of a new social contract – one founded on an expanded space for voice and participation, stronger checks and balances, enhanced transparency, and institutions that provide services and opportunities for everyone. But, as most of the protest movements are realizing, translating outrage on the streets to effective, sustainable, and meaningful institutional change that addresses the roots of their disaffection can be formidable – as much in established democratic settings as in transitional ones. In the Middle East, regime change provided a clear and concrete target to focus the efforts of the protestors, and was accomplished with surprising rapidity in some countries. But subsequent efforts to build democratic institutions, to consolidate the gains of the revolution, and build politically and economically inclusive institutions, have been a lot more contested.
Reforming institutions in democratic settings that theoretically are already premised on inclusion, and yet have sub-optimal outcomes for the majority, can be just as challenging. The Occupy movement has been called a frenzy that fizzled without significant regulatory change. In India, the two powerful recent protests movements – against gender-based violence and against corruption – highlight the challenges and complexities of institutional change in a democracy. For instance, a key demand of the protestors against the Delhi rape incident was reform in the law to make punishment for sexual assault harsher. But legal scholars have contended that the solution is not in more stringent punishment, but better enforcement, higher conviction rates, and strengthening of capacity in the law and order and judicial institutions. The government responded to the protests with an Ordinance prescribing harsher punishment. But, such quick fixes are hardly adequate to address the more fundamental flaws in the system. Similarly, the call for a powerful Ombudsman by the anticorruption movement captured the popular imagination, but some commentators have argued that such a super-tribunal is inconsistent with checks and balance of a parliamentary system, and that adding layers of bureaucracy and oversight to an already over-burdened system is not the solution.
India’s democratic setting has been quite remarkable in providing the space for a plurality of voices to speak out and be heard, for media groups to expose misgovernance, and civil society and citizen groups to demand accountability. But it is also a system where decision-making can be chaotic, reaching consensus or even clarity on solutions elusive, and the gestation period for change very long. Witness the fate of the proposed Ombudsman. While the government took some steps towards establishing such a body in response to a non-violent hunger strike by India’s most revered social activist, the Ombudsman Bill has yet to be passed. While India’s progressive Right to Information law, multiplicity of media groups, and a mature and sophisticated civil society have enabled significant exposes on corruption over the last couple of years, there is little consensus on how the system can be fundamentally reformed to address this malaise. And the continuing spate of rapes in many parts of the country demonstrates that building capacity in institutions to effectively deliver both security and services is a challenging and long process. The persistence of voices for reform, their durability in staying engaged with the governance system, and their capacity to formulate workable, feasible solutions might determine if the protests become the kernel of lasting, meaningful change.