Mind the Gap: Connecting the Movement to the Moderates in India and the United States

BY ABIGAIL BELLOWS

As pro-democracy revolutions swept the Arab world last year, citizens in the world’s two largest democracies also rose up. In India, a massive anticorruption movement spearheaded by activist Anna Hazare started in April 2011 and boomed in August. In the United States, Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements sprung up in September. The uprisings provide a portrait of how citizens in formal democracies, where elections and political rights are already established, struggle for more functional democracies, where public needs supersede private interests. By all accounts, the movements have resulted in a surge in public outrage over corruption and inequality in their respective contexts.

While there are important differences between the movements, the similarities are striking. In particular, both movements claim to represent a majority of citizens. Hazare frames himself as the Indian “common man,” in contrast to politicians. This is notable given the preponderance in India of politics based on caste or region rather than Hazare’s universalistic grounds. Similarly, Occupy’s ubiquitous “We are the 99 percent!” chant is boldly populist. While most progressive movements revolve around segments of the population, such as undocumented immigrants or the uninsured, Occupy asserts that 99 percent of Americans have a common economic stake—particularly when up against the 1 percent at the top—and that Occupy is their voice.

This article evaluates each movement’s populist claims. I argue that while the aspirations of both movements are widely shared, the movements themselves have failed to capture the support of centrists who “should” be affiliating. As examined below, the movements’ demands, leadership, and tactics have inadvertently alienated moderates. The article concludes by offering recommendations that could bring the movements closer to their broadest possible base. The analysis is limited to the first stages of these dynamic movements, through the fall of 2011.

Centrist Goals

It is hard to deny that the rallying cries of the two movements reflect public opinion. In India, corruption is perceived to be the second-biggest hurdle to doing business domestically (Schwab 2010). According to a 2011 poll, 96 percent of Indians believe that the powerful in India can “get away with anything” and that government has a “culture of non-accountability” (The Hindu 2011). At the same time, the growing middle class, now accustomed to private-sector efficiency, has an increasingly low tolerance for bribe paying and the costs of government theft; this new expectation for accountability was on display in 2010, when a $40 billion telecommunications scandal sparked fury in the media (Malik 2011). The frequency and scale of such scandals has grown as economic liberalization has expanded. The Arab Spring “suddenly made change possible,” according to one activist, while growth in the young middle class created a demographic with energy and money, restless for a noble cause (Balasubramaniam 2011).

Just such a noble cause appeared in April when Anna Hazare embarked on a hunger strike against corruption. The immediate raison d’être for his protest was condemning the feeble anticorruption bill proposed by the ruling coalition. Hazare, like millions of others, perceived the legislation to be a betrayal of election promises to crack down on corruption. Hundreds joined Hazare on the hunger strike and hundreds of thousands more rallied in support. The newspapers rang with agreement about the need to fight corruption, and expatriates in London and Paris even held solidarity rallies.

Similarly, most Americans are united in their anger over rising inequality, joblessness, and foreclosures. In the wake of the 2008 recession, a record number of Americans—close to 50 percent—were classified as poor or low-income (Yen 2011). When reports surfaced in July 2009 that the same banks that had received federal bailouts had paid their top executives sky-high bonuses, the media buzzed with articles about Wall Street’s excesses and President Barack Obama’s seeming inability to rein in inequality.

In the United States, activists in early 2011 were captivated by the people’s revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In Spain, youth in fifty-seven cities staged acampadas, or campouts, to protest soaring unemployment. Inspired by these movements, in July 2011 the anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters created a new hashtag: #OccupyWallStreet. Many such protests had been staged before, but when thousands flooded Wall Street starting 17 September, it surpassed anyone’s expectations.

The anger driving Occupy Wall Street was widely felt. A November 2011 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that three-quarters of Americans believed the country’s economic structure to be “out of balance” in favor of the rich and that there was a need to “reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency” (Hart/McInturff 2011). As of October 2011, 59 percent of Americans agreed with what they perceived to be the “goals” of the Occupy movement (Princeton Survey Research Associates International 2011).

Losing Potential Supporters

Given the widespread consensus on corruption and inequality, we would expect to see similarly widespread support for the campaigns tackling these ills. While the movements have received significant mainstream attention, they have also faced serious detractors among opinion makers and low participation from some who share their basic concerns.

In India, outspoken anticorruption activists such as Aruna Roy and Arundhati Roy came out against Hazare’s demands and tactics, as did influential commentators like Vinod Mehta in Outlook magazine and Manu Joseph in the New York Times. While most Indians were glad someone was taking a stand against corruption, only one-third of Indians had actually heard of the Lokpal, Hazare’s key demand (Yadav 2011).

In the United States, 40 percent of those who share Occupy Wall Street’s concerns report disagreeing with their tactics (Pew Research Center 2011). While union leadership expressed support for Occupy, the face of the movement was not the all-American teachers and firefighters so prominent in the February 2011 union protests in Wisconsin. Jenny Jenkinss (2011) highlighted the tension between the Occupy organizers and everyday citizens in an address to fellow activists: “We have to be secure and uncompromising when it comes to the state and the 1 percent. But we have to be gentle, compassionate, and open when it comes to the 99 percent.”

Sources of Disconnect

What caused the estrangement between the movements and their would-be supporters? I argue that each movement’s demands, leadership, and tactics narrowed the breadth of support they enjoyed.

Demands

While most Indians and Americans supported the broad goals of their respective movements, many were ambivalent when it came to specific demands. In India, Team Anna’s proposal to institute a Jan Lokpal—a body that could investigate corruption at every level of government—was termed a “Jokepal” by some. Samar Halarnkar of the Hindustan Times critiqued the Jan Lokpal’s “fuzzy definitions, inadequate separation of judicial and police powers, and possible prosecution of bribe givers” (2011). Others worried that the Jan Lokpal would not do enough; by demonizing individual officials it avoided addressing the systemic problems that reproduce corruption. Such concerns significantly dampened support for the movement.

Occupy Wall Street has resisted articulating specific demands at all. Beyond the practical challenges of reaching consensus, organizers like Tammy Shapiro believe that enumerating specific demands would obviate the movement’s function as an “umbrella for all our concerns” (2012). Others fear demands will reduce Occupy to another issue campaign. As the Onion quipped: “Americans are eagerly awaiting a list of demands from the group so they can then systematically disregard them and continue going about their business” (2011).

Regardless of the rationale, the absence of demands has made the movement less accessible. As organizer Yotam Marom put it: “Working families from the South Bronx aren’t gonna come to a General Assembly for four hours to express their own demands. Demands are one way for them to hear that it’s about them without them having to be there” (Heilemann 2011). After reiterating his support for Occupy’s goals, Nicholas Kristof (2011) echoed the concern: “Where the movement falters is in its demands: It doesn’t really have any. The participants pursue causes that are sometimes quixotic—like the protester who calls for removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill because of his brutality to American Indians.”

Furthermore, the statements that come closest to Occupy demands do not fully resonate with “the 99 percent.” The declaration ratified by the New York City General Assembly in September 2011 decries exorbitant executive bonuses and illegal foreclosures yet “they” (the corporations) are also indicted on more far-reaching charges. “They have poisoned the food supply through negligence,” the declaration states. “They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media. . . . They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt” (New York City General Assembly 2011). Such conspiratorial assertions are not substantiated and appear extraneous to the distributional issues that were originally at the heart of Occupy. As a result of its demands—or lack thereof—Occupy has lost the support of moderates who share its fundamental economic concerns.

Leadership

The current anticorruption movement in India orbits around Anna Hazare. His allure as a leader comes largely from his seeming purity: robed in simple whites and seated under an image of Gandhi, Hazare embodies the honest villager confronting corrupt New Delhi. This image is essential to Hazare’s moral legitimacy, and Hazare may be essential for the movement’s success. It is possible that the protests would not have risen to national prominence if they did not revolve around a symbolic leader.

Still, dependence on Hazare also opens the movement up to significant vulnerabilities. First, revelations that Hazare enforced upper-caste practices in his village and forbade local elections eroded his credibility. Furthermore, by depending so much on Hazare, the movement can only be as strategic as he and his advisers are. Perhaps actions that cost the movement public support, such as campaigning against the Congress Party in Haryana, could have been avoided if the movement was guided by the wisdom of multiple leaders.

In contrast, Occupy is committed to an egalitarian and decentralized structure, alternatively described as “leaderless” and “leader-full.” Nonetheless, organizers like Marom argue, “Anybody who says there’s such a thing as a totally nonhierarchical, agenda-less movement is . . . not stupid, but dangerous, because somebody’s got to write the ­agenda; it doesn’t fall out of the sky” (Heilemann 2011). The myth of the “leaderless” movement can generate a lack of transparency about who actually holds power and how one becomes a leader.

Without a process through which to assign leadership, Occupy’s default spokespeople tend to be those who are most impassioned or who the media finds most intriguing. As in any movement, those who are more outspoken also tend to be more radical. And the media seems to be particularly intrigued by Occupiers that are dreadlocked, pierced, and young. As a result, the public face of Occupy is disproportionately radical and deviant in both politics and appearance. This image alienates mainstream audiences who might otherwise identify with Occupy’s concerns.

Finally, Occupy’s well-intentioned egalitarianism can limit participation. Consensus decision making at General Assemblies is remarkably inclusive, but it is also time-intensive and requires in-person attendance. In effect, participation is more feasible for the unemployed, students, and professional activists. The process inadvertently limits the involvement of those working multiple jobs, parents, the elderly, and those outside urban centers.

Tactics

The primary tactics employed by Team Anna and Occupy are controversial among potential supporters. Hazare and his allies used hunger strikes to pressure the government to pass the Jan Lokpal. Though the tactic captured public attention, it also brought on a hailstorm of criticism from moderates and civil society leaders. The former executive editor of the Times of India, Gautam Adhikari, summarized the sentiment: “Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death is a clear instance of misunderstood democracy. . . .  Suicide is against the law in this democracy; so is any threat to commit violence, even to oneself, if you don’t get your way. That’s blackmail” (Adhikari 2011). This criticism became more widespread as Hazare continued to redeploy the tactic.

In Occupy’s case, the tactic of camping in public spaces enjoyed significant support at first but lost ground as questions arose about the “end game.” In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa warmly distributed ponchos to Occupiers in early October but by the end of the month said the encampment could not “continue indefinitely.” Likewise, Senator Dianne Feinstein declared that protesters do not “have the right to occupy forever” (Almendrala 2011). To defend the tactic, a subcurrent of activism focused on the “Right to Occupy” grew, leading John Heilemann (2011) to claim that “Mayor Bloomberg’s clearing of Zuccotti Park is likely to prove a boon to the Occupy forces, allowing them to stop expending so much energy on defending space and more on movement-building.”

Finally, neither fasting nor occupying is a realistic option for most citizens. Health, family, and work obligations mean that few will risk self-imposed starvation or voluntary homelessness. That said, dramatic direct action by a few might be an effective method of capturing public attention. The problem lies in the fact that the movements depended too heavily on these tactics, neglecting to create enough other meaningful points of engagement. Yes, everyone was invited to solidarity rallies and encouraged to sign online petitions or post on Facebook. But the lack of more powerful and widely known pressure tactics for everyday citizens meant a loss in participation and impact.

Before offering some recommendations for how the movements could realign with the vast majority, the article addresses a key objection. Perhaps these uprisings are not meant to be broad populist movements. Perhaps instead they are the radical “bad cop” empowering a moderate “good cop.” Occupy’s anger heightened public concern about inequality, allowing more established players like the Working Families Party and unions to push through New York’s tax increase on the wealthy. Team Anna’s unyielding style made activists open to negotiation seem more centrist and appealing. Perhaps these movements exist, the argument goes, to pull the center in their direction.

If so, then the movements should not claim to already be the center, as they do now.

If, on the other hand, the movements want to make good on their centrist claims, they have much to gain. Mass support gives them a tremendous boost in raw numbers and moderate voices, making it easier to impact those in power. New supporters gain an outlet for their anger and hope, forging relationships with like-minded citizens. In order to reap these benefits, the movements must identify demands with which the majority of citizens agree and develop tactics that are accessible to the masses.

Recommendations for India’s Anticorruption Movement

Make Demands, But Negotiate

Hazare has already started collaborating with civil society actors to develop a Lokpal proposal that reflects broader public opinion. Still, he faces criticism for his perceived rigidity. As Indian scholar Sunil Khilnani (2011) wrote regarding Hazare, “To make something political . . . is above all to make it amenable to negotiation. Such inductions are never easy—the new entrants necessarily want to make the encounter a clash of wills, to affirm their importance.” Hazare could better communicate which elements of his proposal are essential and commit to serious negotiations about the rest.

Beyond Hunger Strikes

In an environment where corruption is endemic, fasting may have been necessary to awaken India to the urgency of the problem. But from August onward, the movement would have benefited from a series of escalating pressure strategies. Possibilities for the future include street theater and public testimonials about experiences of corruption (such as those recorded on the “I Paid a Bribe” Web site—http://ipaidabribe.com), letters to the editor, joint events with anticorruption champions in the private sector, and an award system honoring clean bureaucrats. Team Anna could add to the electoral costs of corruption by partnering with credible nongovernmental organizations such as Satark Nagrik Sangathan to compile objective “accountability report cards” on candidates (Banerjee et al. 2011).

Recommendations for Occupy Wall Street

Occupy the Demand Space

Demands, like leadership, exist whether we acknowledge them or not. By creating a transparent and inclusive process for reaching demands, Occupy Wall Street could have greater control over perceptions of the movement and public discourse about inequality. Demands would build bridges with centrists who have been hesitant to affiliate with something nebulous or unpredictable. By rallying around specific demands, Occupy is more likely to retain clarity of purpose now that most physical occupations have been disbanded.

Tactics for the 99 Percent

Occupy’s tactics have been in transition since most encampments were cleared. Some protestors started occupying foreclosed homes, but participating in such a tactic remains unrealistic for most Americans.

To engage moderates, Occupy could organize a massive round of teach-ins and house meetings about income inequality. This would help connect movement organizers with the 99 percent, deepen education about the issues, and demystify the movement. House meetings would offer a comfortable and intimate atmosphere to complement “Occupy Town Squares,” roaming one-day occupations in parks around New York City.

The “Occupy Faith” caucus is building links with congregations already but could partner with established faith-based organizing groups and denominations to make this outreach more systematic and focused on middle America. Together, they could organize a month of testimonials, sermons, and Bible studies related to inequality and shared prosperity, perhaps tied to Pentecost, Passover, and Ramadan.

Those who cannot attend in-person events could show their solidarity with “We are the 99 percent” yard signs, bumper stickers, and postcards. On these postcards people could share their struggles and hopes for their economic future and then send them to friends. This tactic would be directed at a peer target audience, a complement to the Wall Street letter-writing campaign at the Occupy the Board Room Web site (www.occupytheboardroom.org).

Another effective tactic could be a “one-phrase campaign,” conducted on social media and at in-person actions, where participants each state one economic sacrifice their family has had to make recently (e.g., prescriptions, piano lessons, retirement savings). Hollywood actors could create a series of humorous 99 percent ads, and flash mobs in business districts could showcase a catchy 99 percent dance.

Conclusion

On balance, Occupy and India’s anticorruption movement have something crucial going for them: most people agree with their overarching cause. By specifying popular demands, developing strategic leadership, and expanding tactical options, the movements can connect with the everyday citizens who share their aspirations and together can produce lasting change.

References

Adhikari, Gautam. 2011. Fasting as democracy decays. The Times of India, 25 August.

Almendrala, Anna. 2011. Occupy LA opposition grows louder: Senator Dianne Feinstein & Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speak out. The Huffington Post, 26 October.

Balasubramaniam, R. 2011. Interview with author, Cambridge, MA, 31 October.

Banerjee, Abhijit V. et al. 2011. Do informed voters make better choices? Experimental evidence from Urban India. Working paper, 11 November.

Halarnkar, Samar. 2011. I am not Anna Hazare. Hindustan Times, 17 August.

Hart/McInturff. 2011. NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Study #11579. Conducted by Hart/McInturff, 2-5 November.

Heilemann, John. 2011. 2012=1968? New York magazine, 27 November.

The Hindu. 2011. Survey shows overwhelming public support for Anna Hazare. The Hindu, 22 August.

Jenkinss, Jenny. 2011. Letter to the Occupy movement, its supporters, and its critics. YouTube, 18 December.

Khilnani, Sunil. 2011. Whose politics is it anyway. The Times of India, 24 September.

Kristof, Nicholas D. 2011. The bankers and the revolutionaries. The New York Times, 1 October.

Malik, Ashok. 2011. The fast solution. Outlook India, 1 September.

New York City General Assembly. 2011. Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, accepted by the NYC General Assembly on 29 September.

The Onion. 2011. Nation waiting for protesters to clearly articulate demands before ignoring them. The Onion, News in Brief, 12 October.

Pew Research Center. 2011. Frustration with Congress could hurt Republican incumbents. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 15 December.

Princeton Survey Research Associates International. 2011. October 2011 Omnibus Week 2. Princeton Survey Research Associates International for National Journal, 17 October.

Schwab, Klaus, ed. 2010. The Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011. Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum.

Shapiro, Tammy. 2012. E-mail interview with author, 26 January.

Yadav, Yogendra. 2011. Corruption is the big issue. State of the nation poll: CNN-IBN and CNBC-TV18. Presented by the Hindu.

Yen, Hope. 2011. Census shows 1 in 2 people are poor or low-income. Associated Press, 15 December.

 

This article was originally published in the 2012 edition of the Kennedy School Review.


Abigail Bellows is a 2013 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she is organizing a panel on corruption for the International Development Conference. Her work on accountable governance builds on five years of experience as a community organizer in New York City and India.