In early 2014, as the national elections draw close, India’s democracy is undergoing a period of crisis and renewal.
National parties do not any more attract the widespread support they used to, and the alliances around them have become unstable. Election outcomes appear ever more unpredictable. Political parties and politicians themselves suffer a fundamental crisis of legitimacy, primarily because many Indians view them as endemically corrupt.
At the same time, new forms of protest movements have made their entry into the political arena in recent years. They operate outside established channels of protest and advocacy, and employ innovative forms of mobilisation to make their voices heard and to influence politics and administration. At least until very recently, they stood largely outside the politics based on political parties.
This study revisits the recent history of new protest movements in India. It analyses their causes and actors, their dynamics and forms of action, and their supporters and critics. When it comes to new protest movements, India obviously does not stand alone; but different especially from the ‘Arab Spring’, new protest movements in India operate in a functioning democracy. They do not want to tear down an
authoritarian regime, but to bring into the political arena issues that have either been neglected or not found adequate representation. They do so by mobilising groups of people who have not been involved in politics before, many of them urban, young, and belonging to India’s ‘new middle class’—however imprecise or even inadequate that latter term may appear. By doing all this, the new protest movements renew and revitalise Indian democracy.
The recent rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), its surprising success in the Delhi Assembly elections of December 2013, and the short-lived but dramatic episode of Arvind Kejriwal acting as Delhi’s Chief Minister have some of its roots in the earlier anti-corruption protest movement. The AAP is evolving its own peculiar mix of protest and populism, while trying to find a programmatic profile. The AAP may or
may not succeed in the 2014 elections. If it does so, a transformation of protest into party politics will have been remarkably fast; and AAP would likely provide some surprises for those used to the established forms of ‘doing politics’ in India. But even if AAP fails – and perhaps especially if it should fail – the new forms of popular protest are unlikely to disappear. They emerged years before the AAP, and may evolve even stronger in the future, constituting an innovative pattern of engagement in India’s democracy.