When streets erupt in a democracy, it is nearly always because institutions are not delivering as they had promised to. It is never a good idea to barricade popular voices by institutional walls

Like it or hate it, but hand it to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for forcing us to think democracy. Contrast this moment with the Emergency and one thing stands out clearly; we need both order and dissent to stay alive. Take one of them out of the equation and democracy has a hard time hanging in: it first flips and then flops.

From every angle, the Emergency was all about control; but then is today all about protests, no holds barred? From Anna’s rally to the anti-rape agitations to Chief Minister Kejriwal’s sit in and sleep-in earlier this month, discussions on this subject are only getting louder. Even the President of India sounded the bugle in his speech on the eve of Republic Day when he warned against anarchy taking over constitutionalism.

Across time

If a Chief Minister is anarchist because he took to the streets, how then would we label the late French President François Mitterrand? After all, in 1983 he gave a hero’s welcome in the Élysée Palace, no less, to anti-racist protesters who were angry with his own government. In fact, in 1980, as leader of the Socialist Party, he joined a widely popularised street march against attacks on Jewish people, along with Pierre Chevènement and Michel Rocard. Were they all anarchists? Or think of Bertrand Russell and his activism against nuclear bombs. Another anarchist or a well-meaning democrat?

Clearly one person’s anarchist could well be another person’s activist. Go back a little in time and consider the demonstrations that brought in universal franchise or racial equality or the establishment of gay rights. Had these movements been banned, or dubbed as anarchist, our democracies would have been that much poorer. It is with the help of these protests that democracy grew and grew to give us this splendid shade under which most of us sit. It took decades of activism before women got the right to vote and before Blacks became legally equal to the rest in America; but who is complaining today?

Or, consider what is going on right now in Bangkok. The Thais want their government to go, but the leader refuses to budge till her corrupt brother is reinstated with full honours. Is the protest then anarchic? Or take Kiev, Ukraine — another real time uprising. This one is against the government’s anti-protest laws [which the Ukrainian President has now agreed to scrap] and its inexplicable decision to pull out of the race for an EU membership. Should the democratic opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, be called an anarchist for turning down the position of Prime Minister that might have brought peace to the country? Instead, he prefers to be with the agitators in the bitter cold, with not much more than a muffler for comfort. Was Tahrir Square a waste of time and another anarchic explosion? What indeed of Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began?

We have not mentioned Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, or any of the other freedom fighters of the past who were also once called anarchists. This is because times have changed and we are no longer battling colonialism, dictatorships or apartheid. Today, democracies are troubled because their leaders wear earplugs and citizens shout in vain. The singular thing about democracy is that political rulers must earn their respect and not demand it, just because they are in office. This is what separates this form of governance from monarchy, racism and fascism.

When streets erupt in a democracy it is nearly always because institutions are not delivering as they had promised to. It is never a good idea to barricade popular voices by institutional walls. Is this why our President in his latest speech on the eve of Republic Day warned politicians not to make false promises for that would generate both heat and noise? Was he lamenting both the United Progressive Alliance’s performance as much as cautioning politicians about their immediate future?

Disdain for democratic procedure

It is not as if democracies have never been challenged by genuine anarchism in the past, nor is it that they can easily protect themselves from such assaults in the future. The ones who stormed the Babri Masjid were anarchists, and so are the Maoists and religious/ethnic activists of today. What unites them all is their disdain for democratic procedure whose hallmark is non-violence. Anarchism, be warned, is not just about physical violence; it is as much about verbal violence as well. People tend to forget this, but that is how Gandhiji understood non-violence; it had to be both in word and in deed.

Gandhiji argued, as did Bertrand Russell, and scores of other believers of liberal democracy, that the moment voices are raised it is clear that violence has struck. Anger reveals a weak hand, for if the argument is a winning one, why be abusive? Supporters of the AAP demonstrated this spirit through the 2013 election in Delhi. Since then, it has compromised and condoned, at least, verbal instances of anarchy. Mr. Somnath Bharti, Delhi’s Law Minister, may be in over his head with his new assignment, but that does not excuse his disgraceful choice of language. He has not just let the side down repeatedly, but has also given credence to the charge that the AAP borders on anarchism. Perhaps Mr. Kejriwal should hold a night school in good manners for his band.

Neither street demonstrations nor working from a makeshift office under a tent amounts to anarchism. It is violence, both physical and verbal, that invites anarchy more than anything else, whether or not such acts happen in the killing fields or in parliaments. Remember also, some of the most ruthless leaders in modern times were elected to power. This is why liberal democracy is not just about votes, but more about non-violence. If there is a striking family resemblance between anarchists and dictators it is because violence was mother’s milk for both of them.

Nor is it anarchy to change one’s political opinion. Liberal democracy would hardly be worth upholding if the freedom to absorb new information is not accompanied by the freedom to alter one’s position. To bind people to a point of view in perpetuity can only happen when knowledge flow is restricted and when political opposition is banned. In a liberal democracy, people must have the option to move and grow, but under one condition. They must, on each occasion, publicly justify the reasons for the switch. Once that is done, freely and openly, liberal democracy has nothing to complain about.

True, Mr. Kumar Vishwas was wrong in his remarks on Kerala’s nurses, but that was done in his pre-AAP days and for which he has apologised anyway. Why should then his past haunt him now? Much worse things have happened. For example, Mr. Sanjay Nirupam and Mr. Chhagan Bhujbal left the Shiv Sena and joined the Congress/NCP without explaining what they found wrong with their earlier affiliations. Only Rangarajan Kumaramangalam attempted to provide a rationale for his move away from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party, but not Ms Najma Heptullah. What also of Ms Renuka Chowdhury who has travelled from party to party before settling down in the Congress? Nobody has ever heard her explain why she first chose and then dumped the Telugu Desam Party. Liberal democracy is violated by opportunistic alliances of this kind and not when people give reasons for changing their minds.

The AAP has forced us to discuss all these issues again and that can only be good for democracy. In the fitness of things, Mr. Kejriwal and his followers must know that it is hard to be just a little bit anarchic. It is like catching the flu in the hallway. Once this strain enters the system it spreads itself all over. As bad practices push out the good, not only should the AAP sit up and take notice of anarchic elements within, but we too should acknowledge how non-violent protests enrich democracies.

A little anarchy is a dangerous thing, but a good protest is a joy forever!

(Dipankar Gupta is distinguished professor and director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.)

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