Will Occupy Wall Street Reach One of the World’s Most Unequal Countries?

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India's main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stage a protest against corruption in Indore, India, October 2, 2011. (Photo: Sanjeev Gupta / EPA)


In India mass, non-violent protest is not only a founding national principle; it is a highly developed art form. Any journalist working here must quickly figure out the difference between a dharna (sit-down protest) and a bandh (a general strike), and learn the peculiar conventions of the “fast unto death”: every hunger strike must include the manufactured drama of supporters visiting the faster to plead with him, on camera, to break his fast; when he does, cue the symbolism. (The anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare broke his 13-day fast earlier this year by drinking coconut water offered to him by  two little girls—one Muslim, one Dalit—to emphasize the inclusiveness of his movement.)

So why hasn’t Occupy Wall Street spread to India yet? India has its own version of Wall Street—Dalal Street in Mumbai—and staggering inequalities of wealth. And yet the protests have so far gotten only as close as Hong Kong and Singapore. The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a group called Occupy Mumbai, but even it is directing its protests at politicians, not bankers. Dinesh Thakkar, head of Angel Broking, one of India’s largest stock brokerage houses, reasons in an interview with the Hindu newspaper that India hasn’t fully embraced capitalism, so it isn’t yet an object of public anger:

“Caught between socialism and capitalism, India does not provide fertile conditions for mass resentment against capital markets….The awareness about capital markets is low even among the educated Indians which makes it a non entity in their lives. So there is no connect between an anti-capitalist movement and the daily grind of an aam-aadmi [the common man].”

It’s an interesting analysis, particularly from a financial insider. And he is right about one thing: the vast majority of Indians live and work outside the formal economy, so the financial markets are much less important to them than, say, the price of petrol or the difficulty of getting a ration card, both of which are the responsibility of the state. That’s why India’s mass protest movement has channeled public anger mainly at the government.

That doesn’t mean the Occupy Wall Street movement has left India untouched. It is getting lots of attention in the Indian press — India’s largest circulation English-language daily, the Times of India, today floated the poll question, “Wall Street protest: Is it the beginning of the end of capitalism?” And the country’s largest leftist party, the Communist Party (Marxist), is considering hitching itself to the ‘Occupy’ bandwagon to restore its faded popular appeal and credibility, according to a report in the Indian Express:

The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that is spreading around the globe has excited the CPM at a time when it is engaged in an exercise to redefine its ideological approach to keep pace with the changing times and counter the neo-liberal economic framework. It has decided to launch a campaign on issues that can appeal to the middle class besides the poor. Against the backdrop of the global agitation against corporate greed, the comrades felt it was time to “step up and broaden” the campaign against the “neo-liberal policies” in India. Assessing the impact of “globalisation” and prescribing credible policy alternatives besides stepping up its fight against imperialism were at the centre of the ideological resolution which the Politburo has finalised.

It’s unlikely, though, that Occupy Wall Street will get to India via an established political party. The movement gets its energy from its spontaneity; trying to harness to a fixed political agenda is likely to drain its appeal. That is already happening to India’s anti-corruption movement, which rode a wave of public sympathy this summer but since has devolved into a collection of competing egos and priorities. In the last week alone, one faction of the Anna Hazare movement’s leadership claimed credit for defeating a Congress Party candidate in a state by-election while another faction quit over the “political turn” that the movement has taken. Meanwhile, a group of activists from Hazare’s home village publicly complained about not getting an appointment with Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi—sounding less like visionary reformers than ordinary political supplicants. That’s a lesson the Occupy Wall Street movement might consider as it comes under increasing pressure to define its own policy agenda.

Hazare’s movement has also failed to move beyond its lone demand for the establishment of a Lokpal—a new, indepenent, anti-corruption ombudsman—to look more closely at the ties between India’s increasingly powerful industrial houses and the government. Many progressive activists, most notably Arundhati Roy, have criticized Hazare for letting corporations off the hook and, in fact, allowing them to co-opt the anti-government public mood to their benefit. Some observers have cast India’s anti-corruption movement as an iteration of the indignados, a loosely defined Spanish protest ethos of which Occupy Wall Street is the latest. By that reasoning, the Hazare crowd would be enthusiastically “occupying” New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai this week. That hasn’t happened, and it isn’t likely to. Indians may yet occupy Dalal Street — but it will take a new generation of protesters to do it.

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