Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning from Egypt: Separating Water from Milk

This summer I attempted to beat the heat by drinking rose-syrup flavoured water. It is sweet, turns the milk a lovely shade of pink, and is best served chilled.

The results of Panjim’s municipal elections are still unknown as this column is being written. However the results are rather irrelevant to the points this column seeks to make. This column was motivated by the vigorous campaign launched by the Panjimites Initiatives for Change (PINC) against the panel supported (or propped up) by Atanasio Monserrate, MLA from Taleigão. Interestingly, the members of this group were also at one point prominent faces of the GBA. They faded from the GBA at about the same time that the GBA agreed to join the Committee set up by the Chief Minister to review the Regional Plan.

Rather than attempt any deep reading of this situation, we may perhaps be instructed by the voice of an activist from Egypt that seems to speak remarkably to PINC’s initiatives.

Hossam al-Hamalawi is a labour activist who in an interview with Al-Jazeera pointed to some misconceptions that were being propagated around the world about the Egyptian revolution. The revolution was not fought and won only on Tahrir Square he reminded us. It was fought and won because of the simultaneous strikes by large numbers of Egyptian workers across the country. He went on to remind us that these strikes were continuing, even as the demonstrations in Tahrir melted away after Mubarak, the figurehead of the regime, was done away with. In his telling, this dissipation of the pressure on the regime was enabled by the ‘lullabies’ sung by the middle class. ‘Let us get things back to normal’ ‘return to law and order’. When were things normal? he asked. What law and order can we return to when for 3 decades there was no law and order, but a mockery of it? Do you ask these men, living on paltry sums, to wait six more months before their most basic, roti, kapda aur makaan demands are met?

Al-Hamalawi’s observations point to the problematic role of the middle-class in any revolution. It rides the wave of popular unrest, obtains its adjustment with the regime and forces in power, and then asks the masses to go home and let the law play its role.

The point here is not to vilify the middleclass, on the contrary they may very often sympathise with the oppressed. As a class however, they will play out their inherent tendencies. The point is that we must be aware of the manner in which they will operate. The Goan mass despite having been led on a merry dance on multiple occasions now, seems to continue to buy the palliatives of the Goan elite groups. Perhaps the reason that they do so is because in Goa the middleclass groups to a larger extent overlap with caste group configurations. The middleclass aspires to lifestyles largely set in place and upheld by dominant caste groups.

It appears that the success of a Goan revolution lies in the development of a strong caste, and class consciousness. Political discourse in Goa, and especially among the Catholics, needs to grapple with these issues, going beyond dislike and hatred of caste groups, to understanding the manner in which these groups operate and influence politics. Further, there is a critical need for us to embrace livelihood issues as the primary cause. This column has pointed out on earlier occasions how the GBA’s mobilisations (when led by this PINC segment) were largely based on (dominant caste/class) aesthetic considerations. Till date the issues of mining and its impact of livelihoods, or real-estate development and its destruction of livelihood options, have not been systematically embraced by these groups who claim to want a change in Goa’s state of affairs.

Allow those groups impacted by mining to lead the demonstrations for change and watch the difference. The demonstrations will automatically take on the dimensions of Tahrir. There will be a besieging of the homes of the CM, of the Secretariat. There will be no backing down till there is a complete halt of activities. There will be a necessary confrontation between the contradictions that we do not want to, but must necessarily addressed if we want to move Goa out of the mess it is in. Contrast this then with the efforts of the groups that led the GBA, and they will begin to look like the tea-parties (pun intended) they were.

As a conclusion, regard the plea by the Convenor for PINC. He requested us to vote for the candidates identified by this group of largely dominant caste elites because “We promise to keep them on a tight leash, if elected, to obey peoples’ mandate”. Words such as these Al-Hamalawi would call lullabies. First, given the fact that the Indian democracy gives its citizens no right of recall, once elected, there is no control on a representative by the voting public, except at the end of their five year term. Second, ‘keeping on a tight leash’ suggests that the members of PINC endorse a backroom management of democracy, rather than a public, deliberative democracy. These are hardly the people you can rely on to lead Goa out of the mire of political graft, nepotism and privateering. On the contrary, as this very same group and leader demonstrated in the past, they are capable of taking command of popular movements and compromise it at exactly the moment it can press home the advantage. They did so, not because of their inexperience in social activism, but because of their deep faith and commitment to the backroom politics that has compromised the effort of so many Goan mass movements.

If Goa is to learn from Egypt, we are required to examine our politics and make a consistent stand with livelihood issues. Developing finely tuned, and publicly debated political analytical skills that account for caste and class are imperative. This will eventually allow us to live in a society where the elite-led middle class groups may contribute their mite to change, but will not compromise or hijack change. At that point, perhaps we would be able to separate milk, from water.

(A version was first published in the Gomantak Times 16 March 2011)

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