India Abroad January 10, 2014 A13 COVER STORY
On December 17, as Tunisians observed the third anniversary of the self-immolation of a 26-year-old street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid
that sparked protests in their country and triggered a wave
of similar uprisings across north Africa and west Asia, people of New Delhi broke out into celebrations for the second
time in less than 10 days.
A rank outsider, Arvind Kejriwal, 45, had just announced
a referendum of sorts to ascertain the people’s wishes on
whether his Aam Aadmi Party should take the lead for
forming a government or not, after the fledgling party
made a historic debut in the assembly elections winning 28
seats in the 70-member house and coming second behind
the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies (32) but far ahead
of the Congress’s tally of eight seats.
Less than a week later, Kejriwal had staked claim to form
the government, bringing to a successful culmination an
unprecedented experiment in Indian democracy and
bringing cheer to ordinary citizens who had had enough of
the corruption and inflation that had peaked of late.
The contrast between Sidi Bouzid, a town 161 miles
southwest of capital Tunis, and Delhi located 3,700-odd
miles away, could not have been starker. Three years after
the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, Tunisia — much like
the rest of the Arab world — is still coming to terms with
the contagion that was unleashed on an unsuspecting society and government alike.
But the Indian version of the Arab Spring that began with
a septuagenarian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare’s
fast at Jantar Mantar in Delhi April 5, 2011, can draw satisfaction from the many successes it has notched up on the
way. There is a sense of accomplishment in the air. The
spontaneous public movement that captured the imagination of men and women, young and old, in cities and towns
across much of India has finally paid dividends.
Not only does India today have a new Lokpal Bill that
provides for a nationwide anti-corruption ombudsman,
Hazare’s one-time protégé Kejriwal has turned a people’s
movement for good governance, transparency and
accountability into a political party with a remarkable felicity of democratic expression.
That this was achieved without any blood-letting is a tribute to the virtues of democracy in general and the sagacity
and maturity of the Indian voter in particular. Compare
this with the less than 200,000 people killed in the Arab
Spring, including, but not limited to, 300 in Tunisia, 1,700
in Egypt, 2,000 in Yemen, 25,000 in Libya, 120,000 in
Syria and over 100 in Bahrain, all of which are yet nowhere
close to overcoming the challenges such as corruption,
unemployment, inflation and inequality that bedevils Sidi
Bouzid as much as it does Chandni Chowk.
The events that unfolded in those countries brought
home the tragic consequences of choosing the bullet over
The phenomenon sweeping across much of the Arab
world did not leave democratic societies like the United
States, where the Occupy Wall Street movement gained
traction, or India, untouched. No country was immune
from its reach. Social media ensured that the word spread
farther and anger travelled faster.
It sprouted wherever it found a ground made fertile by
mis-governance. It spared neither the dictator nor the
democrat. Five governments were overthrown, including
two in Egypt, just as the ruling Congress party was ousted
from power in Delhi but, unlike India and the US, the levels of disenchantment continue to remain high in the
democracy-deficit countries in north Africa and west Asia.
The prevailing sentiment in Tunisia, which has seen
changes wrought by the Arab Spring, is that people’s lives
and their economic situation has improved only marginally but it is not likely to improve any further in the immediate future. Tunisia is likely to witness the approval of a new
constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections in
In a recent study conducted by researchers from the
University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and
the University of Maryland, more than 60 percent of the
3,000 Tunisian adults surveyed said that they were not
happy with the current political leadership and 86 percent
said corruption was common.
The situation is worse in Egypt, which increasingly
resembles a police state, or, Libya, where militias run
amok, throwing the country into further instability.
In Yemen, attempts are still being made for a national
dialogue and reconciliation involving multiple stakeholders.
“It is clear that the process of Arab transformation will
need decades to mature and that its success is by no means
guaranteed,” says Marwan Muasher, vice president for
studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, the oldest international affairs think tank in the US.
His prognosis for some of the countries affected by the
Arab Spring is not encouraging.
According to him, Egypt, which can be expected to hold a
referendum on a new constitution in addition to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, “is not out of the
woods yet.” He sounds a warning for the Arab monarchies,
who have not succeeded in tackling the underlying political, economic, and social challenges their nations face.
“Jordan will continue to feel that it has successfully ridden the wave of Arab transitions without seriously addressing some of the key economic and political challenges facing the country. And it will probably get away with it, at
least for now,” notes Muasher, who served as Jordan’s
deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005 and foreign
minister from 2002 to 2004.
At the same time, the Aam Aadmi Party’s ascension to the
front and centre of the political landscape and discourse is
instructive for a proud democracy such as India.
We are seeing Kejriwal’s fourth avatar, this time as a
politician, after the engineer-turned-bureaucrat quit government service to launch a non-government organization.
He was in every sense of the word an antithesis to the reticent and self-effacing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,
Tribute to the virtues of democracy
The Indian Spring represented by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign, began around
the same time as the Arab Spring in 2011, but they led to different outcomes.
Ramesh Ramachandran on the lessons the world can learn from India
Arvind Kejriwal being detained by police
during a protest march in New Delhi in
October 2012. Fourteen months later, he
is the chief minister of that state — a nod
to the power of a working democracy.
ADNAN ABIDI /REUTERS