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Outsider is the new insider

A series of political forces from outside the traditional domain have emerged across nations to occupy significant mind-space with the promise of altering the ‘system’

Outsider is the new insider

Few would have placed their bets on the Five Star Movement when it was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2010. The Five Star Movement is the single largest party in the lower house of Italy with more than 25 per cent of the votes – secured in what was perhaps the most surprising elections in Italy's history. Italy's just elected new populist government has easily won its second, and final, mandatory confidence vote in the Parliament's lower chamber in June 2018. A political novice, Guiseppe Conte, leads the Euroskeptic coalition of the Five Star Movement, which considers itself to be anti-establishment, and the right-wing north-based League party.

In Delhi, the same had been enacted some time back by the maverick Aam Aadmi Party when it created history in 2015 winning 67 out of the 70 Assembly seats in Delhi.

Italy's Five Star movement

The Five Star movement – which strongly rejects defining itself as a political party, preferring, instead, to call itself a "free association of citizens" – does not have physical headquarters or a Constitution (it has a "non-statute", though). Its "offices" are hosted in Grillo's blog and its local units were formed by the blog's readers, who voluntarily began to organise activities related to the five issues represented by the five stars — public water, sustainable mobility, development, connectivity, and environment. Each unit deals with local issues and forges links between the society and local institutions. However, the most important issue that explains a lot of the movement's success is the fight against corruption and the promise to "send home" the existing political class. The contrast between the declining economic situation of a sizeable part of Italy's middle class in the wake of the austere measures taken by the earlier government in 2012-13 and the incapability of the political class to take even a small symbolic action to curb its inordinately long list of benefits, while the citizens witnessed their pensions being curbed, salaries frozen, and the price of gas increasing, not to mention the abysmally high rates of unemployment – was unbearable to the electorate.

The movement put forth an entirely different paradigm of electoral politics. First, all candidates were chosen by movement activists through primary elections held online rather than by the party's high command. Second, the MPs do not see themselves as people's representatives, but rather as their spokespersons. Elected members will subject all important policy decisions to an online referendum. Third, all MPs will be allowed to contest elections only once and they will propose a bill to make ineligible whoever has served for more than two legislatures. There was little else the exhausted Italian electorate needed to hear.

Brazilian Porto Alegre model

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making in which common people decide how to allocate parts of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss and prioritise public spending projects, while also giving them the power to make real decisions about how the money is spent. A World Bank paper suggests that participatory budgeting has led to direct improvements in facilities in Porto Alegre in Brazil where it was first implemented. As of 2015, over 1500 instances of PB have been implemented across the five continents. While the democratic spirit of PB remains the same throughout the world, institutional variations abound. It takes leadership to flatten the organisational structure and make conscious ethical responsibilities. At the municipal governance level, more and more cities are adopting this model which brings citizens into the process of decision-making, also termed as Swaraj in the Indian context.

'Urban villagers are Asia's new force'

Pankaj Mishra calls urban villagers as the new Asian force. Rising on a wave of disaffection with the corruption and inefficiency of established political parties, a worldwide phenomenon is on the rise: the emergence of external challengers – ranging from Beppe Grillo, a comedian in Italy to Imran Khan, a sportsman in Pakistan, or Arvind Kejriwal's AAP in India – against entrenched political elites. With the decline of direct action in politics by the elite, these 'urban villagers' hold the key to political activism and action in dozens of developing and under-developed Asian nations today.

The Jakarta model

Another Asian politician from nowhere who also sings the glories of decentralisation and advocates "bottom-up" governance is Joko Widodo, Jakarta's governor. Widodo, better known as Jokowi, came to politics after a successful career as a businessman – and is Indonesia's current popular President. He is a product of the kind of decentralised governance that Indonesia has already embraced. Pitted against a heavily centralised state and elite domination of the economy, Jokowi has been successfully working against the old top-down model of economic growth that opens up "massive disparities between the centre and the periphery, and rural and urban areas."

From Thailand to Turkey, liberalised and globalised economies have created new urban middle classes, which, in classical modernisation theory, have been expected to democratise their countries. But, we have yet to take on board the impact of a bigger, much less understood and politically more significant demographic: urban migrants connected to their homes in the hinterland through the flow of remittances, investment, culture and ideas, and steadily politicised with the help of print literacy, electronic media, job mobility, and mobile phones. In the metropolis, these first-generation migrants lack the political networks or sturdy ideological loyalties that determine their votes at home; they can be persuaded to vote for anyone who seems to promise relief from corruption and injustice.

Thai alliance

The most famous and significant Asian representative of this demography is, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra, who ruled Thailand from 2001 to 2006, making his newcomer rookie party Thai Rak Thai Party win. He was the first democratically elected prime minister of Thailand to serve a full term and was re-elected in 2005 by an overwhelming majority. His peculiar – some might say, malevolent – political genius was to forge an alliance between the rural and urban poor, who had long been ignored by traditional ruling elites, thus clearing a new space in Thai politics. Thaksin's government launched programs to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure, promote small and medium-sized enterprises, and universal healthcare coverage. However, he was ousted by a military coup in 2006 amid corruption charges, though his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra was the Prime Minister of Thailand from 2011 to 2014.

In conclusion, with the breakdown of traditional ideology of the elitism-driven economies and centralised political power in several nations across the world, alternative forces are rising, egged on specially by the migrants and urban and rural poor. As rightly noted by Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal in Asian Drama, in a world that is seeing an information revolution, there is a revolution of expectations among the rural and urban middle and poor classes, which when unfulfilled, is giving rise to frustration, resulting in alternative political expressions in many developing nations. We will soon examine the same phenomenon in the Indian context in another piece.

(Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi & Mumbai; and former Dean of Media of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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