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New Social Movements and Alternative Politics: India in a Comparative Theoretical Perspective

Many thanks to Prof M P Singh for his kind and generous contribution to The administrator and the readers are eternally grateful to him for his contributions.

Modern social movements often challenge the authorities on behalf of the people – major classes and masses - to alter the prevailing structure(s) and culture, or to arrest a decline, or restore something desirable but lost. They formulate their ideology and strategy of action in an interpretative package that offers an alternative – either evolutionary or revolutionary - to the dominant culture or structure or both. Social movements are thus a mode of collective action involving large numbers of individuals, groups or classes, operating as leaders and followers through organizations of varying degrees of spontaneity or structuration.
Modernity has produced at least two overarching systemic institutions of foundational importance in polity and economy, namely, the national state and political economy of capitalism or socialism. The foremost modern classical theorist of the former was George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), and of the latter was Karl Marx (1818-1883). Max Weber (1884-1920) may well be regarded as a neo-classical interpreter of both the state and capitalism, as he sought to interpret more comprehensively the polity and the economy as well as the society.
Theories of social movements revolve around the overarching modern structural formations in the domains of the state, the economy, and the civil society. With the gradual separation or dissociation of the state and the Church in the modern West in the eighteenth century, religion has gradually been overshadowed by secular political and economic organizations. With the rise of representative democracy in the West by the first half of the nineteenth century and the rise of industrial capitalism by the second half of the same century, the incidence of social movements on political and economic issues tended to become more frequent. During this earlier phase of Western modernity, social movements were predominantly concerned with issues of (a) representative and responsible government, and (b) those of social equality, economic production and distribution, exchange as well as social and economic security. In the hindsight of the contemporary theoretical discourse of what have come to be called 'New Social Movements' (NSMs), the foregoing movements, by implication, may be treated as 'Old Social Movements' (OSMs).
To Nelson A. Pichardo (1997: 411), the NSM theories are a recent development that emphasise both the macrohistorical and microhistorical elements of social movements. He goes on to remark:
On the macro level, the NSM paradigm concentrates on the relationship between the rise of contemporary social movements and the larger economic structure, and the role of culture in such movements. On the micro level, the paradigm is concerned with how issues of identity and personal behavior are bound up in social movements. The NSM paradigm offers a historically specific vision of social movements as associated with new forms of middle class radicalism. It represents a distinctive view of social movements and of the larger sociopolitical environment, of how individuals fit into, respond to, and change the system.
The NSM theories have emerged responding to the limitations of classical Marxism for analysing contemporary forms of collective action due to two types of reductionism inherent in it: (a) economic reductionism driving out the political and cultural factors, and (b) class reductionism fixating it on the two fundamental classes of workers and capitalists in a capitalist economy to the exclusion categories of ethnicity and religion. Responding to economic and class reductionism of classical Marxism, the following themes have tended to loom large in the NSM theories. First, most NSM theories seek to go beyond the Marxist political economy's penchant of overemphasising the economic structure of capitalism at the cost of the state and civil society and the realm of culture as major arenas of collective action. Capitalism was the focus of the old social movements, while the NSM theories stress the state as the site for the capture of 'historicity' defined as the capacity to develop knowledge systems and technologies to intervene in the process of history. Second, the NSM theories reject the Marxist emphasis on structural determinacy and stress the processes that promote autonomy and self-determination as strategies for maximising influence and power of the civil society and cultural factors. Third, the NSM theories privilege the role of post-materialist values like quality of life, aesthetics, freedom, gender equality, sexuality, ecology, and the like in much of collective action as opposed to conflict over materialist values and resources. Fourth, the NSM theories recognise a variety of latent and fluid social networks that often undergrid collective action rather than assuming that centralised organisational forms are prerequisites for successful collective mobilisation. Fifth, the NSM theories go beyond the model of social totality typical of the industrial age and operate with a new model of social totality that is cognizant of the emergence of the postindustrial society or advanced capitalism or advanced modernity in which information or communication technology has reached a critical mass (Buechler 1995).
The NSM theories have by now expanded considerably and produced a huge corpus of literature. A variety of issues have been analysed at great length by a large number of theorists in various countries in the West, the locus classicus of this new kind of collective action. To name a few prominent among these theorests, we have Manual Castells in Spain, Alain Touraine in France, Alberto Melucci in Italy, Claus Offe in Germany, and Jurgen Habermas in Germany, again (Buechler 1995; Pichardo 1997). The new middle class figures prominently in all NSM theories, although the significance attached to this group in the explanation for the emergence of these movements varies. Some form of postindustrial society at the total systemic level is also recurrent in these theories. During the period of rapid industrialization, the factor of class struggle with a focus on the working class looms large in the 'old' social movements among the NSM theorists. In the new social movements the new middle class emerges as the equivalent of the working class in the old social movements.
Habermas proposes the most elaborate theory of modern social structure by distinguishing between a politico-economic system governed by the generalised media of power and money, on the one hand, and the lifeworld which is still regulated by normative consensus, on the other. Whereas the system follows an instrumental logic that detaches the media of money and power from responsibility and accountability, by and large, the lifeworld follows communicative rationality requiring that norms and actions be habitually justifiable through discussion and debate, dialogue and deliberation. The problem for Habermas is that in modern society (he does not believe in postmodernism as a category and prefers the postulation of advanced modernity) the system imperatives and logic intrude on the lifeworld in the form of 'colonisation'. The result is that the media of money and power come to regulate not only economic and political transactions but also those concerning identity formation, normative values, and other forms of symbolic reproduction traditionally associated with the lifeworld (Buechler 1995).
Given this conception of social structure, Habermas locates NSMs at the seams of the systems and the lifeworlds. This location leads him to identify two features of these movements. First, the NSMs, as a result, have purely defensive character rather than a broader transformative or revolutionary role. Modernity has brought about a more or less just and equitable equilibrium that may occasionally be disturbed by the intrusion of the system into the lifeworld. In such an eventuality the NSMs can defend the lifeworld against the colonising intrusion of the system and sustain the role of normative conensus rooted in communicative rationality that has been evolving within this sphere throughout the process of societal modernization (Buechler 1995).
Second, the conflicts in which the NSMs engage are less about material reproduction and more about cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialisation. The NSMs bring with them a new or alternative politics concerned with quality of life, projects of self-realisation, and goals of participation and identity formation. Many of these movements are united around the critique of economic growth as the central ideological foundation, with ecology and peace movements playing the central role. Because these are not traditional distributional struggles, Habermas implies that they cannot be channelled by political parties or allayed by material compensation (Buechler 1995).
How relevant are the NSM theories for India? To my mind, they are at least partially relevant, notwithstanding the different historical and socio-cultural contexts of India and the West. For India is a transitional society with its different sections simultaneously living at different phases of evolution from tradition to modernity in reality, or at least vicariously or schizophrenically. Indian culture and personality are replete with examples that illustrate this point. For instance, Gandhi is interpreted as displaying elements of tradition, modernity, and postmodernity at the same time (Rudolphs  1984;  2010). Moreover, no country of the world is fully insulated from the demonstration effects of modernity or advanced modernity, especially in the age of globalisation. Simulated modernity is also evident in metropolitan cities and the world-wide web or internet. Gail Omvedt (1994) postulates that the new social movements are making appearance in India in the context of the overall crisis of political and economic systems and ideologies. The collapse of state socialist societies and the crisis of Marxism spels the failure of what has been hitherto the hegemonic ideology of liberation or the primary historical response to the exploitation of the capitalist system. The neoliberal ideologies that came in the wake of the failure of Marxism does not offer any solution, and the resultant vacuum is ought to be filled by nationalist, ethnic, communal and religious fundamentalist forces. There is a growing concern about environmental, social justice, and gender equity, and other neglected issues by the new social movements. However, this counter-hegemonic force is still weak.
Rajni Kothari (1984) in his reflections on the people's movements and grassroots politics in India delineates the trend of what he calls 'the non-party political process', presumably in the Gandhian and unconventional traditions, and locates it in the larger context of the declining role the state in social transformation in India and so-called democracy being undermined by corruption, criminalisation, and repression and depolticisation of large masses of people with precarious livelihood conditions. It is in this context that the phenomenon of non-party political formations, distinct from governing and opposition parties, on the one hand, and from non-political voluntary agencies working on various development schemes, on the other, are emerging in a number of grassroots movements launched by non-traditional left. The examples are Chipko movement in U. P. Himalayan districts (now Uttarakhand), the miners' struggles in Chhattisgarh, the Ryot Coolie Sangham in Andhra Pradesh, the Satyagraha led by the peasants in Kankapura in Karnataka against the mining and export of granite,  the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. In these grassroots movements, 'the struggle is not limited to economic and political demands but is extended to cover ecological, cultural and educational issues. Nor is it limited to the external enemy as it includes a sustained and long drawn out campaign against more pervasive sources of economic and cultural ruin such as drunkenness, despoilation of the environment and insanitary habits, reminding one of the original conception of Swarajya as a struggle for liberation not just from alien rule but also from internal decay' (Kothari 1984: 220).
D.L. Sheth (2005) theorises new social movements in India as 'micro-movements’ and sees them as harbingers of 'new politics' setting a trail of alternative politics to the prevailing patterns. He interprets the micro-movements as a defensive response to neoliberal model of market democracy and the Indian state linking itself to the vertical hierarchy of global economic and political power. Political and social movements at the grassroots have emerged as significant countervailing processes and forces, making new provincial and national level alliances aimed at countering the state's policies of globalisation.
The most recent new social movement in India today is the India  Against Corruption (IAC) led by Anna Hazare. It was launched in the Spring of 2011 in the wake of the heady Arab Spring of the same year marked by a wave of democratic movements through much of West Asia. The non-party, extra-parliamentary IAC campaign mounted a significant crusade against political, bureaucratic, and economic corruption, made out a case for electoral and party system reforms, besides making a plea for incorporation of a strong dose of direct democratic devices into the model of parliamentary federal democracy under the Indian Constitution since 1950.
This movement subsequently got split (in September 2012) into (a) the parent non-party movement under Anna Hazare, and (b) the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejrival. The elders led by Anna wished to keep the non-party political character of the movement, while the younger cohorts led by Kejriwal parted company to form a new political party as a vehicle of alternative politics turning its back to the prevailing features of corrupt, criminalised, and non-participatory 'high command'-dominated party politics. In the just concluded round of Assembly elections in five states in November-December 2013, the AAP made a spectacular debut in Delhi surging to became the second largest party with 28 seats in a House of 70, reducing the ruling Indian National Congress to just 8 seats and curbing the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party at 31. The party is setting a new trend of internal party democracy, transparency of fund-raising, and exemplary commitment to political morality even though no existing law requires it to do so. No other party has been  doing so. It has brought in a fresh morning breeze of a new brand of an alternative politics as well as demanding a strong dose of direct democracy reminiscent of the Gandhian vision Gram Swaraj(M.P. Singh 2013).
Beuechler, Steven M. 'New Social Movement Theories,' The Socialogic Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer 1995 : 441-464.
De'Anjou, Leo and John Van Male. 'Between Old and New: Social Movements and Cultural Change', Mobilization : An International Journal, 1998 : 207-226.
Habermas, Jurgen. Legitimation Crisis, Boston : Beacaon Press, 1975.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Theory of Communicative Action (2 Vols.) Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston : Beacon Press, 1984-87.
Kothari, Rajni, 'The Non-Party Political Process', Economic and, Political Weekly, Vol. 19, No. 5, February 4, 1984 : 216-224.
Omvedt, Gail. 'Peasants, Dalits and Women : Democracy and India's New Social Movements,' Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 24, Issue 1, 1994 : 35-48.
Pichardo, Nelson A. 'New Social Movements: A Critical Review’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 23, 1997: 411-430.
Rudolph, Lloyd and Susanne. The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Rudolph, Lloyd and Susanne. Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays: Gandhi in the World and at Home, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Sheth, D.L. 'Globalization and New Politics of Micro-Movements',,accessed on 8.12.2013.
Sheth, D.L. 'Micro-Movements and Future of Politics' in M.P. Singh and Himanshu Roy, eds., Indian Political System, Delhi : Manak, 2005, 3rd edition : Ch.-36.
Singh, Mahendra Prasad. 'Waiting for the Wave: India Against Corruption Movement and the Aam Aadmi Party', Paper delivered in the Indo-Australian International Seminar on Political Parties in India: Crafting Democracy, in Central University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, 22-24 November 2013.

* Professor Jai Narayan Mishra Memorial Lecture, Patna College, Patna University, Patna, 19 December 2013.

** Formerly Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi, and presently Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.