(First published on NewYaps)
In an ancient capital, its people protest for, what could only be called, their legitimate rights. What’s more, the protests are largely peaceful and, at least initially, small. The government though reacts in an extremely high-handed manner. It takes the protestors to task, assaulting them violently. Water cannons, baton charges and even tear gas—it’s fairly brutal.
You might be forgiven for thinking the picture I just painted is from one of the Arab ‘Springs’; Cairo, maybe or some other dictatorship where peaceful protests are as alien as sanity is to Mamata Banerjee. The “ancient capital” I described, though, is Istanbul, rocked by protests since last week. Ironically, this “ancient capital” could even be Delhi during the Nirbhaya protests.
Indeed, the similarities between the Turkey protests and the spate of urban protests that have rocked India since 2011 are quite a bit more than skin deep and represent striking parallels between two ancient societies as they adapt themselves to electoral democracy and all its bamboozling twists and turns.
Both protests have been led and, indeed, constituted by people who could be called urban elites. In both, the protestors have sneered at a properly elected democratic government and even questioned its legitimacy. And in both countries, the government has responded with force against largely peaceful protestors.
To understand why the urban elites in both Istanbul and Delhi are so peeved with their democracies, it’s instructive to take a step back and look at that term: “democracy”.
Democracy has historically been a tool for a country’s elites to share power amongst themselves. The origins of democracy in Britain, for example, are traced back to the Magna Carta of 1215. Unlike what is popularly understood to be democracy, all the document did was to force the King to share power with a small group of feudal barons. This is, of course, not to discount the historical importance of the document but just to illustrate how far away from the modern concept of one-man-one-vote democracy it is. In Britain, the concept of democracy as a rich man’s game was to persevere for some time. In the early 1800s very few Britons—less than 2%—had the right to vote. Till 1832, only landowners could vote and right up till the early 20th century there were various restrictions based on sex and income which had to be satisfied if you wanted to have a say in who ruled over you. It was only in 1928 that all British adults achieved the right to vote. To put that in perspective, the concept of an egalitarian democracy (can there be any other sort?) is only 85 years old in the country that’s widely considered a model for modern democracy worldwide. Even in India, the electorate for our Constituent Assembly only consisted of 10% of the country’s population since there were income restrictions in place at the time if you wanted to vote. In effect, the representatives who framed our constitution only represented the elite classes of our country. In 1947, if you were an aam aadmi, you literally had no representation, no voice in that august body. Which is why the assembly consisted primarily of rich, upper caste members. In fact, 75% of the assembly consisted of upper caste members when upper castes make up less than 15% of the population—that’s how elitist the House was.
The beginnings of the republic in Turkey were similarly elitist. Set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a clique of westernised revolutionaries in 1923, the state was dominated by a small elite with Ataturk being a father-figure for the country much like Nehru till 1962. Ataturk was in favour of mass democracy but placed it on the back-burner in favour of carrying out radical reforms such as strict, French-style secularism and language reform (Turkish is today written in the Roman script as a result). After Ataturk, the army took it upon itself to defend the interests of Turkey’s elites, often deposing popularly elected governments in coups and maintains a strict often surreal form of secularism. In Turkey, for example, it is illegal to wear a fez since the dress was seen by Ataturk as Islamic and Ottoman.
In effect, throughout the history of what is called democratic rule, it’s been the rich and well-off that have called the shots: government of the elites, by the elites and for the elites.
In old, established polities like the UK, the transition from elite rule to a more broad-based power base has been gradual and taken its own time. In developing societies like India and Turkey, though, that transition was a bit more abrupt and, consequently, bumpier.
In India, even after the introduction of universal adult franchise in 1952, the elite castes dominated politics. But this changed with the introduction of the Mandal factor in Indian politics. Suddenly Indian politics, once the preserve of genteel, upper-caste folk, was invaded by rustic OBC and even SC leaders as their electorates strained for their voices to be heard in the corridors of power. This is the period which saw the rise of the bucolic Laloo and the irrepressible Mayawati. Many of these leaders were ridiculed, even hated, by the urban elites who despised their invasion into what was “once such a nice neighbourhood”.
Interestingly, something similar happened in Turkey with the election of the AKP (the current ruling party) in 2002. The army, mouthpiece of the elites, was mostly shut out of power as rustic “Anatolians” (the Turkish equivalent of the cow belt) took power.
At first the elites in India reacted to this new situation by retreating inwards. They cut themselves off from politics. Earlier elite Stephanians would, for example, join the civil services. Now they would prefer an MBA, wanting nothing to do with the government. Of course, insularity is hardly a long-term solution. Hence the recent eruptions since 2011 as urban elites in India struggle to snatch back the power they lost to the lower castes since the 1990s.
Similarly, in Turkey, while the park acted as catalyst, these protests seem largely to be driven by upper class dissatisfaction with the government, a fact that prompted Erdogan to boast (not untruthfully) "you bring one hundred thousand, we bring one million!"
Given the developments in the past decade, it’ll be impossible for both Turkey and India to go back fully to their old plutocratic ways. But the recent protests show that the elite classes of both countries will not let go of their privileges that easily.