Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What Anna Hazare can Learn from the US Debt Crisis by Tea Party

On the last day of July 2011, India had come closer than ever before to the killing of a promising anti-corruption movement with grassroots support.

On the same day, the world had come closer than ever before to an unprecedented financial crisis, thanks to another grassroots movement in the USA. 

Indian Parliament’s crucial monsoon session began on August 1st, whose prime agenda is to pass an alternate Lokpal Bill than the anti-corruption movement’s Jan Lokpal Bill that aimed to give sweeping powers to the proposed people’s ombudsman.

US Congress has passed a resolution on August 1st, overcoming hardline Republicans, without which the country’s treasury would have defaulted on its payment obligations, that would have cut American debt’s famed AAA rating, and caused a global debacle that would have shamed the Lehman crisis and its aftermath.

Both the Indian and US crises were driven by the so-called grassroots movements. But there ends the comparison.

While the Anna Hazare led ‘India Against Corruption’ movement stands for the masses, the infamous ’Tea Party’ - the hardline Republican faction that caused the US standoff - stands for a hardline economic policy that will effectively crush the American middleclass and poor even more.

But that is only about ideology, philosophy, or concepts like fairness and unfairness.

What about operational tactics or strategy? Sadly for the Indian movement, the comparison with its US counterpart shouldn’t have stopped there, at being a grassroots movement.

Because, even while it wasn’t for a noble cause, there was much to learn from the US Tea Party, not only for India, but for any democracy, and for any grassroots movement in democracies.

The strategic edge of Tea Party as against Hazare’s IAC, is that it penetrated the ‘system‘, worked with the system, hijacked the system and then defeated the system. India Against Corruption, on the other hand shunned the ‘system’, and the system used that avoidance to its advantage in killing off IAC.

But to fully understand how Anna Hazare and his team would have benefited from the strategies of Tea Party, it needs a quick recap of the stunning growth in influence of this radical US movement.

Today, it would be difficult to believe that Tea Party started off from a web chat forum. Yet, that is precisely how it started - soon after Obama was sworn in, on an influential stock market discussion forum called MarketTicker, which was one among a few prominent sites hosting discussions on the new government’s policies.

The site owner was upset by the kind of people Obama had chosen to head his finances - Larry Summers and Tim Geithner - who had allegedly followed the kind of economic policies that led to the 2008 financial crisis.  Sensing that many of his forum members were of his opinion, he started a discussion thread on what could be done in protest. An anonymous poster suggested that each of them sent tea bags to their legislators.

The idea clicked instantaneously, due to the recall of Boston Tea Party, the iconic and influential event in 1773, in which colonists (forefathers of Americans) protested the huge tea taxes by the then ruling British Government, by getting into their tea carrying ships and throwing the tea to Boston Harbour.

An influential forum member backed the tea-bag mailing idea, and on her support, the movement gathered some momentum. It soon caught the fancy of influential CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, and in a now infamous rant televised from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the ultra right-wing Santelli brought the issue before the attention of the whole nation, and it launched the Tea Party movement into a massive country-wide momentum.

Tea Party’s policies were popular among the upper middle-class and upper-class Americans. The movement identified successive governments as the chief culprits behind the economic debacle, and sought to strictly curb government funding especially for corporate bailouts like AIG, GM, Citigroup etc,  as well as to social-support programs like in healthcare and education, and to cut taxes payable by individuals and corporations, and to put a definite ceiling on government debt to control fiscal deficit (which was incidentally the cause for the recent crisis).

With a significant portion of US debt being held by China, the movement also garnered a patriotic fervour.

Does India lack web forums? We have plenty, most of them more populous than US ones, and the kind of unequivocal support Anna Hazare is getting in Internet space is second to none in India. But why hasn’t it translated to anything substantial?

That brings us to the striking difference in strategies employed by the Tea Party.

Going by the principles it advocate, Tea Party can neither be Republican or Democrat, America’s only two mainstream parties. Simply put, they are rightist than the most right-wing of Republicans. They were advocating a third line that almost made the Republicans look like as though they were standing at the centre.

Yet the brains behind Tea Party were prudent enough to realize that they didn’t stand a chance against the formidable Democrats or Republicans. So, even as they spread their voice through tech-driven, non-political forums that spoke directly to the grassroots, their candidates silently penetrated Republican ranks. What made things easier was that some of them were already second-tier leaders in the Republican Party or former Party affiliates.

By the 2010 mid-term elections to the Congress, things had come to such a stand that the Republican Party which was reeling under President Obama’s charisma, had to accept the support of Tea Party in lieu of several of their nominees getting candidature. And the support was not without results. Republicans routed Democrats to wrest control of Congress.

And then they receded somewhat from the political landscape, but not from the public landscape. The Tea Party caucus members continued to work on their individual capacities in reaching out to the public, and during the recent debt crisis, this around 50-member party-within-the-party could hijack not only its parent Republicans, but hold to ransom Obama and the entire US, if not the global economy.

How was it possible? Though they are only 50 in number, they had built up influence in almost all constituencies, and most Republican Congressmen and Senators were plain afraid to stand radically against Tea Party’s declared policies on a subject put up to vote.

Too bad that it was not for a noble cause, as most of the sensible economists, including Paul Krugman, rubbish Tea Party’s policies as voodoo economics. But for a moment imagine what would have been Tea Party’s momentum if it were for a rational, noble cause?

Anna Hazare badly needed to do that. If he was reluctant to learn from Tea Party, he could have learned from VP Singh, who did something like that, not too long back, in this country itself. Maybe Anna was worried at VP’s Janata Dal also going by the drain eventually. But is that an excuse? Nobody can expect to prevail as the one and final option in this complex, difficult world.

Another striking difference Tea Party has with Team Anna is that it has never been a one man show, or even a one organization show. Just like the free market theories on which it is based, Tea Party itself is a movement of free market organizations and leaders, that support, learn from, and compete with each other, with no central leader or organization. The track-record, profit motives, and integrity of many of these leaders, as well as the corporate funding on which many of these organizations thrive are questionable, but together they have proved a point on how to organize a grass-roots level movement in a formidable democratic system in the new millennium.

Leaders working on nobler causes, like Anna Hazare, have much to learn from their strategies.

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