Elections are around the corner. The debate on the leadership qualities of the political party chiefs seems to have emerged as the favorite pastime for large sections of the society. Indeed, the leaders we elect to office will to some extent shape our future. However, it is we the people who have the power to determine our destiny. Examples abound which demonstrate that people through their collective efforts have changed the course of history.
It was during these months in 1943 that the tenacity of ordinary Russians paid dividends as they successfully countered the Nazi enemy at the gates of Stalingrad, now renamed Volgograd. Ordinary Russians toiled day and night in freezing temperatures and over 1.3 million Russians gave up their lives to defend the city. The defeat of the Nazi war machine at the hands of the ordinary Russians laid the foundations for German defeat in the Second World War.
Similarly, Indian freedom struggle epitomizes collective action over an extended period of time. The hegemonic dominance of the colonial rule was opposed by the ordinary Indian masses through various ingenious methods. The collective action of the Indian masses reached its zenith during the Quit India movement in 1942. The fact that Quit India Movement gained momentum in spite of the arrest of all major leaders of Indian National Congress convinced the colonial rulers that their days were numbered in India. It was the collective action of 1942, which hastened the collapse of the British Empire in India.
True, it is much easier to ensure collective action in the face of common enemy. Propelling large section of people to focus their energies to achieve a national objective in the absence of a common and visible enemy is much more difficult. The reconstruction of post-war Japan and Korea and the phenomenal economic progress they achieved are a few such examples which demonstrate that it is possible to mobilize people for positive goals. Here an important question crops up. If human beings are the same everywhere, why is it that some countries are witnessing greater collective action? The answer lies in institutional arrangements. Take the case of Eastern Europe, where most of the Communist regimes were brought down by the collective action of the citizens in the form of street demonstrations. However, in post-communist era, the absence of vibrant institutions necessary to channelise the energies of masses, the spirit of collective action soon dissipated and was replaced by bitter contention between various rivals for power. Criminalisation of politics and endemic corruption have become defining features of these countries.
The situation in India is somewhat similar. Criminalisation of politics and corruption have become endemic features of our polity too. The situation can be remedied only if we bring in comprehensive governance reforms. And there is a popular urge to do so, which can be seen in the response of the citizens of this country seeking disclosure of candidate details and the successful 10 million signature campaign for empowerment of local governments. Clearly, there is inchoate discontent which needs to be tapped. There have been successes, but they are sporadic and uneven.
Collective action necessitates powerful ideology and symbolism, which can be easily understood by large sections of the population. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha conveyed to the people the exploitative nature of the British rule. Even if we can generate such symbols and ideology that bind different people for governance reforms, we would still need institutions and organizations which will capture the response. For example, the Salt Satyagraha was a brilliant tactical move, but it was the presence of strong organizations such as the Indian National Congress, which captured peoples' sentiments and gave proper direction to it. Today’s imperative, therefore, is to create institutions and structures, which will capture the urges/yearnings of the people and translate them into action in a coherent and concerted manner.
Collective Action – Today’s Imperative