In India, civil society and students are in the streets, defying curfew orders and courting arrest. At stake is the very essence of this 70-odd-year-old nation — democracy and secularism. Fed up with bad governance, a failing economy, an eroding democracy, and a systematic clampdown on fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, the straws that broke the camel’s back were two decisions that affect who is an Indian citizen.
Even before the protests came to the streets, a group of Indians had taken to Twitter — not to vent and rage (though they do that too), but to form an alternate government and fix everything the real government has broken. At least online.
Going from the world’s largest democracy to the world’s largest failing democracy has proved to be a surprisingly short journey. In half a decade, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government (now in its second term), fueled by the notion of the ideal Hindu nation, has followed an agenda to systematically undermine the independent institutions and symbols that form the bedrock of democracy — the judiciary and the constitution, for instance. They have used propaganda to fuel hate toward minorities, particularly Muslims. They have also effectively co-opted the media as a government mouthpiece and used it to whitewash all the signs of an economy gasping for air. Freedom of expression has never been more at risk in the history of this country.
Despite all attempts by the government to control it, the Internet essentially remains wild and free — except in areas where communications are suspended, of course, like Kashmir. Little surprise therefore that it has been the platform of choice for dissent, particularly creative criticism of the state. Thus, #AltSarkar (sarkar meaning government in a number of Indian languages) was born here — a Twitter lark, a space to take some sarcastic, clever potshots at the government by pretending to be . . . well, the government. Complete with an alt-prime minister (legend has it, she won in a landslide Twitter poll against the actual PM), an alt-cabinet, and alt-ministries, just like a real government. Debates and discussions on actual matters of public interest (somewhat unlike the real government in the present climate) take place here, too.
Vidyut Gore, a journalist and blogger (also maker of soaps and nurturer of carnivorous plants) who was voted in as alt-PM, says that the AltSakar campaign is all about the excellence of ideas. “Of putting the possibilities out there so people see what we are being deprived of in this mad power grab in politics,” she said. In other words, #AltSakar presents fairly obvious ideas and hopes that others will think, “Yes, this is how a government is supposed to be.”
As a space for insightful and informed exchanges on matters of public policy, #AltSarkar evolved into a platform for constructive dissent. As the website says, the participants aim to show that there is no shortage of people with the will and the ability to deliver good governance. Despite that, India as a society and a nation remain stuck in a vicious cycle of “theatrical announcements of drastic policies” that lead to adverse outcomes for which more drastic policies are sought.
But Gore acknowledges that #AltSakar also has its limitations.
“In the real world, it is a lot more complicated. Political parties have to survive. This means electoral wins, power games, and more,” Gore says. In India, perhaps as in many other places, there is a deep and complex nexus between politics, business, and the media. This, says the alt-PM, not only makes it easy to distract the masses from the real issues, but also undermines opposition and dissent.
“There is a limit to how much you can fool people,” Gore adds. “The TV can’t tell you you are full if you are hungry. It can’t tell you India is prospering if people in your society are squabbling over not affording maintenance money. Sooner or later people are going to see that the media is fiction. And at that point, they will simply dismiss it and get information about the world through more reliable means.”
#AltSarkar considers itself to be a reliable conveyor of information, and aims to inform by offending. But the sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the doings of the actual sarkar has spilled into informed dialogues and critiques. Particularly for the middle and upper-middle classes, this dark humor and relatable satire might just be the push they need to turn their traditional apathy into action.
Gore warns, though, that there are no magic wands to fix the government. “We took a long time sliding into this state of affairs and it is going to take a lot of effort to get us out,” she says.
The question, then, is how does one find the building blocks for something new? Perhaps #AltSarkar’s first run — they are taking a break right now, but with plans for a comeback — has already planted a seed of change. After all, we are finally out on the streets.
Payal Dhar is a freelance writer on technology and culture. Send comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.