The momentum gained by the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act has a lot to do with the spontaneous actions of students. The images of girl students of Jamia Millia in Delhi protecting their male counterparts from aggressive police action caught other urban imaginations both within the country and outside, contributing to the spread of protests against the Act to students in multiple cities and towns.

This prominent place for student actions in the imaginations that drive urban politics is not new. A largely spontaneous student movement marked the beginning of the decline of Indira Gandhi from the pinnacle of the Bangladesh war in 1971 to the declaration of the Emergency. Globally too, the student rebellions in 1968 pointed to the potency of such movements.

Unfair politics

The strength of student movements in cities and towns does not come from the usual metrics that we use to understand politics. Their numbers are not large enough to make an electoral difference on their own. In order to understand the repeated effectiveness of spontaneous student protests, we need to fall back on Mahatma Gandhi’s understanding of politics. Gandhi does tend to lend himself to multiple interpretations, especially with his ideas being spread out over the hundred volumes of his Collected Works . But there are three recurring themes in his political writing — the emphasis on the role of power, especially the numerical power of mass mobilisation; the use of options, particularly the role of khadi as an alternative source of income for workers; and the appeal to fairness.

Indian politics after Independence has been preoccupied with power. The attainment of power has been treated as the sole goal of politics. Those who come to power are treated as great successes, irrespective of their actual legacy. There is sometimes admiration of those who come power making the best use of whatever options they may have. The role of fairness has been reduced to one of claims to being unfairly treated. The centrality of claims of unfairness in our politics has reached such a proportion that the largest community, which is also economically, socially, and politically the most dominant, now claims to be the victim of the appeasement of others.

The result of this politics has been widespread self-righteous claims to unfairness. Conversely, the use of fairness as an instrument of politics is treated as ‘being naïve’. The resultant politics based on the cynical use of power and the options available may help individuals and parties come to power, but the picture that emerges of a manipulative and untrustworthy politician is not very appealing.

For those who see politics in terms of the entire set of arrangements that people work out to negotiate with each other — and not just the pursuit of power — the cynical preoccupation with power is ethically repulsive.

Need for power

This broader view of politics is, in practice, more common than is usually acknowledged. Non-politicians may be cynical in what they do otherwise, but they have no intention of coming to political power. They have no reason to appreciate the cynical politician, and typically look down upon him or her. While they may admire the successful politician, much as they would admire a successful cricketer, there is an unstated yearning for fairness. Indeed, the more cynical politics becomes, the greater this unstated yearning for fairness.

The spontaneous actions of politically-innocent young students appeal to this sense of fairness. The support for these actions is a way of demonstrating that we too can rise above narrow self-interest. The confines of a city provide platforms for the collective expression of this support, leading to spontaneous movements.

The difficulty is that in the post-Independence Indian experience, the yearning for fairness has been quickly overwhelmed by the politics of the cynical use of options to gain power. The leaders, thrown up by spontaneous movements, quickly move into a more cynical pursuit of power. A large number of our current set of political leaders, from the Prime Minister and Home Minister to the leaders of a number of Opposition parties, all began their political careers in spontaneous student movements. The extent of cynicism they have been willing to adopt is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the case of the AGP, a product of the All Assam Students Union. The party voted for the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament and is now challenging it in court.

The movement from spontaneous fairness to cynical pursuit of power is not quite inevitable. Gandhi demonstrated that the appeal of fairness was in fact strong enough to be converted into instruments of politics. But that is a discourse long past us. We prefer to treat Gandhi as an impractical idealist, and are bewildered when the appeal of fairness generates spontaneous mass movements.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru