Water cannons being unleashed on protesters in front of India Gate
The past fortnight has been rather unique for a Delhi that often gives the impression of being detached not merely from Bharat but from India as well. For the first time in living memory, the festive season was marked by candlelight marches rather than candlelight dinners. The Delhi Gymkhana cancelled its annual new year party and a rap singer by the unlikely name of Honey Singh was forced by the strength of public opinion to give his performance at a leading hotel a miss. Those who could took the flight to Goa to celebrate with the owner of a near-bankrupt airline that also publishes girlie calendars. But most of Delhi’s elite bowed to the prevailing mood and fell back on uncharacteristic sobriety to usher in 2013.
Whether the wave of protests that followed the gangrape and subsequent death of a young trainee physiotherapist from a modest background was India’s great middle class moment is for posterity to judge. Coming in the wake of an equally spirited anti-corruption crusade by Anna Hazare that somehow got derailed, the commemoration of the spirit of the one who was named Nirbhaya and Damini has unsettled many assumptions. Far from material prosperity and consumerism luring the youth and the middle classes into individualism and indifference, the anger at India Gate and Jantar Mantar unequivocally demonstrated that public spiritedness is alive and kicking. If the London riots of 2011 revealed one facet of thwarted aspirations, Delhi 2012 gave a glimpse of the wholesome face of an Indian resurgence.
What was witnessed in Delhi was a near-spontaneous exasperation with an old order steeped in insensitivity, arrogance and shoddy governance. There were many brutally blood-curdling solutions to the harassment and brutalization of women that the young women with placards sought from a nervous Establishment. These included the public lynching of rapists, mandatory capital punishment and even chemical castration. And yet, quite paradoxically, this was not a movement driven by a Madame Defarge mentality. It was in every respect a 21st century movement fuelled by modernist impulses.
It will be some time before the anger over the rape and murder of an ordinary girl whose parents lived in two small rooms of a basement in an unauthorized colony is fully deconstructed. Those who are inclined to dismiss the stir as stemming from the boredom of “dented and painted” ladies from privileged families clearly misjudged the social composition of the protestors. Worse, they were clueless about the fact that the protests struck a chord among many more people than were physically present at India Gate and Jantar Mantar.
This was a misreading that was not confined to the newly-elected member of parliament for Jangipur or even the home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who actually felt that the young people should go home after a small hand-picked delegation had been ushered into the august presence of the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, to air their grievances. The Congress’s heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi, didn’t think the explosion of emotions was serious enough to warrant a modification of his travel plans for the holiday season. A man who the Congress believes is destined to rule India, just like his great-grandfather, grandmother, father and mother, didn’t believe that the feelings of so many people warranted anything more than a perfunctory, written statement.
The inability to comprehend the outrage of urban India is certain to rankle in the minds of many long after the dust has settled over this brutal murder. The prime minister’s wooden proclamation of sympathy on television (followed by the theek hai giveaway), the indiscriminate use of water cannons on Raisina Hill, the beating up of demonstrators at India Gate, the cynical transportation of the dying girl to Singapore and her hush-hush cremation at dawn were tell-tale signs of a regime that just didn’t know how to react to dignified anger. It would have been much easier had the agitation actually turned violent and the protestors had rushed into nearby Khan Market or Connaught Place to loot shops and molest innocent citizens. But that was not to be. The moral advantage remained with those who were angry rather than with those who were shielded by the metal barricades.
The great fear in the political class is that emotions that galvanized the protests will start affecting political choices, particularly with a general election just a year away.
The Congress in particular has reason to be the most concerned. First, there is anxiety that the blend of cash transfers of subsidies and the promise of a golden age of economic reforms will be overshadowed by mundane issues of bad governance. However, this fear seems exaggerated. A general election has a momentum of its own and it is unlikely — unless the degradation of women reaches epidemic proportions — that the events of the past fortnight will linger in the public memory for another year.
However, the Congress has reason to be alarmed on another count. The outrage over the Delhi rape wasn’t confined to a robust rejection of the social attitudes that contributed to women being viewed as commodities. In a curious sort of way, it escalated into impatience with the warped priorities of a government that put greater emphasis on the security of VIPs than on the safety of ordinary citizens. This in turn has led to a questioning of the culture of political privilege that has also been linked to the larger issue of corruption. In 2009, the Congress stole a march over its opponents by giving party tickets to a large number of young ‘inheritors’ who seemed better able to represent a young and aspirational India.
Ironically, throughout this agitation the young inheritors, who are such a fixture on the social circuit of Delhi, were nowhere to be seen. Their contribution to understanding and sympathizing with the concerns of a young India was absolutely zero. Leading the march to irrelevance was, of course, the great ‘youth icon’, but the rest of the pack were not far behind. Their abdication of issues that agitated young people was noticed, commented upon and derided. Indeed, the puncturing of the myth of a new political culture to be ushered in by the young MPs under the leadership of the Gandhi heir is likely to be the immediate fallout of the December 2012 stir. Nurtured in an environment of privilege and blessed with a sense of both entitlement and noblesse oblige, they have shown their inability to transcend an ossified political culture. Having been accustomed to a supplicant India, they cannot seem to be able to cope with a more self-confident and assertive country that is not moved by hierarchy.
An underlying theme of the protests was the demand for purposeful and no-nonsense governance, particularly in matters relating to crime and sexual harassment. Quite unintentionally, there is now a growing demand for an end to a protracted spell of weak and blundering government. There is a yearning for democratic responsiveness but this is also coupled by the need for a tough rule-based system that puts safety and security of the individual over the human rights of the criminal or insurgent. The search for a leader who can create an environment of modernity and ruthless efficiency of the State apparatus could lead a very large section of India’s voters into unexpected directions. This is what troubles both the dynastic Congress and the stodgy Bharatiya Janata Party.
History doesn’t always move by design. In hindsight, December 2012 may trigger a series of unintended consequences. We can only await these with unconcealed excitement.