NEW DELHI: The popular outrage over the horrific gang rape in Delhi holds several important lessons for the political class in general and the Congress leadership in particular.
The countrywide protest, fueled by justified anger and shock, social media and 24×7 publicity which empowered the crowd, underscored the challenge that the political establishment faces at a time when their credibility has been in any case been questioned as well as the need for them to change their ways to be in sync with new rules of the game.
In a way, the protest only mirrors the upheaval on a global scale where a young and restive population have used the cheap and astonishingly effective means of communication to organize themselves against governments which, enfeebled by the economic slowdown, have been unable to meet the soaring aspirations just years after an era where everything seemed attainable. Increasingly irreverent of the authority, and unprecedentedly interconnected, the youth are borrowing tactics from diverse sources — from Tahrir Square to Color Revolutions — to launch their own Springs.
Though part of a global phenomenon, it appears nothing short of subversion in the case of India, considering the leaden-footed political class and its reluctance to mend its ways to be in step with the times. In fact, the anger that was on display last weekend reflects, to many, the gulf between the urban youth who have made it on their own or aspire to do so and defines themselves in opposition to a State which, while being corrupt, cannot think beyond quotas and entitlements.
Viewed so, the abuses heaped by the crowd on the Delhi Police actually showed their alienation from the political system in an age when the State has been supplanted by private enterprise in a growing number of spheres, and when its presence is increasingly being registered only in unedifying forms — from demand of bribes to decrepit public infrastructure. The distrust was the reason why Sonia Gandhi’s dramatic mid-night intervention failed to wash; or why the BJP and mainstream Left remained confined to the margins. The surprisingly poor response to the march organized by Leftist outfits on Friday who had initially seemed to be doing well can also be explained through the prism of disenchantment with politics as it is practiced now.
But while the anger may be directed against politicians on the whole, it is the UPA which has to bear its brunt and it will be the only party because they happen to be in wrong place (in power) at the wrong time. Incumbents will accumulate handicaps. However, the Congress-led one at the Centre has aggravated its own by arrogance and inexplicable naivete. Precedents abound of the regimes using the pulpit to tackle challenges. That the PM took almost two weeks to engage with the outpouring of grief speaks to the shortage of elementary political sense: the fact that he made a mess of it only fed into the anger against the government.
Rahul Gandhi who, as per the popular lore, is about to take over the reins, could have made up for the absentee political leadership, but did nothing except to ride piggyback on Sonia’s unsuccessful attempt to align Congress with the sentiment street. Worse, the party leadership allowed Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit to dress up her own profile at the cost of others in her own party and the hapless Delhi Police constable was a poor commentary on the central leadership.
It is not the stuff that can appeal to the political class who, while unhappy with the crop on view, is not removed from the political process as such. Indeed, the successful mobilization for Lokpal and for change in rape laws perhaps points to its determination to make powerful and dramatic interventions. The energy gives hope for civil society actors like Arvind Kejriwal despite the fact that in the current instance he appeared to be following the agenda set by the motley group of protesters.
But the evolving scenario and the mix of despair and the desire for escape from it can also result in urge for not just strong laws — be it Lokpal or chemical castration for rapists — but also a strong leader. The Internet chatter suggests that a huge number of those who took to the streets — save those aligned with avowedly Leftist groups — are also distinguished by their desire for a helmsman: in short, an ideal platform for someone like Narendra Modi.
The Gujarat CM, a pariah because of his government’s failure to quell in time anti-Muslim violence in 2002, is defined by his tough response. He has enhanced his appeal to these very sections with the promise of China-type growth rates.
Many, including his colleagues in the BJP, feel that his simplistic solutions for accelerating growth will not work beyond Gujarat, and that his polarizing personality will be rejected outside his home turf. This may appear valid as well. Other things apart, the Indian situation is too complex to lend itself to one-size-fits-all therapies. But the crowd baying for capital punishment for the rapist perhaps lacks patience is hungering for promises of swift and surgical solutions; it may have little appetite or patience for nuances and complexities.