The killing of young schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, US, and a gang rape on a grimy public bus in New Delhi: These two far-flung tragedies have become a magnet for comparisons in the month since they occurred, a means of illuminating how differently citizens and governments of two of the world’s major democracies react to crime and human tragedy.
As the American political thinker Mark Lilla noted, Indians immediately took to the streets to protest violence against women. Meanwhile, Americans stayed on their couches, watching videos of the Newtown tragedy on TV. “The land of Gandhi has not lost its willingness to mobilize and put pressure on those in authority, even when it sometimes makes the country nearly ungovernable,” Lilla wrote in The New Republic. “The same cannot be said of the land of Martin Luther King.”
Indian commentators meanwhile made a different comparison—one entirely more favourable to the US. The very day of the tragedy, President Barack Obama spoke directly and eloquently to the unnerved American public. Two days later, in Newtown, he moved past blanket sympathies to a political promise: “In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens—from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators—in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
India’s leaders, on the other hand, remained insensitive, arrogant, or calculatedly disengaged. Only belatedly did wooden, perfunctory clichés drag off their tongues, under the comically misleading rubric of “statements”. All aspects would be examined, the government would keep people informed of the steps taken and processes followed—vague, blunt generalities.
But there is another divergence in the response to the two tragedies that bears comparison on this Republic Day: the extent to which public anger affects the actions of politicians and the workings of government. How does deep passion among the citizenry transmute itself into the betterment of their daily lives?
In the US, many Americans hold dear their constitutional right to bear arms, and have historically resisted efforts to regulate private ownership of guns, including semi-automatic weapons. It’s a philosophical position reinforced to American politicians by a formidable gun-owners’ lobby. Obama himself showed little interest in spending his political capital on the issue. But since the Newtown shootings, a long-stalled effort to legislate gun control has gathered momentum.
Liberal legislators and anti-gun advocates who years ago developed policy options for gun control have suddenly had a chance to be heard after the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Though the political fights ahead will be fierce, the immense popular revulsion about the slaughter of schoolchildren stands a good chance of resulting in new strictures on gun ownership, including background checks, bans on assault weapons, and greater protection for schools. And these reforms may in time slow what have become every-other-day US headlines about mass shootings in schools and other public places.
If the Newtown tragedy is a primer on how public outrage can be channelled into change, a central instruction is that that anger may come to little without a leadership capable of harnessing it. Since the Newtown tragedy, Obama has put his personal and organizational weight behind the gun control effort. His election-winning campaign infrastructure, Obama for America, has been transformed into Organizing For Action. Its cause now is not re-election but the achievement of fundamental policy shifts on divisive issues—and firstly, gun control. Posted on the Organizing for America website now are moving letters from children asking for gun control, as the repurposed election campaign team works to create a grass-roots movement in support of changes in the law.
It’s a striking example of a leader trying to direct popular feeling about a specific incident into something broader and more enduring—using an opportunity created by a tragic contingency to overcome political gridlock and effect change for the general good.
Of course, the gun control issue is more amenable to legislative fixes than the issue of sexual violence. Making it harder for Americans to acquire guns, to add further to the 310 million weapons they already own, surely will reduce the number of instances in which guns are used. Obama’s effort is to address absences in the law. Indian politicians face a more complex dilemma, since our laws, however erratically enforced, do not treat sexual violence lightly. Where the comparison continues to illuminate, though, is in regard to the way political leaders view the outrage of their citizens—and whether they give it the respect of treating it as a spur to change.
India’s political elite tends to view popular anger either as something to be disdained or as a commodity to be exploited for selfish purposes, and that has much to do with the nature of that political elite—or, to use a more apt term, our political entrepreneurs. For these entrepreneurs, outrage is an opportunity to indulge in populist demagoguery—to strengthen their own power by inciting more anger, as opposed to aiming that anger in the direction of social reform.
Whether it is corruption, violence against women, or the behaviour of Pakistan’s military or extremists, many among our political class will wag their fingers, wave their arms, and raise the rhetorical stakes. “Give me 10 heads,” said the leader of the Opposition one week. A couple of weeks before, talking about the alleged rapists, she was calling out, “Hang them.” Those in government, meanwhile, simply clench their teeth, call out a level of security on Delhi’s main ceremonial thoroughfares that makes the Republic Day military parade look scanty, and hope the protesters will eventually return to their daily chores.
More practical, less cynical responses would require more intellection, and more commitment to an idea of the public good—the republic. But proposing serious new policy is a time-waste for the Indian politician. There’s more mileage to be gained by appearing on television to score speech points off some flat-footed political opponent. Meanwhile, though, the public anger is a fire that goes unbanked.
But what the politicians don’t fully realize is the danger that fire poses to themselves. By failing to thoughtfully address the concerns of appalled citizens who already feel their voice has little impact on the choices of government, whatever respect citizens still have for the political process is also being consumed.
Regardless of what specifics Obama manages to achieves on gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, it’s almost certain that his leadership will leave the apparatus of political response strengthened, and more closely connected to the concerns of the American public. On Republic Day 2014, it would be a fine thing to look back on last December’s tragedy and feel the same can be said. But Republic Day 2013 is a moment for mourning not just an individual tragedy that brought citizens together in protest, but a subtler tragedy of political redress that leaves Indian citizens and their government ever further apart.
Sunil Khilnani is Avantha professor and director of the India Institute at King’s College London.
Also Read | Sunil’s previous Lounge columns