Just when organized polity was beginning to breathe freely after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) failed to live up to its hype, the weekend brought an unpleasant surprise. The Capital’s equivalent of Tahrir Square, the Boat Club, came alive with people protesting the brutal gang-rape of a girl in New Delhi last week.
The protest and the ham-handed response (after the initial cold shoulder) of the establishment send out several key messages about India’s rapidly altering polity; central, of course, is the reiteration of the fact that this is the end of status quo. A new beginning is under way. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that this new dawn, inspired by people power, will be any better than what we have at the moment. Organized politicians had begun to believe that with the AAP failing to sparkle, it was a return to business as usual. Now, they know how wrong they were.
First, the protesters at Boat Club were overwhelmingly young—reflecting India’s demography where about 65% of a 1.2 billion population is estimated to be less than 35 years of age; nearly half are actually less than 25 years old (born around 1980, the year when India started unshackling three decades of a command and control economy.).
Many of these people have mostly known only good times and, hence, have not just aspirations but a sense of entitlement. The gathering at Boat Club appeared spontaneous, no doubt made easier through social media. It was also an angry and uncompromising crowd that, despite the lack of visible leadership, withstood a barrage of water cannons, caning, tear gas and whatever the police threw at them. They simply refused to fade away.
Their anger is understandable. The protest against the brutal assault is only a metaphor of their general dissatisfaction. And they have reason to be dissatisfied. The new India promises much but delivers little. There are no jobs to absorb the 12 million joining the workforce every year; the educational infrastructure is woefully inadequate and its quality is abysmal, making it almost impossible to acquire requisite skills; and the system seems unable to guarantee the safety of the young from thugs and goons.
By Saturday afternoon, before the government’s disproportionate reaction on Sunday, the spontaneous protest, on a legitimate issue, started drawing the support of the general public. Anecdotally, colleagues and friends reported how their relatives and acquaintances, otherwise apolitical, drifted to India Gate to lend their moral support to the young people gathered there.
Second, the response of the establishment reveals how out of sync it is with the new reality. Initially, the government simply ignored the protest, being relayed real time on television to the entire country—not one representative of the state turned up to either hear the grouse of the protesters or try and initiate a dialogue. When they did, late in the evening, it came across as too little, too late. Worse, there is no indication of the ruling class recognizing that the problem is systemic.
In a country where female foeticide is still rampant (it is a lucrative business model for those who facilitate it), the male-female sex ratio, unlike the worldwide norm, is skewed against women, and popular culture that is steeped in patriarchy, violence against women, such as last week’s gang-rape, shouldn’t surprise anyone. The judicial process offers no relief to the victim. Cases simply drag on, and often those entrusted to work with the victim become their worst enemies.
Talking of fast-track courts is ironical. Courts were created to mete out swift justice, but they have evolved into institutions that move at glacial pace. By talking of fast-track courts, the establishment is signalling that the rest of the mess is here to stay. After all, how many fast-track courts will the establishment create?
Third, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, showed why she is the only one gifted with any political instinct in the United Progressive Alliance. It was Gandhi who sought to reach out to the protesting youth late in the evening after the government failed to react and some senior functionaries exhibited their helplessness on television. The protesting youth were simply articulating their anger against what they believe is an unjust system. The solution was not the show of an iron hand, but a dialogue with someone from the establishment, preferably someone who can command trust. The response seeking to muzzle the protestors and squash the protest has only reinforced their sense of persecution.
Finally, the revival of spontaneous protest from the so-called aam admi shows that the phenomenon is far from over. Besides signalling the fact that status quo has to go, it also brings home the fact that there is a huge vacuum in Indian politics waiting to be seized. Organized polity needs to think out of the box if it wishes to tap into this; freebies and populism, the currency in vogue, will increasingly find fewer takers. The polity has to ride the wave. Alternatively, like Jayaprakash Narayan and Mahatma Gandhi before him did, someone is certain to tap into the angst and the aspiration of the young to stoke social and political change.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com