For years, India’s upper classes have been waltzing through life making minimal contact with the government. We have been going above the government, below the government or around the government, but we never really engaged with the government. Possibly because we didn’t ever need the government. A telling sign of upward mobility in India is a reducing dependence on the state—the sump/overhead tank to smooth out the erratic water supply; the UPS system to protect against power cuts; the chauffeur-driven car to offset the inconvenience of an indifferent public transport service; the security guard at the gate to make up for the ragged police system.
Last week in Mumbai, all that changed for India’s aspirational class.
We’ve come up against the one issue where we can’t dodge the dependence on the state: terrorism. Suddenly, we are waking up to discover that the same state that we have ignored for the past 60 years is necessary for us to make sense of our lives (a visceral glimpse into the life of the poor). And with it comes a whole new definition of the citizen-state relationship. This is existential exfoliation.
Talk of unintended consequences. The war on Mumbai was meant to undermine the country, but could become a dramatic inflection point in India’s political trajectory where a weak democracy suddenly finds its elixir vitae—the coming of age of a new Indian voter, one whose livelihood is not dependent on the state, but quality of life is. The political system has never felt the heat of an irate middle-class such as it has in the Mumbai aftermath. Already, the term “political leader” is getting replaced by “public servant” with greater frequency. If sustained and channelized correctly—a big if—this anger has the potential to fundamentally change the behaviour of the political class. Because, unlike the poor, who can often only act once in five years by booting the incumbents out of office, this breed of voters can make life hell on a daily basis—demanding more accountability, transparency and responsiveness from their political and administrative representatives.
Our past attitude of benign disregard is being replaced with ferocious annoyance. Witness the public declamation of R.R. Patil, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Narendra Modi, V.S. Achuthanandan—the barrage of criticism has been swift, handed out to all parties and has had serious political consequences (salaam to the media). These developments are good for the country, irrespective of whether one is poor or rich (this isn’t the time to sermonize to the upper classes about where they were when the state was failing the poor; ultimately, political engagement will open the third eye to the larger reality of India). Political awakening is a good thing.
But there is another dimension, a troubling one, to the fallout from the Mumbai attack. Our agitation in demanding more from our politicians is going so far overboard that we are overlooking our own flaws. After all, we are the ones who provide the breeding ground for the disease of identity politics—of caste and communalism. We don’t evaluate our candidates for their development vision or administrative competence, only whether they fit into some quota of some subcaste that has little consequence in our lives. And then, we are shocked when these same representatives prove to be utterly incompetent in discharging the complex responsibilities of running a modern state.
We ask for a tough state, when we ourselves are a soft people. I mean it in the harshest sense: Most of us are selfish, inward-looking cowards who quaver at the slightest hint of risk to ourselves or our family. Witness what happened in Kandahar—most of those who had family members as hostages were pleading with the Indian government to release the terrorists. We salute those who defend us, or light candles, but don’t do much more.
Another example: Mandatory military service of all 17-year high school graduates, an idea that is being floated now in India. Singapore has a law that demands this of its citizens. Thousands of Indians have lived in Singapore for years, if not decades. But most retain their Indian passports—or at least those of their children—not so much out of a sense of patriotism, but so that they can avoid this year of service. The new home minister should include this as part of his solutions, and then see the public palpitations.
The truth is that we haven’t fully accepted our own obligations as citizens. But crises such as these are also crucibles to reinvent ourselves, to think beyond the boundaries of our own limiting lives.
The Mumbai attack could be a significant moment in our country’s history in an unexpectedly affirmative way. As we demand more of our politicians—and we must—it’s time to also demand more of ourselves. Maybe the latter needs to come first.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org