In a moment of national grief, a sombre public needs from its leadership reassurance combined with a strong sense of purpose. Over the past fortnight, as a shocked Indian public struggled to come to terms with the brutal gang rape of a young student on a bus in Delhi - culminating in her tragic demise - the effective leadership that was needed in these circumstances has been painfully absent. Far from providing a soothing balm to the public, the UPA’s initial diffidence inflamed the situation. Its failure to read the public mood may cost it dearly.
The truth is that her tragedy has been India’s tragedy too. When a life full of promise is extinguished by savage brutality, the ensuing sense of pain will first and foremost, understandably be felt by the victim’s family. But the loss of unrealized potential can echo through the wider society too. In cities across India, the candle-light vigils held speak to a shared sense of mourning among ordinary citizens. The strength of feeling and discontentment at the government’s response is palpable too. As a slow-footed UPA government has found, the arc of popular opinion cannot be bent by water canons.
There is rightful disgust among the public at the deficiencies in policing and a criminal justice system that has repeatedly failed to safeguard the safety of women or act as a credible deterrent to those that seek to perpetrate such crimes. The calls for more sensitive policing, better evidence gathering and fast-tracking trials involving assault and grievous bodily harm are all well made. But reforms to policing methods and law enforcement can only be part of the solution.
This unfortunate tragedy has raised a much more fundamental issue about the paradoxical impulses of a society that deifies and worships women on the one hand but can also be blasé about subjecting them routinely to every day barbs and ill-treatment. It yet again exposes the seamy underbelly of an intensely patriarchal culture - particularly in the northern plains - which is resistant to social change. The glossy narrative of ‘India Shining’ obscures this social darkness altogether. That said, the combination of a more assertive civil society and an activist media gives cause for cautious optimism. But a change in the deep seated behavioural pattern of a society will not happen overnight. It will require a concerted drive from public policy makers and citizens alike in order to effect the necessary transformation over time.
In political terms though, the ineptitude of the UPA government over the past fortnight has been nothing short of staggering. Its initial aloofness betrayed an extraordinary disengagement from the public’s emotional state. Rahm Emmanuel - Barack Obama’s former chief of staff - once astutely observed that a leader should ‘never let a serious crisis to go to waste’. The UPA government seems to have inverted that maxim: it appears to be invariably well prepared to waste a crisis.
For nearly a week after the attack on Amanat and accompanying public protests, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was neither seen nor heard. When he eventually did address the nation, it felt like the speech of a sincere technocrat straining to catch up with events than the instinctive response of a seasoned political communicator. Nor for that matter did the public hear directly from the UPA chairperson till recently. The Congress leadership’s consistent mantra of articulating its thoughts via loyalists and a coterie of spokespersons lacks the common touch that voters seek.
Rishabh Bhandari is a lawyer based in London. He also writes on subjects that include British and Indian social, political and economic affairs.