New Delhi: Looking back at 2012, especially a day after a 23-year-old succumbed to injuries suffered during her brutal rape, it is difficult to find the proverbial silver lining in the cloud. If the social mood is sombre, then economic sentiment is at a new low; all the more given the fact that the world economy is a step away from a precipice and the animal spirits have all but deserted the Indian economy thanks to the policy self-goals by a clueless government.
Despite all this, there is a positive takeaway; dig a little deeper and beyond the anguish of the immediate loss of this girl and the hurt of those who braved state oppression last week and focus instead on their core demand: implement the law and deliver justice. It is more than just a subtle signal from the people of India demanding a shift to a rules-based regime.
While a section may be right in demanding more stringent deterrents, it is also a fact that there are enough rules to deal with heinous crimes such as rape or even corruption, but these are rarely implemented. The problem has often been one of systemic failure—first at the level of the police in framing the case either through errors of omission or commission, then inordinate delay by the judiciary and so on—which have often led to criminals succeeding in evading prosecution or at the least delaying the judicial process; justice delayed is justice denied.
The momentum generated by the spontaneous protests in the national capital and elsewhere in the country has guaranteed the case an extremely high profile. Hence, it is likely that justice will be swift. But in the process, the questions that the incident has forced us to ask of ourselves as a society and of the establishment will undoubtedly give a fresh thrust to turn the country towards a rules-based regime.
India has always been an exceptions-based regime, which has enabled successive governments to dole out favours, and foster cosy relationships that create the basis for crony capitalism and obviously corruption. What is heartening is that 2012 has seen an unprecedented push towards a rules-based regime from sections as diverse as the courts, the government and even society.
Take for instance the verdicts delivered by the apex court this year. Beginning with Vodafone, where it ruled, after interpreting the existing tax laws, that the government had no case; cancellation of telecom licences because they were found to have been issued in violation of rules; and, similarly, its interpretation of the law to rule that it is a constitutional right to hold a person in public office accountable for their actions. All of them have a common thread: they uphold rules.
It may seem ridiculous to suggest given the current state of affairs, but it is a fact that there is a distinct tilt, belatedly though, even in government policy towards implementation of rules; the latest instance being the clumsy attempt to employ Aadhaar, the unique identity scheme, to better target subsidies. The underlying strategy of apka paisa apke haath driving cash transfers is disintermediation; to cut out the middleman and guarantee that social payments are delivered directly to those for whom they were intended—an identity that will be established by the Aadhaar. (It is another matter that the plan is being rushed without the Aadhaar infrastructure fully in place and hence risks failure.)
And of course, protests across India have acquired an incredibly new hue. While sectional protests demanding wage increases, allowances and so on continue, what we have seen in the last two years is the protest for good governance. If in 2011 it was against corruption, in the last two weeks we have seen a spontaneous show of protest seeking more social freedom for women and against the sorry state of the judicial process.
This change of course is significant as it is a new trend and cannot be appeased by conventional sops from the establishment. And since the interest groups are not sectional, it has a pan-India potential about it; hence the echoes across metros against the heinous crime committed in the capital and cutting across classes. Their demand can only be met through a systemic solution that simultaneously works on social norms and at the same time guarantees that the laws will be swiftly implemented.
Viewed this way, we move into 2013 with a reason to hope and not the despair that dominated 2012.