The Mumbai terror attacks, beamed live on television channels, have triggered mass middle class outrage against what is seen as an ineffectual political establishment.
But attacking the entire political class will serve no purpose. By claiming that all politicians are bad and we need better politicians and better political parties, the urban middle class is once again seeming to argue that no change is possible in the present system, and so why should we vote?
In contrast, our rural citizenry, bereft of the same voice in the media, has better exercised its franchise and brought down governments that did not live up to their expectations.
What are our objections to the political class? We believe that they lack accountability and transparency, aren’t sensitive to public opinion and show off their VIP status. Generally speaking, this criticism is quite valid and unobjectionable. Let me now ask those heckling the politicians: how many of us are accountable, sensitive and do not show off our social status?
Also Read G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
The reality is that most of us exhibit the same qualities that we are accusing our politicians of. When we ourselves are so imperfect, how can we expect our politicians to be perfect? In other words, we get what we deserve. Before you accuse me of siding with the much-maligned political class, let me explain why I think so.
While we claim that all of us pay our taxes, the reality is that most people pay only taxes that cannot be evaded. Even some of the leading lights of the country—of the kind appearing on TV screens giving sermons on morality and accountability—evade taxes by claiming exemptions such as depreciation of non-existing investments. If we are not a disciplined lot, how can we expect the same from our politicians?
As regards the criticism that we contribute all the taxes and get nothing from our governments, let us not forget that we also corner a huge share of expenditure in beautifying our cities, building flyovers, roads, regular water supply and so on. Just drive 50km out of Mumbai and you would realize how pathetic the rural infrastructure is.
Another allegation is that our politicians are insensitive. Granted, but do we exhibit sensitivity towards the plight and suffering of fellow Indians? Where were all these Page 3 celebrities, who are all over television channels now, when thousands of farmers committed suicides and continue to do so barely a few hundred kilometres from Mumbai? Where was the public outrage of the kind you see now when hundreds of people were killed in serial train blasts in Mumbai and in terror incidents elsewhere?
Today, because terrorists have attacked people like you and me, targeting stately five-star hotels in an upmarket Mumbai neighbourhood, the urban elite has woken up to the issue of public accountability. Does it not pinch our conscience when people die in tragic circumstances elsewhere in the country? Why are we so self-centred and insensitive to others’ agony?
In highlighting and keeping the Mumbai terror high on the national agenda, television has its own agenda and pecuniary interests. The unabated interest in the Mumbai blasts is because Mumbai is not just the nation’s commercial capital, but also the biggest market for television networks. TV channels rake in more revenue when their Mumbai viewership increases, more than in any other city in the country. If a terrorist attack targeted a city like Kolkata, for instance, the news would have dried up faster because the viewership in the city offers less commercial potential.
The third allegation against our politicians is that they show off their VIP status. Yes, they do. Given that they are among the privileged few, they flaunt their status, get security which many of them don’t deserve, have unhindered passage on the roads that we use daily, avoid standing in queues, delay departures of commercial flights and behave as if they are from a different planet.
Despicable that may be, but why blame politicians alone, when even film stars, other celebrities, businessmen and senior government officials flaunt their special status and demand and get similar favours.
Isn’t this much abused VIP status what makes most film stars and media honchos crave to become members of Parliament? Don’t tell me that they are keen to enter politics to serve the public and the poor.
As the middle-class outrage is likely to dissipate as soon as television networks migrate to another news event with better commercial potential, it may be worthwhile for the right-thinking people to channelize this anger and energy into some meaningful action that can bring about a lasting impact on our politics. Perhaps there is a case for making voting compulsory so that the voice of every citizen is heard; not just on television sets but in deciding who governs the country.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org