National Interest: Ears wide shut

One problem with anger, particularly at such a mass level as we have seen lately, is that it makes us overlook, even forget, what or who it is that we are angry about. Particularly when it happens to be a mere individual. So, as we scream, pull out the barricades at Rajpath and vent, from the streets to Facebook to the year-end party circuit, spare a thought for the lonely 23-year-old still hanging on in distant Singapore. Most human beings would not have had the strength or will to survive a fraction of what she has had to suffer. That she is still there, battling, surprising teams of the most experienced doctors, and also inspiring them to not give up, is a part of the story that must not be forgotten. We have to think of her, pray for her, and draw inspiration from her. Because this anger, ultimately, is about her first. All the rest of us, our fury and frustration, our slogans, our disgust for the police and the "system", our concern for our children, come later. Hers is the story of a 23-year-old from a family of modest means who did not have the dad's car and driver to take her home at night, and whose eyes lit up when a bus stopped and offered her and her friend a ride home.

This is about a public transport-using, ordinary, but aspirational and modern, Indian, and not some "dented and painted", clubbing stereotype of an 18th century mind. She is what this is about, first of all. And least of all about us in the media who, while congratulating ourselves for articulating and leading this anger, haven't exactly been above the usual milking of the story, with a dash of voyeurism: see a TV channel using the silhouette of a model in a flimsy black dress, head buried between her bare knees, covered with equally bare arms. Or some of the others fictionalising, even Bollywoodising, the story, by assuming names for the victim, one even drawn from a Sunny Deol-starrer on the theme of rape. So take a break, once again, and pray for her as she, whatever name you may choose to give her, fights the most formidable odds.

But don't forget the incompetent way this has been handled by your government and do not forgive them for it. Even during the Anna agitation, this government had displayed the outdatedness of its thinking and responses. It first did not know what hit it, and then went down on its knees to Anna, offering to draft a draconian new law jointly with the agitators, an idea as insincere as it was unworkable. Last week showed us that it has still learnt no lessons. For three days, as the fury of a relatively small but articulate crowd magnified by television raged, nobody came out to talk, to reason, to douse the fires, even to join the protest. The government once again went into the trenches and outsourced the problem to the people least suited to handle it: Delhi Police. Deservedly or not, the police were already the object of popular anger. And now you had left them at the mercy of the protesters, or vice versa. Where were the seven Congress MPs from Delhi? Where were the 41 ruling party MLAs? Where was the Union home minister, his deputies, the Gandhis? The lieutenant governor may have been caught on the wrong foot overseas, but where, for heaven's sake, was Sheila Dikshit? This was not her police, we know. But it was her people, the same Delhi-ites who have given her the privilege of being a thrice-elected chief minister, well ahead of one Narendra Modi. And if it is too much to expect today's SUV-driving political class to deal with such messy distractions, where was the usual, boring civil administration? The chief secretary? The deputy commissioners? The entire magistracy? All burning up their unused casual leave at the end of the year? You leave angry crowds and an edgier police to deal with each other and you can only get the disaster of December 23 and an unnecessary loss of life, irrespective of who is to blame for it.

For a government so endowed with modern, mostly foreign-educated offspring of old party stalwarts, it is phenomenally inadequate when it comes to dealing with these protests. You can no longer hide behind old arguments: these are small crowds compared to what we politicians can bring, these are upper crust sahibs and memsahibs, Delhi-centric non-voting classes and so on, or that these are exaggerated by TV, how do you deal with immature media etc. You can either wait for the rest of us to become more "mature" or, meanwhile, learn to deal with the challenges that will now continue to rise and confront you in real time. Surely, you do not expect Manmohan Singh to do an Obama wiping his tears after the Connecticut school massacre. But didn't the entire Congress have anybody, just one leader, to show some empathy? If Sonia Gandhi could join the crowds celebrating India's World Cup victory, why couldn't someone join these protesters too? To speak to cameras outside Safdarjung Hospital, to shed a tear, hopefully genuine, but is it anybody's point that politicians cannot or should not fake it? They do it all the time for votes. So once again, was Sheila Dikshit also on casual leave?

And why do these outbreaks happen only in Delhi? Because India's most improved city is also necessarily India's most aspirational city. Also, the most impatient and unforgiving. And, for better or worse, it is the home of the national media, particularly news television. Some of us have been arguing that in cynically finessing rural against urban, the UPA has dangerously alienated the cities in a rapidly urbanising India, in spite of the fact that most of them voted for it overwhelmingly, twice. Yet, if the UPA's arrogant and delusional message has been, our voters live in distant villages, so you city-folk go, fend for yourselves, it is being made to pay for it. The cities, particularly Delhi, have found a new voice. Television and social media are their new megaphones, and force multipliers. You can't survive in denial of this new reality. Nor can you squash it.

If you do not upgrade your cities, modernise your governance, scale up schooling, colleges, jobs, housing, public transport, policing, more and more of this will happen. Come May, for example, what if five thousand school-finishers with 85-plus per cent marks land up at Rajpath, protesting they have no college to go to? Or if two thousand sets of parents arrive with their four-year-olds, saying find school admissions for them? How will you deal with them? Will you tell them, go to municipal schools or third-rung colleges like your enormously more numerous and less privileged common citizens? Where did you send your children, mister, they will ask you, and tell you to go to hell. If these few days have shaken you up, frankly, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

sg@expressindia.com

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