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Sunita Narain: Protests and leadership

Every time people lose faith in the political establishment, urban middle classes embrace fascism and the poor take up arms against the state

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The last image of 2012 is that of protesters storming central Delhi, outraged at the brutal rape of a young girl and the culture of . This outburst by the educated middle class, many of them young women, was spontaneous as much as it was leaderless. But as we move into the next year, we need to think about the government’s response to this protest and other demonstrations. We need to understand if the Indian state has any clue about what is going on under its nose — and feet.

In this case, on the first day people gathered peacefully, but resolutely, to register their anger. The educated middle class was innocent, and arrogant, enough to believe that it should be allowed to march to the grand presidential palace, a symbol of power and compassion in their eyes. But the government reacted with horror. It used water cannons and tear-gas shells to quell the protest. The next day, the numbers swelled, social networks got busy calling for a gathering, and sadness for the young victim turned into anger against the callous state. Still, not all was lost.

For even the next day, protesters’ congregation was peaceful in the beginning. But as it happens in such situations, something (or some miscreants) provoked the crowd. It became ugly. Now the tear-gas shells rained on them; television screens flashed visuals of police brutality as they beat protesters, including young women, with batons.

In all this, there was absolute silence from top politicians. Nobody walked into the crowd, held a megaphone and shared the grief of the people. Nobody came out to explain that the government would indeed take the required action to fast-track conviction of the vile rapists and beef up security across the city; that it would make its people feel safe. Instead, politicians and bureaucrats hid behind their security walls. The irony was there for all to see. The disgust grew.

The home minister – to whom the capital city’s police reports – added insult to injury by arguing that if he had “spoken to this motley crowd, next time there would be demands for the government to speak to insurgents”, equating outraged ordinary urban citizens with violent secessionists.

Clearly, nothing speaks more of the government being completely clueless, hapless and out of touch with its own people. Now has issued an advisory on how women should behave if they want to avoid being molested or raped. This attitude is exactly what the protesters were fighting against. This was not the first and last time it happened in the past year. Take the protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. As the plant came close to commissioning, protesters blockaded the plant and held vigils and rallies to say that they believed the plant was a hazard to their life and livelihood as fisher folk. In this case, unlike the middle-class protesters in New Delhi, it was fisher folk who were agitating. They had seen on their television screens what happened in Fukushima. Whether right or wrong, these ordinary Indians were convinced of the dangers of nuclear power. They sought reassurance from their leaders.

Instead, what they got was disdain — what do the illiterate know about complicated nuclear affairs? That was followed by contempt — scientists sent to examine safety concerns were top pro-nuclear scientists. Then came rejection — the government dismissed the movement as funded by foreign money. When even this did not work, the response was brutal police action. No leader had the credibility to speak to the people to explain the hazards and the steps taken to safeguard the plant. Even today, as the nuclear plant is days away from going critical, the protests continue to simmer.

But there is much more to these protests. We must fear we are losing the plot. The fact is that each such movement reflects concerns – valid, exaggerated or emotional – that need to be addressed. And the failure in doing so will eat up our insides and corrode the very being of the country.

On the one hand, the establishment of governance is crumbling. It has inadequate ability to research, to enquire and, therefore, to assure that it will protect the interests of the weakest. Our regulatory institutions have been dismembered and disabled; therefore, they have no credibility. They cannot prepare independent safety assessments. They cannot drive any change to build confidence that all is well.

On the other hand, India’s political leadership is losing its ability to face the very people who elect it to power. It cannot stand up and talk. And every time these political leaders do not reach out to people, they get even more cocooned and even more isolated. And every time people lose faith in the political establishment, urban middle classes embrace fascism and the poor take up arms against the state. It is a bad portent.  

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