back to issue

THE recent expression of mistrust, discontent and rage that so dominated both public and private discourse following the gruesome gang rape and ‘murder’ of a young woman in Delhi, may have, for the moment, dissipated. The ‘crowds’ have gone home as have those many who gathered for candlelight vigils. But, the anger and discontent is very much alive. All it requires is one more such incident for angry crowds to reoccupy the streets. The fraying compact between our governing elites and restive citizens is dangerously close to breaking point. Any perception in the governing establishment that it has weathered the storm and can revert to earlier, dominant styles of behaviour and action would be singularly myopic.

In a sense the signs of what we recently experienced have been evident for sometime. But to reduce it, only or even primarily, to the staggering ineptitude of the current dispensation in both misreading the growing expressions of discontent and, further, in crafting a response, as evident in its handling of the anti-corruption protests last year, might miss out on the deeper transformations affecting our society and polity. The emergence, in the last two decades, of a new, younger, mobile, increasingly urban, better resourced and educated populace – one which both perceives the possibility of a better life and diverse choices and chafes at the constraints imposed and created by a ‘system’ seeped in a culture of patronage, differentially favouring the ‘connected’ while resisting the entry of those seeking a more equitable and enabling space – has given rise to new aspirations and forms of protest and belonging.

Yes, political parties and elections, even if ‘discredited’ continue to matter, more so for those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. This, after all, is one arena where the ‘powerless’ still matter, their expressions of individual choice often upturning the smug calculations of candidates and parties. Nevertheless, it is equally apparent that electoral verdicts, even if decisive, do not easily translate into governance choices which can meaningfully respond to the demands of a diverse electorate. Hardly surprising that as much as the political class, the growing angst is directed against all functionaries of the system, the executive and the judiciary.

A second shift, paradoxically, owes to the ‘success’ of our electoral democracy. A combination of the ability to vote out non-performing rulers alongside a growing culture of ‘rights and entitlements’ deepens the sense of citizenship. More than handouts and largesse, reflective of a patronage culture, what is now being demanded is an environment of opportunity, and level playing field. This, as much as shifts in policy, demands changes in ‘rules and procedures’, modes of functioning, and transparency and accountability of those mandated to run the system.

What is relatively new is the emergence of citizen activists and forums, often not attached to pre-existing formations, who are increasingly participating in, sometimes initiating and even shaping the contours of, a new protest. Far more comfortable with relying on and using the new technologies of social communication, they are shaping public discourse, both the language and issues, in ways unimaginable even a decade back. Not many, for instance, could have visualized the role of mobile telephony and internet in highlighting new concerns, ways of responding, and giving rise to new collectivities of belonging and protest.

True that this phenomena is essentially urban (though beyond the metro) and differentially attracts the somewhat better-off and resourced – attributes which partially explain the popularity of certain kinds of concern – corruption, environment, gender equality and safety, and the neglect of others, survival issues of access to and control over land, forest and water in rural and tribal India. Also the summary dismissal of political parties, leaders, and even ‘politics’. Given the differential position that this strata occupies in our society, and the inordinate space that it receives in our traditional media, both print and TV, such a trend can easily add to the environment of cynical negativism about our existing institutional arrangements and processes. Though not yet anarchic, continuing disorder and anomie often lay down the groundwork for an authoritarian solution and a strong, decisive leader. Think Emergency. It could also, even though this appears a faint hope, give rise to fresh thinking about politics, about different and better ways to organize collective experience.

There have been earlier phases when the ‘system’ faced far more serious challenges, all of which fundamentally altered the way we imagined our society and institutional order. The current phase too, reflective of a dramatically altered social and political landscape, poses a similar challenge. How we, or rather our leadership, respond to the challenge my well decide the fate of our democratic republic.

Harsh Sethi