| Mumbai Attacks - Pitfalls of citizen power
Pitfalls of citizen power
Chandan Mitra (Pioneer, Sunday, December 7, 2008)
I am more amused than agitated by the sudden burst of activity among Page 3 people over the terror outrage in two of Mumbai's best hotels. During and after the carnage, celebrities have been holding forth, crying "Enough is enough" and demanding banishment of politicians from public life. They have argued that civil society is the only entity that should determine the response to Mumbai's angst. Candlelight processions have been held and last Wednesday several thousand people gathered at the Gateway of India to mark the passage of a week since India's commercial capital was brought to its knees. Now, similar exhibitions of citizen power are slated to be held in other metros, starting with Delhi this week.
Probably for the first time since India became a victim of organised terrorism nearly 20 years ago, the affluent classes have been stirred. This is a welcome trend because their articulation and the celebrity status of some of the protagonists undoubtedly helps focus public anger, which has been diffused so far. Arguably, many would say their hearts should have bled earlier when city after city was ravaged by thejihadis. Such is the socio-economic stratification of Indian society that anger remained muted in the past because most terror victims belonged to the underclass or lower middle classes.
For instance, this time too attention is focused on Taj and Oberoi hotels while the carnage at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (VT), where a whopping 62 ordinary people were mowed down did not elicit remotely comparable consternation. Similarly, the July 2007 serial blasts in commuter trains that killed 190, was largely ignored by the city's chatterati. Then we were subjected to standard homilies like how the "spirit of Mumbai" would never allow pitiful wallowing in grief; that it would be "business as usual" from the very next day. Such comments were approvingly highlighted by the electronic media, and even its print counterpart was not immune to chanting the same mantra.
This time, however, nobody is talking about the "unbeatable spirit" of Mumbai. Now that Taj ("Which is like my second home," as a celebrity told a news channel) has been pulverised by the satanic bloodlust of Pakistan-trained terrorists, upper middle class rage is boiling over. Politically biased English language TV news channels have, however, skillfully directed this anger to indulge in wanton politician bashing. The channels, newspaper columns and blogs are full of venom spewed at the entire political class. "Withdraw their security" is the common refrain. Accusing politicians as a class for messing up things, people have gone so far as to demand takeover by the Army! One banner at the Gateway of India proclaimed: "There are many more terrorists prowling. They are called politicians". It is no longer possible to dismiss these voices as totally unrepresentative or emanating only from fossils of the Raj era who love to recall the mythical "good old days" when life was orderly. Nowadays, young, educated, well-groomed executives are expressing these sentiments with feverish gusto. A series of gaffes by politicians unnerved by the highly publicised outrage of this section has added more fuel to the fire.
By targeting the entire political class, the angry young (and not so young) men and women have happily overlooked that it is only the legitimately elected Government, its political leaders and bureaucrats, who can be held accountable for the lapses that led to the tragedy -- be it the failure to act with alacrity on intelligence inputs, ineptitude of marine security personnel, delay in dispatching NSG commandos and so on. In other words, both the Union and State Government of Maharashtra must be held responsible for the disastrous denouement. And both Governments happen to be controlled by the Congress Party and its allies.
So, you can't bracket, say, Mayawati, with Vilasrao Deshmukh, Naveen Patnaik with Shivraj Patil or LK Advani with Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi. When public anger should rightly be directed at the gross incompetence of the Congress-led UPA and its five-year-old record of mollycoddling terrorists, the media manipulated redirection of the fury towards the entire political class is a potentially dangerous gambit. It is dangerous because it sanctifies the ongoing systematic tirade against democracy itself. If we lose faith in the entire political class as some people would like us to do, we erode the very basis of India's democratic polity; we thus lose our faith in the Constitution itself.
I know this won't happen. There is too much at stake. Affluent people, usually cocooned in their plush, multi-crore apartments, often do not participate in the electoral process. They have far lesser stake in who becomes the local MLA or MP or which party forms the Government, compared to the impoverished villager of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the small artisan of Tamil Nadu or even the average commuter on Mumbai's suburban trains. The indigent urban labourer or the marginal farmer has a stake in democracy because they need their elected representative as a cushion against wanton exploitation and to get their legitimate rights from an insensitive junior bureaucracy or corrupt policemen.
The rich, on the other hand, can easily afford to lubricate their way through India's Byzantine bureaucratic maze while funding political parties across the board to ensure their work gets done irrespective of a regime's ideological complexion. In turn, they need the comfort of a secure environment, a dependable law and order mechanism and appropriate conditions for conducting business and leisure activities. I know I may be sounding like an old fashioned Leftist, but there is nothing ideological about this stark reality.
Admittedly by reacting intolerantly, politicians have invited further ignominy upon themselves. Martyred Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan's father may have said in a fit of rage that he wouldn't let into his house "any old dog" that came visiting, but that did not justify veteran VS Achuthanandan responding in a most undignified manner. Outgoing Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil's comment that such "small things" happen in big cities was reminiscent of a similarly insensitive remark by former UP Minister Shivpal Yadav in connection with the Nithari killings of children by two perverted sex maniacs. Had BJP Vice-President Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi not prefaced his critique of near-anarchic activism by celebrity women in Mumbai with a reference to "powder, lipstick and Western ideas", the substance of his assertion might not have been misconstrued.
Our politicians may have much to answer for. But that does not mean democracy can do without politicians. And those who champion the idea that citizen power can be a substitute for elected Government should realise that the logical extension of that argument is abolition of democracy itself. "Citizen-power" to replace political power -- a fashionable cause extolled by sections of the media -- amounts to advocacy of dictatorship of the elite.
Are we ready to have as Home Minister an ageing ad guru who goes on every channel claiming his 21-year-old daughter has discovered the perfect solution to hostage-taking by terrorists: Use sleeping bombs instead of grenades, he passionately demands! Are our security forces so daft as not to have explored all options? Does the monopoly of reason rest with India's elite, effete at the best of times and subversive at the worst? By the way, why is Arundhati Roy in hiding this time?
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