A year of leadership failure

The last image of 2012 is protesters storming the bastion of Delhi, outraged at the brutal rape of a young girl and the culture of violence against women. This outburst by the educated middle class, many of them young women, was spontaneous as much as it was leaderless. But as we move to the next year, we need to think about the response of the government to this protest and others. 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 had gathered, peacefully but resolutely, to register their anger. The educated middle class was innocent, and arrogant, enough to believe 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.

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 many-layered security walls. The irony was there for all to see. The disgust grew.

To make amends, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and her heir Rahul Gandhi decided to meet a few “representatives” to convince them of government’s intent. But the fact is that this “movement”—for want of another word—has no representatives. It is leaderless. It is just a collection of people brought together by a common anger. They needed to talk to all, not some.

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 government to speak to Maoist 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.

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 believe the plant is a hazard to their life and livelihood as fishers. In this case, unlike the middle-class Delhi protesters, it is fisherfolk who are agitating. They have seen what happened in Fukushima on their television screens. Whether right or wrong, these ordinary Indians are convinced of the dangers of nuclear power. They need answers. They need assurance from their leaders.

But instead what they got is first disdain—what do the illiterate know about complicated nuclear affairs. Then contempt—scientists sent to examine safety concerns were top pro-nuclear scientists. Then rejection—government dismissed the movement as funded by foreign money. When all this did not work, the response was brutal police action. No leader had the credibility to speak to their own 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, 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 so 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, our political leadership is losing its ability to face the very people who elect it to power. They cannot stand up and talk. And every time they do not reach out to the 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 arm against the state. It is a bad portent.