India: Return of the Common Man?

Historically, Indians have always been susceptible
to the idea of ‘the celebrity’. As a collective population, we need very little
evidence of power or success, in any profession, to gleefully consent for the
elevation of an individual into a sacred social stratosphere. In particular,
political power brings with it such a sense of fascination that, with the right
amount of media manipulation, making headlines nationwide on a consistent basis
isn’t difficult. The adulation and undivided attention of millions is a given
for any politician worth his or her salt. But all this might be slowly changing.

The political class of this still-evolving
democracy has thrived on illiteracy; a common feature amongst the majority of
its voting population. However, unlike scientific or cultural illiteracy, it is
essentially the spatial unawareness of millions, who live in rural and
semi-urban India, which has propelled politicians into a special societal enclosure,
where few can ever reside or even visit.

The West’s understanding of India
might be that of a booming economy with immense potential, but for the common
man in the small towns and villages of the country, the focus is on roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing
and shelter). The expectations, thus, from the political class have, at best,
been very basic. Nonetheless, even the most basic of expectations have always
come with a caveat – ensuring national security.

For a country forged out of a prolonged,
and often violent, independence movement, and one that has had its contemporary
history defined by altercations with neighbouring Pakistan, national security
has always been high on the political agenda in independent India. And those
who run the country have always been, by and large, expected to deliver on this
front.

In the past, they haven’t always succeeded.
The attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 was testimony to that
fact. However, unlike the recent assault on Mumbai, the Parliament attacks were
sharp and short, thereby not allowing the electronic media to engage in
extended live coverage of the event. The Government, too, had been much quicker
and more decisive in its reaction. Parliamentarians had worked across party
lines; a concerted response was staged and the public’s fears were assailed. The
country was certainly less shocked then than it is this time around.

The 62-hour media marathon that was the
November 2008 Mumbai attack has done more to erode trust in the incumbent
Congress government than any other event, since it came to power in 2004. A
government that was already viewed as ‘soft on terror’ was effectively crushed
by the events of last month. However, what could well be the final nail in the
coffin for the credibility of the political class in India is
the fact that it hasn’t been resolute or united in its actions since Mumbai.

Not only did the Congress government
conveniently point the finger at Pakistan
even before the terrorist assault had been completely contained, it hasn’t, as
yet, shown any indications of having a concrete plan of action. Moreover, the
main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hasn’t taken up the
initiative to offer a comprehensive solution to
India‘s
terror menace either. In the ensuing mudslinging, the historical fascination of
the Indian populace with its political class is slowly, but steadily,
evaporating.

In what could be a dangerous phenomenon,
especially before the country goes to elections early next year, there is open
discussion, in the media and otherwise, that India‘s
politicians just aren’t doing enough. Not only are they obviously lacking in
legislative and enforcement prowess, they are also using up resources
designated for the common citizen. For instance, the elite National Security
Guard commandos, who saved countless lives in Mumbai, spend most of their time
and resources in escorting and protecting politicians, many of whom have little
real-time lawmaking significance.

A disgusted, and petrified, population is now
reacting. Not only have thousands attended candlelight vigils, prayer meetings
and protest marches across the country, but countless, formal and informal,
citizens groups are being formed. Public interest litigation (PIL) cases and
Right to Information Act (RTI) applications are being filed in massive numbers.
The people of India want to know what went wrong and how the policymakers will ensure
that it won’t happen again. ‘Choose to vote for no-one’ emails, describing the
constitutional provision allowing for a person to vote for none of the
candidates, are doing the rounds. The vote is being projected as a weapon for
mass dissent.

India‘s politicians, many of whom have comfortably wallowed for years,
must now come round and act without delay. Otherwise, by as early as May next
year, they could risk becoming common men and women once again.