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No Country for the Voiceless

Opinion | October 21, 2013

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

The words of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the dawn of India’s birth and her triumphant independence from the tyrannous British rule, now drift through the sands of time as feeble reminders of the country India once strived to be. Today, it seems as if the dream of a democratic India has been sleeping all this while. The powerless in this nation are suppressed by a regime more debilitating than the British Empire—one of extreme corruption, misogyny, and crippling apathy. Above all, this oppression comes not by the hands of a colonial establishment, but rather from the very people that India has elected as representatives.

Because these elected officials are not standing up for their constituencies’ interests, Indian democracy has grown increasingly dissonant from its people. The public’s discontentment with its governing class has spilled over as protests over two main issues: economic inequity and gender inequality. In both these cases there are pervasive cultural problems a culture of corruption and a rape culture. To begin solving these seemingly hopeless problems, India will have to reach deep into its roots and retrieve the promise of democracy.

At the core of popular discontent is the drastic slowing of India’s economic growth in the past few years, which is at a decade-low of 5 percent partially due to futile government policies. The debt-to-GDP ratio has been increasing at a frightening rate and India’s fiscal policy has been ineffectively managed, leading to exponentially accelerating inflation rates. The people who represent the people, however, have distanced themselves from the economic drama playing onstage—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spent the last two years publicly underplaying the gravity of the situation, while the Parliament has only sought stopgap solutions instead of addressing the roots of economic crises. For example, amidst the crisis, the government passed an ordinance approving a National Food Security Bill. The bill organizes an ambitious food aid program that will benefit two-thirds of the Indian population; once ratified by the Parliament, it will entitle 800 million Indians to food grain subsidies. The opposition has denounced its high cost ($22 billion per year), while others have criticized its lack of ambition in addressing the root causes of hunger, and the ineffectiveness of and extensive corruption linked to most social redistribution in India. Several economists stressed that the distribution of grain food nation-wide could threaten farmers’ income in the long run. Politically, it seems evident that the food bill is a short-term attempt to shore up votes from the poorer classes ahead of in the 2014 national elections. As he left his position, former Reserve Bank of India head Duvvuri Subbarao captured the government’s failure to address the problem: “Does history repeat itself,” he asked, “as if we learn nothing from one crisis to another?”

The roots of this economic crisis among India’s other past issues lie in a culture of corruption that has not only endured, but has even thrived throughout Indian democracy. Paying bribes for the most basic services is commonplace in daily life in India—recent studies show that more than 47 percent of Indians have resorted to bribes and under-the-table influence to get through public offices. But while petty bribes have been routine throughout India’s history, corruption seems to have recently reached unprecedented levels. Mega scams involving billions of dollars are becoming mundane news headlines—the biggest of which,a scandal surrounding allocation of coal mining rights in 2012, involved top government officials, including cabinet members and even the Prime Minister himself.

Middle-class anger has periodically erupted against this obscenely venal political class that guards its privileges and bonuses. In recent years, it has sometimes even appeared to solidify briefly into mass political rebellions. First, Baba Ramdev, a yoga practitioner, enlisted tens of thousands to his anti-corruption movement. He was followed by Anna Hazare, a quasi-Gandhian activist, who managed to attract an eclectic crowd of celebrities, industrialists, students, and urban yuppies to the cause. Both of these mass demonstrations were widely greeted as the herald of a politically awakened and empowered middle class, but came to little fruition.

In these cases and others, the government tried to suppress the voice of the people, even unleashing the police on Ramdev and his followers’ rallies in New Delhi. It was similarly ruthless with Hazare, exploiting the divisions between the middle and lower classes that are affected by its corruption. For example, a study from the Center for Media Studies showed that the poorest in India face the most acute consequences of corruption as they are forced to pay exorbitant sums for basic amenities such as electricity and clean water, but many in the middle class failed to recognize that corruption affects all but those at the very top. With the middle and lower classes unable to stand united, the protests fell apart. Despite the initial promise of these mass anti-corruption protests, it seems the populace has little to look forward to, apart from the periodic rise and fall of ineffectual agitators such as Hazare and Ramdev.

In addition to growing discontent over economic inequity, mass protests have also mobilized against rape culture in India. A week after the nation’s Independence Day celebrations on August 15 this year, the country was slapped in the face with the news of yet another brutal gang rape of a female photojournalist in Mumbai, India’s financial hub. After the death of the Delhi gang rape victim on December 29, 2012, the people of India, or rather masses of middle and lower class citizens, spent long days protesting the ineffective judicial system, fighting for legal reforms in hopes of deterring sexual predators from repeating such heinous crimes. This time around, the rape almost appeared as a perverse irony of the state of India’s powerlessness, in the country’s most powerful cities. It happened in an abandoned mill in Mahalaxmi—an upscale area lined with skyscrapers and glittering malls, where the India’s richest of the rich reside, juxtaposed with Mumbai’s infamous, squalid slums. In an extra dose of irony, Mahalaxmi is the name of the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Against this setting, a middle class woman who was chasing her aspirations and finding her place in a city and democracy that were supposed to foster the dreams of a diligent working class, was brutally victimized. The very people who drive the growth of the Indian economy, the determined working class, are being targeted again and again, right under the noses of the affluent and privileged.

It is truly lamentable that the head of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, has not personally taken up the cause of acute gender disparity and rape culture in India. For almost 18 years, moves to give women greater power at the national and state level through the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would guarantee 33 percent of seats to women at those levels, have been blocked by legislators, who are typically elderly men who rely on the support of rural communities where deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes continue to persist. Some political parties have even allowed male legislators who themselves have faced rape charges and other crimes against women to represent them, as gender rights activists have consistently pointed out. Time and time again, India’s politicians are turning a deaf ear to the voices of their people.

“I thought we lived in the world’s biggest democracy where our voices counted and meant something. Politicians need to see that we need more than bijli, sadak, paani (power, roads, water),” Preeti Joshi, a 21-year-old social sciences student in Delhi, told Reuters reporters in January 2013.

As the country drowns in a turbulent sea of hopelessness and resentment, the only way to bounce back is to rebuild the democratic ideals from India’s founding, and to empower the urban middle and lower classes of Indian society. In order to incentivize politicians to deliver on their promises to their electorate, the country needs an independent agency that will keep track of the positions, campaign pledges, and eventual delivery during officials’ terms in power. At the deeper core of India’s disillusionment is its class of elected representatives, who act as a hostile, self-interested elite. To combat this political elitism, India needs to change both its political culture and who its politicians are. If India’s youth are more involved long-term in political movements, as they already have been in the anti-corruption and anti-rape campaigns, we can instill a sense of responsibility and activism in future generations. Large-scale education programs must promote democratic engagement among the youth and dispel the traditional notion of the political class being open only to a gang of apathetic, conservative fogies out-of-touch with India’s modern needs as a nation. Women must also be encouraged to enter politics and become instrumental voices in the process of shaping the future of the young girls who are slowly navigating through a male-dominated workforce and education system, and realize their true role in sparking change within their own communities. The only way for the marginalized to hold the government accountable to them is to themselves become a new and more democratic government.

In the same speech that Nehru gave at the dawn of India’s independence, he added, “A moment comes… when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” That time has come.