Gangrape victim dead, nation lets out a cry for governance

The young girl raped in a bus in Delhi on Dec. 16 has just died. Many things must have contributed to the explosion of public anger since that dark night. But when distress and disaffection hit such peaks, they are founded chiefly on one thing and one thing alone: absence of governance all around.

bvrao

BV Rao | December 28, 2012




It is instructive how one ghastly incident can expose the absence of governance as starkly as the gangrape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has done.

With the advantage of the distance that time creates between event and emotion (which is sure to rise again with her death this morning), it is safe to now think aloud: in a country that records 66 rapes everyday, why did we erupt over this one gangrape?

Was it the ready availability of platforms for instant expression and amplification of public outrage? If it was, why was it not limited to 144 characters in the ether world where net-savvy young India lives, lurks and works? Why did it pour on to the streets this time?

Was it because it happened in the political capital of the country and we believe that if girls are not safe here, they are not safe anywhere else? Maybe, but we can’t push that logic too far because this is not the first such rape in Delhi and the notion that the rest of the country will be safe for women the day Delhi is safe is absurd, to say the least.

Was it the bestiality of the crime? If it was, are we saying that other rapes are not bestial enough?

Was it the mindless violence associated with it? If it was, are we saying that there is a form of violence on the female body more mindless than rape or that there is a certain well thought-out, deliberated-upon or “mindful” violence that we can comprehend?

There will be dozens of other equally rhetorical questions that beg answers in trying to understand why this rape on December 16 was different from the thousands before it. Many things must have contributed in varying measure to this sudden explosion of public anger but when distress and disaffection hit such peaks, they are founded chiefly on one thing and one thing alone: absence of governance. Not just at the centre, but across all levels of governance in the country.

Rape is a social, cultural, gender, sexual, attitudinal and criminal problem. On the face of it, it is unfair to hold governance accountable for the venality of the individual, community and society at large. But there is a link between governance and the eruption in Delhi which is as fundamental as the link between rape and the primal instincts of the depraved male.

Individuals surrender their rights to families, families to communities and communities to governments. They do this with the specific understanding that their elected leaders will preserve, protect and promote the larger good while ensuring full expression of the individual. This understanding is both written (our constitution) and unwritten (the implicit faith among the people that leaders will stand by the constitution).

Governance thus, is nothing but the exercise of the power and will of the collective—vested in the elected leadership—to punish the individual or a group when they run afoul of the larger good. Decades of abuse of this collective will for personal, political and corporate aggrandisement—and more corrosively, its mala fide non-use to protect and pamper society’s criminals—has brought us to a situation where the sacred contract between the governed and the governing is nearing breakdown across the country.

The outrage and outpouring against the Delhi gangrape is not just about one incident or the security of women in one city. It is a cry of anguish for governance across the country that reaches way beyond the peripheral, even silly, demands for instant justice for the most recent victim. As a senior colleague put it, it indicates a rupture in the relationship between the people and their institutions of governance tasked with protecting the larger good.

Are we saying then that the incumbent government at the centre is unfairly or unfortunately at the receiving end of a societal and governance degradation that has been in ferment for decades? Undeniably, yes, but the UPA—because of its own colossal misgovernance and soul-less response to unprecedented public agitations against allegations of unprecedented corruption and crony capitalism—has made no mean contribution to the sense of ruinous decline of public institutions and probity in public life. But the UPA has only itself to blame for setting up a peculiar double-barrel governance structure that has heightened this perception. For the first time in independent India’s history, an unelected career bureaucrat was carefully picked as the prime minister for being a non-politician so that political power remained in the hands of Sonia Gandhi. Confusion, uncertainty and tentativeness in governance were built into it this dubious arrangement.

It did not end there, of course. A parallel policy intervention structure was created for Sonia Gandhi with the national advisory council (NAC) acting like her own cabinet. For a substantial part of the UPA’s tenure, you could genuinely have entertained doubts as to who was running the government: the NAC (headed by Sonia Gandhi) or the union cabinet (headed by prime minister Manmohan Singh).

The prime minister is the most powerful political office of the country. Once political power is taken out of this office or vested elsewhere, the prime minister is just a chair in South Block. Manmohan Singh has had to look over his shoulder so often in the last eight years that he would have accomplished much if his head were fixed in the other direction.

The much talked about policy paralysis of the Manmohan Singh government was as much because of the fear of taking decisions as it was because of this built-in inability of the prime minister and his cabinet to take decisions without taking directions from a higher force. Examples abound: Manmohan’s hands were tied when A Raja was looting millions in the 2G scam; he watched from the sidelines as Suresh Kalmadi and team were practically running the Commonwealth Games to the ground—and it was only after Sonia Gandhi’s intervention and directions that Manmohan made any effort to take charge of things; the coal scam happened directly under his charge and he did not or could not prevent it; the ISRO spectrum scam was almost pulled off in another ministry under his charge; and the NAC imposed many of its decisions on Manmohan’s cabinet.

The Congress party’s need to locate the political power of the prime minister elsewhere also meant that when Sonia Gandhi was away for medical treatment during the height of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, there was as much anarchy within the government as it accused Anna of creating outside. The same confusion has been in evidence since the night of the gangrape. While it was impossible for anybody to anticipate that this event would trigger such outrage, the government and the Congress party slept through the first seven days even after it became clear that an event of seismological proportions was unfolding; each probably leaving it to the other to respond. This built-in confusion meant that there was neither a political response nor a governance response, just a police response. Typical of this government, because that is exactly how they tried to deal with the Anna and Ramdev protests initially.

The vacuum thus created was quickly filled by hatred for the Delhi police because they were the first and only contact with any governance/administrative machinery. There was no leader tall enough to walk up to the young boys and girls whose emotions were in the right place but their message was all over the place (“Torture the rapists”, “Boil them in oil”, “Give them to me, I’ll shoot them”, or the completely inappropriate and sexist “Manmohan, wear bangles and sit at home”!). There was no minister, including the prime minister, decisive enough to take things into their hands. The government mumbled something about a commission of inquiry, the home minister wanted the nation to be grateful to Sonia Gandhi because she met a small team of protesters at midnight on day six and nobody did anything.

Actually, there was nothing much to do either except to communicate. It was not like the government could come up with an instant solution for a problem as complex as rape. As an editor friend put it chillingly, it is not easy to find a solution when every family in this country has a potential victim and a potential villain. An administrator with political instincts and political power would have used the power of communication to neutralise the anger. To our great misfortune, communication is not the core belief of either the constitutional prime minister or of the power beyond him.  (And when he did communicate, it turned out he was not a good communicator as well!)

The anger was allowed to grow till the point when the protests would breach the borders of peace and put moral pressure on the protestors. But water-cannoning young girls and boys and treating them to the full force of the police baton and tear gas made the anger grow even more. And soon, the government, which need not have been at the butt of this general anger, succeeded in turning the anger towards itself. Then began the frantic efforts to communicate.

Communication is pointless if it is not in time. So, by the time the home secretary, rightly, praised the Delhi police for brilliant work (they did arrest the culprits within 24 hours and that is a job well done), it was past the time for saying even the right things. Having allowed the Delhi police to become the hate figure, it was seen as further proof of the insensitivity of the government to drown them in unalloyed praise. It fuelled the anger further and one blunder followed another till it all culminated in the wooden rendition of a ninety-second address to the nation that ended, quite in the order of things, in another blunder. “Hamara PM weak hai, baki sab theek hai” (our PM is weak, everything else is fine) kind of tweets provided much mirth online but the underlying message was clear: we can’t expect much from a weak prime minister.

A good communicator might not make a good prime minister but there has never been a good prime minister who was a bad communicator. And when that prime minister is pinned down by two political power centres—Sonia and Rahul— that are themselves imperious non-communicators, there is nobody of authority to temper the emotions and moderate the message. There was nobody to tell the protesters, little children all, that the kind of slogans they were shouting out were in themselves part of the problem of brutalisation of society. That society cannot advocate the same kind of violence for which it puts away criminals.

Under the circumstances, the next best was home minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who equated the young protesters with Maoists! He said responsible government leaders don’t walk up to every protest site because it would set a bad precedent and if tomorrow the Maoists were to hold a protest at Vijay Chowk, they would be expected to be entertained as well! If the Maoists got as far as Vijay Chowk, it won’t be to shout slogans and seek an audience with Mr Shinde, but that comment underscores the level of incompetence and the extent of confusion in this government brought upon by its unique model of a bicameral prime ministership. TV channel reporters, who were getting as angry as the protesters and angrier than their bosses on prime-time shows, did not help moderate the message much either.

When you look back there is little that the government did not do. The arrests, the suspensions, the enquiry commission, the fast trial, the address to the nation, they were all there. Except that they all happened at the wrong time and in the wrong sequence and communication is still not a priority.
The governance drift was sought to be bridged by political chicanery. The Delhi police was made into the hate figure to soak up the anger, then a political protest was allowed to turn into a law-and-order situation, the government used the situation to settle political scores with Arvind Kejriwal, Ramdev and V K Singh by accusing them of criminalising the protest. A policeman who seemed to have collapsed to death was sought to be martyred and given a state funeral to rub guilt on to the conscience of the peaceful young protesters. The tricks worked. The sting was taken out of the protests, at least briefly as the protests ebbed.

Unfortunately, the girl has just died in Singapore and the anger is sure to rise again. It can be said with some certainty that the routine condemnations andcondolences will be followed by a quick start to the trial to try and give the unfortunate incident a closure. Once the trial proceeds fast and judgement is delivered in about six to eight weeks, the government will crow about it as its response to national sentiment. It will then carry on in the belief that another popular uprising, another governance crisis, has been successfully navigated.

It will be grievously wrong. This blow-up is the result of accumulated anger from decades of mal-governance across the country. The anger is against how our democracy has constricted the space for the common citizens and closed all doors on them to either make a change or force a change. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and what happened to it is the latest example. Two years after it began the movement is dead. And in spite of the anger and debate it generated, the principal demand of that movement, the Lokpal Act, is still a chimera. Not an inch has been covered in recovering the black money stashed abroad and the whistleblower’s act is in cold storage.

Thus the anger generated by the Anna movement is still unaddressed. Since the catchment area of that movement and the Delhi protests is the same—the urban middle class—it is safe to assume that it is the carry-forward anger from the earlier movement. To interpret the latest protests as being against a ghastly rape alone is to deliberately misread the message and get away by providing a patchwork solution.

This is a cry of anguish for governance that should not be addressed by tweaking the laws against rape alone. That will only mean the anger is carried forward again and will seek another flashpoint.

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