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As Indians mourn the death Saturday of a 23-year-old medical student brutally gang raped in a Delhi bus 13 days earlier, one thing is clear: A jumpy government appears terrified of the potential political fallout, and little wonder.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ruling Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi received the young woman’s body—flown by a specially chartered plane to the national capital from Singapore, where she had been taken for treatment and where she died—before daybreak Sunday. By the time many Indians awoke, the body had already been cremated in a hurried private ceremony closed to the media.
The previous day, worried about protests over the student’s death getting out of hand, the government shut down 10 metro stations in the heart of the capital, and mobilized 6,000 baton-wielding policemen and paramilitary forces to keep the peace. Rallies and candlelit vigils across the country passed peacefully, but as of Sunday afternoon public anger showed little sign of subsiding. Delhi remained partially locked down amid sporadic clashes between police and protestors.
The crime has dominated headlines for two weeks, and sparked a national debate about gender that spans everything from titillating Bollywood dances to a marked societal preference for sons over daughters. It has also unleashed a storm of middle-class vituperation against a political class widely seen as hopelessly out of touch with urban India’s aspirations.
Many educated Indians contrast President Barack Obama’s immediate and emotional response to the recent school shooting in Connecticut with what they see as the aloofness of their own elected representatives. Those officials often claim power based on birth rather than ability, are cocooned by privilege from experiencing their people’s problems, and can appear distant from those they serve. Unless India addresses these deficiencies by infusing politics with more merit and less entitlement, middle class protests—whether over crime or corruption—will likely continue to roil the country for the foreseeable future.
“In many ways, the young medical student’s life embodied the aspirations of a fast urbanizing country.” -Sadanand DhumeIn many ways, the young medical student’s life embodied the aspirations of a fast urbanizing country. Her family made the move from the rural hinterland to Delhi to pursue a better life. Her father, who works at Delhi airport, reportedly sold a parcel of ancestral land in his village to pay for his daughter’s education as a physiotherapist. The young woman belonged neither to India’s wealthy chauffeured elite, nor to its faceless impoverished masses.
The student’s story was instantly recognizable to a large swathe of urban India—a middle-class striver forced to rely on public goods such as transport and policing while working to pull herself up by the bootstraps. Had she been rich, she would have been in a private car instead of on the bus where she was assaulted by six men. Had she been poor, she and a male friend, who was also injured in the attack, wouldn’t have been able to afford tickets to “The Life of Pi” at a movie theater, from which they were returning on the bus that night.
The trip to the airport to receive the student’s body shows the government is now alert to the scale of public anger. But in other ways, the ruling party’s muddled—and that’s putting it kindly—response to the attack suggests it doesn’t know how to address public concerns. That’s because leaders really do not understand the kind of India represented by the victim.
Mrs. Gandhi visited the young woman in hospital and met with a small group of protestors, but came under attack for seeming scripted and insincere in her actions. Mr. Singh waited for more than a week after the crime before reading out a canned statement on television. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s fourth-generation prime minister-in-waiting, issued a press release.
Curiously absent has been any discussion on the part of these leaders of what factors might have contributed to this incident. The tragedy in Connecticut has prompted an array of American politicians to weigh in on issues such as gun control and mental health services. Yet politicians in Delhi have been mostly silent on issues such as policing—India has too few cops, and the cops it does have are too prone to corruption—or the reliability and safety of public transport, both of which are obvious places to start if formulating a policy response.
Residents of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities ought to be able to take for granted the same services as residents of major cities in East Asia and the West, from public security to basic garbage removal. Yet their politicians seem mostly unable to provide these services, and perhaps even uninterested in doing so.
Consider Mr. Gandhi, who is laying the groundwork for a prime-ministerial run in the old, rural mold. Since entering politics eight years ago, he has championed tribal rights, ostentatiously spent the night in a member of a formerly “untouchable” caste’s rural hut, and framed India’s development as a contest between rich and rural poor (no prize for guessing whose side he claims to be on).
Until now, this approach to politics has been largely risk-free in India, where winning elections depends on doling out freebies and mobilizing caste coalitions in the rural hinterland. But, as the ongoing protests in Delhi and elsewhere show, the country is at the cusp of change. According to last year’s census, about 377 million Indians, nearly a third of the country’s people, now live in cities. The consulting firm McKinsey says another 250 million people are set to join them over the next 20-odd years.
The protests radiating across urban India are the early signs of an impending political earthquake. Either the country’s politicians will wake up to the reality that they must represent aspiring physiotherapists as much as fatalistic farmers, or they will find themselves buried in the rubble.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
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