There is something to it when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is forced to change the venue of his meeting with the visiting Russian President, Vladimir Putin, from Hyderabad House to his own 7 Race Course Road residence. It means the streets which the agitating women have been saying are unsafe for them had suddenly become unsafe for the prime minister.
Spilling over to India Gate, the faceless and leaderless crowd has managed to shut down the very heart of the Lutyen’s Delhi, the nerve centre of Indian governance and politics.
There is a lot more to it than symbolism. For, after the gruesome rape of a 23-year-old medical student in a moving bus, the state has been left stuttering, lurching, issuing assurances that have not homed in on the angry mass of youth yet. If what has been said was sincere, it has not registered on them.
In fact, the government does not even know whom to speak to among the angry lot. It has only managed to speak convincingly to Tejinder Khanna, Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, to return from his vacation so he could guide the police in managing the unprecedented crisis the capital.
Adding to the embarrassment of seeing the folks who want safer public spaces march right up to the Rashtrapati Bhawan is the embarrassment of having to shift the location of the Singh-Putin confabulations. To Putin, this need not necessarily mean a loss of face; he too has faced public anger during his election which helped him switch from being prime minister to president.
Nevertheless, it is a big blow indeed.
Such facelessness and amorphousness of the angry is no doubt the biggest challenge to a dysfunctional government. It has been left bleating its protestations that it means business when dealing with crimes against women. That also precludes the agitators from carrying out a dialogue beyond street protests.
An assortment of students and youth can be taken to meet Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi giving an illusion of a dialogue but how does the group convinces the peers that they have credible assurances? The two Gandhis do not represent credible leadership, though perhaps that is all we are destined to get in the short run at least.
Even when Manmohan Singh addressed the nation with the reference to his being a father of daughters, the body language was a giveaway. He looked at his script in hand, not the people in the eye when television cameras carried him to people’s homes. Relentless attack on the basis of principles can cow down even the powerful.
Having said that, the spontaneous outpouring of outrage has its purpose in the contemporary people-authorities stand-off on genuine demands such as corruption-free governance, crime-free streets and much more which have been long denied. The content of the young crowd is itself a statement; they cannot take anything that is mere words.
Absence of politicians, who are as of now only on the sidelines, mouthing statements, is an indicator of the level of lack of confidence in what constitutes the establishment – the ruling elite comprising both the politicians and the officialdom, the opposition ranks. If they enter the scene, which they certainly will sooner than later, things would take predictable lines: stalled Parliament and slanging matches on television taking us nowhere.
This unfolding of the crisis and the upper hand of the mostly young people who may either have not yet voted or may have voted perhaps once, may yet be a new chapter in Indian democracy.
The leaders’ gambit of citing that they too “have daughters of our own” “so they understand the demand” while addressing the issues raised by the agitators has not gone home either. If that were a yardstick, why was it that crimes against women were on the rise and why conviction rates low, and why the victims suffered and perpetrators roamed free on bail in an excruciatingly slow criminal justice system?
To know what neglect, poor probe, slow prosecution and late justice – which is what women now want eliminated to secure return to respect, read this gut-wrenching story on the AFP network. Citing the example of Sonali Mukherjee of Delhi who had acid thrown on her face, it says, “Even after 22 subsequent surgical procedures, she remains blind and partially deaf. No one has ever been convicted of the attack” yet.
The amorphous nature of the crowds at India Gate, which ultimately was forced to shift to Jantar Mantar, is both the strength and weakness of the spontaneous campaign. It broadcasts the premise that people cannot rise in anger all by themselves was utterly wrong, and it questions the belief that solutions, half-hearted at that, solution are possible only when brokered by politicians.
The young men and women of Delhi have sent out a strong message to the politicians: people count. It is immensely gratifying.