The spontaneous protests triggered by the gang-rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi constitute yet another signal that India has changed. It will not accept politics as usual, it will not accept committees as a substitute for action, it will not accept promises as a proxy for performance.
This is a patient nation. This is a sensible nation that does not take to the streets just for kicks. This is an apathetic nation that does not easily rally behind important causes.
But as we saw last year with the Lokpal agitation and as we are seeing now with the ongoing agitation for women’s safety on the streets, this is a nation keen to change the past in many ways. This is why the public is out on the streets, and politicians and the state are in hiding.
Our politicians are not getting this. It is not good enough anymore for a Prime Minister to make bland statements of sympathy for the rape victim and appeals for calm. India will not be calmed anymore. India wants to actually see the promised change.
Of course, like every other agitation, this agitation too will not sustain. Everybody has to get back to work, to school, to college, to make ends meet. But the difference is this: the country wants change, and it will get it. The change it wants to see cannot be contained by old, unresponsive power structures anymore.
Like a tide, the public agitation may ebb sometimes, but it will keep coming back. Politicians cannot keep civil society away from wanting to influence governance. Power will have to be shared with the people.
The prime factors triggering these changes are demography, urbanisation, and media explosion – aided by mobilisation through social media in the urban areas.
Some 30 percent of the population is below 15 years of age, and 65 percent is in the working age of 15-65. This means more Indians than ever before have the future ahead of them than ever before.
The country is 32 percent urban, and the annual rise in the urban population is 2.4 percent. If this rate remains constant, the urban population will double in 30 years. If it accelerates, urbanisation will happen even faster. We are going to have 20-30 years of increasing ferment unless we get our governance act together.
Mobilisation is easier in urban areas than rural ones, for social media penetration, mobile telephony, and TV news are force multipliers.
This means an increasing proportion of the population is going to abandon its old concerns – caste, religion, or other forms of narrow identities – in the melting pot called the city. It is already happening, as we saw in the recent Gujarat elections, where the urban areas voted for governance as the BJP managed to convince the young that it can deliver this better than parties focused on freebies and caste.
In 2014, the urban vote will influence more seats than ever. Perhaps as many as 180 seats all over the country.
Smart politicians may have figured this out, but most politicians are still rooted in bankrupt vote-bank thinking.
Most of our political parties are T-Rexes of some sort or the other. Consider a few of them.
The Congress, for one, seems to think it can hold back the wave of urbanisation by extending doles to rural areas through schemes like NREGA, cash transfer, and all kinds of freebies. This can only bankrupt the country. It will not stop the rise in urbanisation.
The revolt against rural politicians trying to rule urban politics is going to be seen in 2014, for all the freebies are paid for not by the rural voter, but the tax-paying urban voter. More wealth is generated in urban areas than elsewhere.
From Congress to BJP to the regional parties, everyone is living in denial of this reality. One should not be surprised if the national parties bite the dust in 2014 by muddled thinking on vote-banks. But it’s not as if regional politicians are any better at reading the signs.
Mayawati is living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks Dalits are going to be permanently tied to her, never mind what she actually delivers. She thinks reserving promotions for Dalits is a vote-winner (when only a few hundred promotions are at stake). Real Dalit welfare depends on faster growth and better spatial distribution of the benefits of that growth.
The first politician who works for Dalit welfare by actually providing growth and jobs will consign Mayawati to the dustbin of history.
Mulayam Singh Yadav believes in vote-banks too. He thinks he has to woo Yadavs and Muslims, the former with real power, and the latter with promises of quotas, but the condition of Muslims in UP remains among the worst in India. Muslims are already experimenting with Muslim parties in various states – from Assam to Andhra to even UP. Mulayam Singh is going to lose his vote bank sooner than he thinks is possible. As we noted before, the Muslim vote bank is about to go bust.
The BJP is the most anachronistic of parties. It has strong state leaders, but no central leadership. The Congress has a feudal central leadership, but is busy making ciphers of its state leaders. One should not be surprised if in 2014, or the next election, the BJP and Congress together fail to reach 272 seats.
In this power vacuum, regional parties are going to call the shots in the future. But even they are not getting it. They, too, are trying to centralise power instead of pushing it lower to the levels at which governance can take place.
India’s problems relate to the fact that solutions depend on federalism, decentralisation of power, and a proper alignment of power and responsibility.
The centre must devolve more power to the states, and states to municipal corporations and districts and villages.
We can’t have power and responsibility divided. If Delhi is a state, why should its policing be done by the home ministry? If Mumbai is to be governed locally, why is the urban development department run by the Chief Minister? And if Mumbai is to be governed sensibly, governance has to move down to the wards.
We can’t have institutions run for the benefit of politicians and the powerful alone. The police can’t protect women, when they are running around politicians for transfers and promotions. Only a professional police force can do its job of protecting the people.
The ongoing protests may be about women’s safety, but India is a land of a million mutinies. To deal successfully with them, our politicians and powers-that-be have to start solving the problems of the people. They can’t remain in hiding forever.