If you’ve spent the last few weeks riveted to the television, mesmerised as Tunisia tumbled into chaos and then, wonder-struck as the popular uprising in Egypt swells into a revolution, perhaps you’ve asked yourself the question: can something similar happen in India? It’s one I cannot answer satisfactorily yet cannot also set aside.
The received wisdom is that democracy is our safeguard. The theory is that it ventilates grievances created by economic deprivation while ensuring remedies are implemented. But, in practice, does that actually happen? Let’s see.
By one reckoning, 77% of the population lives on Rs 20 a day. Even if that’s disputable, the poverty and deprivation it reveals is not. Now, add the fact that the other third have grown rich and are steadily increasing their wealth. The gap between the two is widening. We are, therefore, a more divided society. Worse, the rich have begun flaunting their lifestyles. Ostentation has become a new virtue.
One simple but revealing example is how we spend on ourselves but refuse to spend on others. We readily pay Rs 5,000 or even Rs 10,000 for a fancy dinner but scream with indignation if a servant earning substantially less asks for a raise. Yet this is someone who’s up at 6 am to serve bed tea and often doesn’t get away till after midnight. He’s the first to be blamed when we can’t find a watch or wallet. And many allow food to rot in the fridge rather than share it with him. Won’t such people keenly feel the injustice of their lives? Will that not lead to resentment and simmering anger? And may this not one day come boiling to the surface?
The truth is there are hundreds of millions in this position. Democracy can only claim to alleviate their lot if it leads to actual change. But does it? No doubt governments are altered but does that affect the prospects of the poor? Their lives remain a struggle. No doubt, for a few, there is improvement. But for many — in fact, the majority — the light remains at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, the tunnel seems to get longer.
Finally, let’s add the element that could ignite this combustible mixture. Sixty-five per cent of the population is under 35. That’s not as overwhelming as it is in the Maghreb but it’s still the dominant proportion. Many may have mobile phones and travel by Shatabdi. But they’re young, impatient and, unlike their parents, won’t accept a snail’s pace of change. If they don’t feel the system gives them a fair opportunity, they could seek to change it. And can a political system riddled with dynasty, caste affiliation and even, at times, religious preference provide a fair, leave aside equal, opportunity?
So, yes, though India is not a dictatorship like Tunisia and Egypt where political parties and freedoms are suppressed, it nonetheless has the deprivation, lack of opportunity and resentments that could fuel popular wrath. The question is, will it?
The answer, that culturally or philosophically India has never done revolution, doesn’t sufficiently preclude the possibility it might one day. After all, we can all reach the end of our tether. Or do you really believe Hindus are different from the rest of the world?
When I watch television, I’m with the protestors in Egypt. But if it happens in India, we could be perceived as part of the throttling establishment. Of course, I hope it won’t. But can any of us be certain?
The views expressed by the author are personal