At what point in our collective history did we lose our capacity for outrage? I am talking of middle class placidity in the face of outright corruption that seems to be piling up faster than the debris in Delhi's national stadiums. Some, like the ongoing Commonwealth Games with new scams unfolding by the hour, will cause raised voices in drawing room conversation. Yet, today's headlines seem destined to becoming tomorrow's footnotes. We lurch from scam to scandal, but life goes on.
Rs 18,000 crores of foodgrain rots after being left out in the open because we don't have the capacity to store it. The government sets up committees. And we in the middle classes agree that it's a criminal waste but do we demand resignations or ask for accountability? We do not.
In Karnataka, we watch the resilient Reddy brothers, Karunakara, Somashekar and Janardhan, manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre moves in an intricate ballet of power and money, wondering (if at all we wonder) when the endgame will unfold. Corporate India's biggest scandal, the Rs 7,000 crore Satyam fraud has not even reached trial stage. Madhu Koda, former Jharkhand CM arrested for alleged money laundering is out on parole making speeches in Parliament. Everywhere it's the same story, different lead character. A Lalit Modi here or a Suresh Kalmadi there; an A. Raja in telecom or MLAs demanding cash for votes in Jharkhand. We watch. But we ask no questions.
Yet it was middle class outrage over the Bofors arms deal that led to electoral defeat for the Congress in 1989. No evidence of financial wrong-doing was ever found but the whiff of impropriety was enough to cause collateral damage to the Congress. In Maharashtra, A.R. Antulay was sent packing for asking for donations to a private trust in exchange for cement quotas.
Today, the middle class seems to have lost its will to shake the system. Where is that rage that could bring down governments and dismiss chief ministers? Is it that we are just overwhelmed by the sheer scale and regularity of scams? Multi-crore swindles reduced to snappy names — fodder scam, urea deal, hawala, match-fixing, Tehelka sting, oil-for-food — hit us with such regularity that they have dulled our response capacity.
The generation that demanded answers 20, 30 years ago wore values of decency, honesty and thrift as badges of pride. We called politicians our public servants, and that is how they behaved. Much before 24x7 television and streaming internet news updates, we were shaken by events whether in far-away Nellie or with under-trials in Bhagalpur. Now, the visual image has lost its ability to shock.
The post-90s liberalisation generation has been lulled into complacency with washing machines and malls full of imported goods. We dream of becoming a superpower but see encounter killings as the expedient thing to do — why should the benefits of a legal system accrue to alleged terrorists and undesirables? The sensex not the torture of undertrials in some backwater is what moves us.
We react only to what directly concerns us, to our immediate environment. Middle class outrage will still bring justice for Jessica Lall but we are unmoved by those killed for ‘honour'.
A suicide at La Martiniere school, Kolkata will cause angry debate, yet last week in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh where was the outrage over the death of 13-year-old Lakshmi, a dalit girl who committed suicide after being forced clean her school's toilets? Why were no tears shed for her?
Outrage is a powerful tool in any democracy. In a fledgling democracy like ours where power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few, it becomes even more important for the middle class to keep the fires of indignation alive. The have-nots are too busy waging a struggle for daily survival. Who will speak for these people? Who will demand accountability of those we elect? Who will stand up and say: enough? A great nation must be known for its moral standards. In India, the one-time custodians of those standards are simply not being vigilant enough.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal.