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The rampaging elephant

Now the anger is so diffused and so unconstructive that I doubt if it will achieve anything more. So, what went wrong? Why did we suddenly lose our focus and start striking out wildly in all directions? Vir Sanghvi examines...

india Updated: Dec 07, 2008 11:05 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I wrote last week that I had never known such anger in urban India as we have witnessed after the Bombay attacks. Over a week after the attacks ended, the fury has not dissipated. Rather it has spun almost entirely out of control.

I have no problems with anger. It is often the precursor to change. Unless Indians make it clear that they are mad as hell and are not going to take it any longer, the system will never change.

My problem is with misdirected anger. Over the last ten days, the great Indian upper middle class (and especially those who live in South Bombay) has resembled nothing as much as a marauding elephant on a pointless rampage. Anger has overcome reason. The right targets are missed. And genuine grievances are trivialised when vapid Page 3 morons go on television and talk of sending more Indian soldiers to their deaths while they themselves sit back and wait for the re-opening of Wasabi.

Rarely have I heard as much nonsense as has been spouted over the last week. God knows, I was born into the South Bombay elite. The institutions that were attacked mean as much to me as they do to anybody else. (Just see my story on the Taj in today’s Brunch if you don’t believe me.)

<b1>But I’m still appalled by the kind of rubbish that is emerging from the mouths of the Frangipani-Vetro set: don’t pay your taxes; give up on democracy; hand the country over to the army; refuse to vote; carpet-bomb Pakistan; worry about the Indian Muslims in our slums who fly Pakistani flags; hide at home till the anniversary of the Babri Masjid has passed; never question the police and para-drop Raj Thackeray into Pakistan. (Frankly, I have to concede that the last one does have a certain appeal....)

When the attacks began, I applauded the anger. It did make a difference. Nobody ever loses his job in India because of failure. But such was the public rage that three heads promptly rolled: the Union Home Minister, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Deputy Chief Minister.

But now the anger is so diffused and so unconstructive that I doubt if it will achieve anything more. So, what went wrong? Why did we suddenly lose our focus and start striking out wildly in all directions?

My theory is: impotence.

Absolute power, as we know, corrupts. But so does absolute impotence. And the current rage seems directionless and random mainly because it stems from our impotence.

The ‘Do-something-now!’ anger has given way to the hysterical rage that comes out of frustration.

The frustration exists on many levels but the most important one is class. One of the problems with universal franchise is that an educated person has exactly the same one vote as an illiterate. This means that the middle class — visible, articulate symbols of the Indian story — can write articles (like this one) or clog TV channels but we can never ever bring down a government.

We simply do not have the numbers.

Even in big cities such as Bombay, no constituency (not even South Bombay) can be swung by middle class votes. Politicians need the poor to get elected.

You could argue (as I do) that this is a good thing: it makes India a fairer society. But it does mean that the middle class has zero political relevance. It is heartening to see 200 people gather at the Gateway. But Bombay is a city of 13 million. The 200,000 wouldn’t even show up on an electoral map.

It is significant that even as the middle class railed against politicians, voter turn-out reached record levels in such states as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even Delhi. Though the middle class wanted to have nothing more to do with the political system, Indian democracy continued to flourish.

At some subliminal level, we recognise our political irrelevance. When we complain about vote-bank politics, about elections being decided by people in the slums etc. what are we really saying? We are saying that others control India’s political destiny. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

That frustration explains our anger against politicians. It explains why we don’t want to vote. It explains why we want to withhold our taxes. It explains why we regard politicians on par with terrorists: ‘Never mind those who come by boats,’ runs one widely circulated SMS, ‘worry about those come up by votes.’

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Hence the anger of the rampaging elephant: it is an impotent rage.

The other primary cause of our frustration is that we do not know how to avenge the horrors of Bombay. And that accounts for much of the fury.

When the US had to respond after 9/11, it knew where to go. Osama bin Laden was being given shelter by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Americans asked the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. When the Taliban refused, America invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban. Once Kabul fell, America had closure of a sort: 9/11 had been avenged.

But what can we do? The attacks appear to be the work of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. The LeT was set up in connivance with the ISI to foment trouble in Kashmir, and while it may once have had official backing, nobody seriously believes that President Asif Ali Zardari and his party either support it or have any control over it.

However, Pakistan has a more complex power structure than India. The army does not necessarily listen to civilian presidents. The ISI reports to the army but doesn’t necessarily tell the chief everything. And there are vast private armies controlled by retired generals and former ISI officials which have links with the Lakshar.

The most likely explanation for the Bombay attacks is that the Pakistan army and ISI were coming under increasing pressure from the Americans to crack down in Pakistan’s tribal areas where bin Laden and his men are believed to be holed up and needed a diversion. It is not politically expedient for the Pakistani army (or any Pakistan government) to kill Pakistanis in the tribal areas at the behest of Washington or even to hand bin Laden over.

So, the Pakistan Army needed a new front. Already troops have been moved from the border with Afghanistan to the Indian border. The Pakistanis have told the Americans that they cannot proceed quickly with the operation in the tribal areas because of the threat of a retaliatory Indian strike in the wake of the Bombay attacks.

In such a situation, what can New Delhi do?

If we attack Pakistan, we play the Pakistan Army’s game: the Pakistanis know that the world will intervene to stop two nuclear powers from fighting before any serious damage is done to Pakistan. If we destablise Zardari, we hand Pakistan back to the army.

One option is a surgical strike aimed at training camps in Pakistani Kashmir. But this is no more than symbolic. Contrary to the popular image, these camps are not well-equipped military bases. They are makeshift operations run in schools and college buildings over the weekend. Take one out and they’ll just move elsewhere. Plus, we run the risk of killing civilians.

So there is no easy retribution available, no obvious means of revenge and no prospect of closure.

That accounts for another level of impotence. We feel that terrorists have had the audacity to walk into our greatest city and shoot people at will — and we are unable to do anything about it.

The frustration is understandable. There are no quick fixes. But on both scores, there are long-term solutions available and we must work towards them. The problem with our political system is that parties have no mechanism to allow talent to rise through the ranks. So Indian politics is a squalid, corrupt family business. I found it strange that nobody in Bombay made this point. Instead, they listened to young dynasts who appeared on TV to lecture us. Such is our class bias that if politicians speak good English we think they are okay. And politics never changes.

Similarly, the only way to fight terrorism is through covert operations and better intelligence, not through carpet-bombing. Our intelligence agencies are demoralised and faction-ridden. They need more money and better leadership.

Sadly, we are not making any of these points or thinking constructively. We are just flailing about angrily in all directions.

As long as public anger is random and unfocused, nothing will change.

And the terrorists will strike again.