Elliot Wilson

Let India 2.0 rise from the ashes of Bombay

Elliot Wilson says that an energetic form of political activism — principally on the internet — is needed in India and there are encouraging signs on Facebook, MySpace and other sites

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Elliot Wilson says that an energetic form of political activism — principally on the internet — is needed in India and there are encouraging signs on Facebook, MySpace and other sites

If there is any good to come out of November’s bloody terror attacks in Bombay, it can be found not on the city’s angry streets, nor in the Lok Sabha, New Delhi’s lethargic lower house, but in a more nebulous place, dismissed by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain but embraced by US President-elect Barack Obama: the internet.

The Bombay bombings have galvanised urban professionals — traditionally the least-motivated bloc of Indian voters — forcing them to come out of the closet and admit to their political apathy just in time for watershed parliamentary elections in the spring.

Millions of city-dwellers are turning to the web, and in particular the interconnected ‘social networking’ sites — Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and so on. In doing so they are asking themselves and the politicians purporting to represent them in parliament some uncomfortable questions. What does democracy mean to them? Does India’s bloated bureaucracy give them the quality of universal suffrage they want and need? And what can they themselves do, on a daily basis, to make things better? Perhaps most surprisingly, in a country long on debaters and short on deciders, some people are actually putting words into action.

Take Anand Sivakumaran, a Bombay-born Bollywood scriptwriter currently producing and directing his first feature film. His Facebook group, ‘I am clean’, founded in the days after the attack, is a call to arms for his apathetic generation: a group happy first to dodge taxes or bribe cops, and only then to complain about the lack of social infrastructure and prevalence of institutional corruption.

With a Gandhian flourish, his Facebook group — which attracted 400 new members in its first 48 hours — asks Indians to act less selfishly and ‘stand up and be an example for the rest of the country’.

‘We’ve all perfected the art of saying that the police aren’t doing their jobs, or the politicians are corrupt,’ says Sivakumaran, ‘But if we see how many things are wrong in India and we do nothing about it, then we can only blame ourselves.’

November’s attacks have forced Indian professionals to open their eyes to what is around them, from the corruption and indolence practised in New Delhi’s parliament to the yawning gulf separating rich from poor everywhere. In Bombay, also the target of devastating terror attacks in 2006 and 1993, when the city’s stock exchange was torn to bits, billionaires, Bollywood movie moguls and well-to-do urban professionals live in secure, gated communities. Chauffeured to work in cars with heavily tinted windows, it is all too easy for them to ignore the urban squalor, elephant-sized potholes, and tiny children living and sleeping on the filthy streets.

In most countries, such social deprivation would ultimately lead to rioting, with the poor rising up to overthrow their indifferent rulers. So far, India has dodged that particular bullet. Unrest has roiled many parts of the countryside, but rioting has so far remained a rural phenomenon, prevented — so far, at least — from spreading to the country’s major cities.

Many upwardly mobile urbanites are, however, beginning to realise that it is time to grasp some nettles. The alarming political indifference here — in contrast to Britain or America, it’s the rural poor that vote in India, not the urban rich — is inherently self-destructive. If they don’t vote, nothing gets done, and the people who run things tend to be those who actually show up.

Such blunted curiosity also allows the country’s leaders to remain sanguine about the almost comically poor state of Indian infrastructure. Parliamentarians regularly announce grandiose plans for road, rail and airport construction, most of which are never finished, let alone started. Thanks to a complicit media, few politicians are ever held accountable for their inaction.

Notes Sivakumaran: ‘The attitude among the wealthy has been, “If the poor are starving in their slums, that’s too bad, it’s not my problem.” It’s gradually hitting people that this is a problem for every one of us. It affects rich people in India if poor, disassociated people living across from your gated community become terrorists or criminals.’ Indians like the Bollywood director are realising they cannot afford to be so narrow-minded in a world where virtually everything is interconnected.

A new urban dynamic would do wonders for the political climate in the world’s most populous democracy as it gears up for elections set to take place no later than May 2009.

Just as Obama’s campaign and ultimate success energised a vast swath of politically incurious Americans, a newly charged bloc of urban Indian voters, working in harmony to promote the country’s best interests, would be powerful indeed. Perhaps it would even force the slothful Lok Sabha to resemble a true debating chamber representing a want-to-be-superpower, and not a vegetable market on a slow Wednesday afternoon.

Although the country has been theoretically democratic since independence from Britain in 1947, it operates a strange, rambling sort of universal suffrage, one where rural voters — many of them illiterate and allowed to vote with their fingerprint — cast their ballot not for a political party but for the ‘leader’ of their own ethnic caste, or even for the politician or middleman who has bought their vote from an employer.

Odder still is the seemingly mindless national quest to vote for a descendent of Jawaharlal Nehru, the respected co-founder of modern India. Nehru’s daughter, grandson and granddaughter-in-law — Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi respectively — have wielded supreme power at some point or other. In time, Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and Sonia, will almost certainly rise to head the powerful Congress party.

Such complicit nepotism — a legacy of a more backward, tribal India — is surely testing the limits of its lifespan. If it does go the way of the dodo, much will surely be down to the efforts of new sociopolitical movements such as ‘Jaago Re!’, a campaign founded in September 2008 by a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation, Janaagraha, and Tata Tea, part of the conglomerate that owns Land Rover and Jaguar.

Hindi for ‘Wake Up!’, Jaago Re calls for all Indians to unite and bring about ‘change that can only happen with active participation through voting, and electing quality leaders’. The campaign does something beautifully simple: it tells people, particularly those in urban centres, who have no idea how to go about voting, how to register for, and cast, their ballot.

It sounds obvious, but few urban Indians know which constituency they live in, let alone which political platform they lean toward. These efforts are paying off. Thanks to Jaago Re, 180,000 Indians signed up to vote between 26 September and 12 December, according to data from Tata Tea. Just under 65,000 of those registrations took place in the fortnight following the attacks, a quarter of them in Bombay alone.

‘We hope that the urban youth will come out to vote because of us,’ says Sushant Dash, head of brands at Tata Tea. ‘We want to get out the vote, and I can only hope that this will help next year’s election become a watershed moment in India’s history.’ If that happens, with last year’s terror attacks finally leading to a political revival among Indian urbanites of all ages, perhaps the country will finally get the quality of leaders that it desperately needs. For all the horror of those late November days, that would be a fitting and glorious legacy indeed.