Cracking the cocoon
Why Mumbai anger is not just a knee-jerk reaction
by Dilip Cherian
DEMOCRACY is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage. But clearly our Union Home Minister didn’t quite make the ringmaster. Monkeying around with security did finally take its toll and his head has rolled. “Who will cry when you die?” though is probably the question that must have struck Shivraj Patil as he handed in his resignation, which was accepted with embarrassing alacrity.
The levels of anger and resentment in India’s public reached a crescendo in the aftermath of Mumbai. And it extends across a much broader wave-front than will be appeased by one or two rolling heads.
It is now welling up against the entire mass of politicians. It is perhaps one of the most serious and powerful residues of the dastardly terrorist strike on Mumbai. This syndrome of deep anger is no longer hidden and it will have an explosive impact in the near future. The chances are that this will be dismissed rather lightly by sanguine politicians themselves who are its target.
Some like Jaya Jaitly rubbish this as a knee-jerk reaction triggered by a hysterical media. When politicians complain that TV turns everything into a circus, it should be made clear that the circus was already there and that TV has merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained. But this is an angry public as never before. Dismissing this shrill attack on the entire political class as an attack on democracy is just one more aspect or effect of the cocooning syndrome that seems to inure the leaders from even the thought processes of the very people who have elected them.
And nowhere is this syndrome more evident than in the concept of “VIP security”. This writer’s thesis is that snugly cosseted guardians of democracy develop a diminished ability to fathom the perils that ordinary people face routinely. Those inside the cocoon simply believe that everybody else must be safe too. As innocent people die in streetside markets, railway stations, hospitals and even hotels, they no longer feel secure. Their vulnerability generates hostility to the entire political class.
It is not just about the huge waste of resources. It is about resources that are simply not available to common people for basic security needs. The escalating number of netas who expect, demand and then get entitled to large posse of security details is increasing day by day. Estimates vary but anecdotal evidence suggests that over 400 people are in the top category of security, if you include both politicians and ‘officials-with-entitlements’, requiring over 10,000 security personnel, excluding regular cops diverted for VIP security.
In New Delhi alone, 14,200 policemen are deployed on round-the-clock VIP security duty. Add to this, variations on the theme for numerous Members of Parliament and numberless legislators at the state level and you are talking of tens of thousands of personnel and hundreds of crores of rupees of public money!
This is a staggering figure and none of the publicly available estimates of its cost are reliable at the moment. But what you can rely on is people’s belief that this function of guarding the politicians is, unfortunately, where the vast majority of resources on internal security matters are being diverted.
The signals are all there. The public is angry with the leaders who are playing games with them. The public is annoyed with leaders who are more protected than they are. The public detests the fact that it is they who die like cannon fodder, while leaders arrive mourning with sniffer dogs in attendance. This fatigue is widespread. Imagine the surprise on the face of Kerala Chief Minister Achutha-nandan when he received a public rebuff at the hands of the grieving relatives of a brave commando who died in the call of duty.
It found its echo in the public slap on the face that Narendra Modi received from the wife of Mumbai’s slain Anti-Terror Squad ATS when he attempted to give her a large cash reward. Public anger may have been muted in the case of Raj Thackeray, doing the discourtesy of grieving for the man who had been the victim of his ire just a week ago. But Raj got millions of messages ridiculing his Marathi manoos roadside bullies, who were clearly cringing in the shadows when terror struck their homeland.
Of course, the irony did not escape the millions of people watching this tamasha on television. The country seethed and many more people besides distressed diva Lata Mangeshkar copiously wept right through live broadcasts of the funeral processions. Just as India felt collectively shamed in the manner she was humiliated in full public gaze, the public in turn believed that this was due to the petty games that politicians have played all along, aided by officials whose hands were either tied by their masters, or who were incompetent and had been appointed to sensitive posts on account of their own political connections.
It gets far worse. How could the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra even think of going to the site of the carnage with a massive police protection, TV crews and his actor son (bad and foolish enough!), who came with a favoured film producer in tow? This pathetic display of “disaster tourism” at its vulture-like worst has incensed even those who had previously expressed some restraint in the widespread attacks on politicians as a class.
But it’s not just about security or its ugly display. It’s about the fact that the cocooning soon ensures that leaders are no longer in touch with real people or real issues. If their entire lives in so-called public service are led entirely within the sanitised and increasingly gilded bubbles that they occupy, then it is only natural that the public will resent precisely this aspect of their lives. This is what is happening today.
Within the comfort of the quasi-secrecy that security barriers provide, too many of the so-called leaders are also disconnected completely in economic terms from the people they represent. This creates yet another level of disconnect with reality when it comes to taking crucial decisions. They don’t live the lives of those who elect them. Corruption has ensured that the gilded cage, secured by state-supplied security, is often lavish beyond belief.
Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. National crises of this kind are times when all the demon of diaper changing comes back to haunt them. And the cocoon threatens to crack.