Credibility deficit

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Sandeep Dikshit, Congress MP and son of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, being taken to safety by the police when he went to meet the protesters at India Gate on December 23. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Chief Minsiter Sheila Dikshit at a condolence meeting for the dead girl at Rajghat on January 1. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drew flak for his long silence and late response. Photo: Kamal Narang

Outside the court complex in Delhi on January 3, a protester with a placard that poses a question to political parties. Photo: Manish Swarup

BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. Some of her comments alluding to the victim and girls in general drew sharp criticism. Photo: Kamal Singh

THE vehemence of the popular response, particularly of urban youth, against the December 16 Delhi rape incident was unprecedented, but the sequence of events during the tumultuous December fortnight at its political core signified essentially a nuanced reiteration of certain trends, tendencies and ideologies that have with varying degrees of influence held sway over India’s political firmament at different periods. Of course, violence against women and the broader issue of gender justice were the focal points, specifically with reference to the failure of the government and the political system to take effective measures in this regard. Other pertinent questions were relating to, among other things, corruption in high places and its impact on the denial of justice. In this process, on the question of social and gender justice, the ideological positions of the various political formations also unravelled in bits and pieces.

The central political factor of immediate significance was the affirmation of the growing credibility deficit suffered by the country's mainstream politics, in all its hues. The leading contributor to this deficit was the ruling Congress, with even its topmost leadership, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, contributing significantly to the slide. The manner in which its governments at the Centre and in the National Capital Territory of Delhi mishandled the incident and related events added to its political woes, which have mounted steadily in the past two years on charges of corruption and misgovernance. The mishandling began with the “business as usual” initial reaction to the incident, progressed to the use of force against the protesters, and ended with the lack of transparency in the shifting of the victim to Singapore for “better medical care” and the hurried cremation.

All this evoked so much resentment that even Congress activists and Members of Parliament were compelled to join in the public criticism. The leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, was all sound and fury in its frantic efforts to make political capital out of the ruling party’s mistakes, but some of the positions it articulated only exposed the saffron party’s fundamentally regressive positions on matters relating to women in society. This, in effect, brought down the saffron party’s own credibility on the issue of gender justice.

The trends and tendencies were presented in different ways throughout the fortnight. Corruption in the political leadership and its impact on the administration of justice was a constant refrain. “How much for justice? In rupees or dollars?”, went one slogan. A remark by the Prime Minister, aired accidentally at the end of his address to the nation on television on December 24, was seen as a telling comment on the ruling dispensation’s “business as usual” attitude to the gruesome incident and the developments that followed. “Theek hai?” (is it all right?), he asked the television crew after the recording, and it was not meant to go on air. It was widely interpreted as an expression seeking approval for a performance on television. The fact that his reaction to the December 16 incident came after an inordinate delay also aggravated the negative perceptions.

Inappropriate comments

The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, also found herself at the receiving end for some of her comments. She adopted an overtly emotional tone in all her speeches on the incident, inside and outside Parliament, consistently seeking the death penalty for the perpetrators of the crime of rape. However, some of her observations on the victim and on the plight of women in society evoked widespread condemnation, especially from a large section of the agitating young people. One comment was that even if the rape victim survives, she would be “a living corpse throughout her life”. She went on to add that many girls, especially those who belonged to the middle classes and worked in call centres, were forced to go out at night out of compulsion, out of the hunger in their stomach, because call centres worked only at night. “Does this mean that only middle-class girls who work in call centres are entitled go out after dusk? What does this say about the freedom women should have in society on a par with all other citizens?” asked a group of university students participating in the agitation.

Meenakshi, an activist associated with Jan Chetana, an advocacy group promoting social justice and empowerment, pointed out that Sushma Swaraj’s argument was only a camouflaged version of the conformist, moral policing line of thinking advanced by militant sections of the Sangh Parivar, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. “The comment equating the rape victim to a living corpse and the suggestion that good girls do not go out after dusk fit in with the archaic concept of the ‘Bharatiya nari’, who has to remain within the confines of male-dictated boundaries. Sangh Parivar hooligans have tried to impose this concept of womanhood on young girls across the country to devastating effect. These categorisations also add to the sexist perceptions that ultimately aggravate violence against women,” said Meenakshi.

The net effect of all these reactions was that the leaderships of political parties shied away from providing guidance to the emotionally charged youth. Not many political leaders dared to venture out and meet the agitating youth despite taunts in slogans and placards about their absence. Many slogans targeted the “young” Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, asking him where he was when the youth had gathered in a fight for justice.

When Congress spokesperson Sandeep Dikshit, a Lok Sabha member from East Delhi, went to meet some of the agitators, he was almost manhandled. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit also made a hasty retreat following loud protests from the crowd at Jantar Mantar. Perhaps the only senior political leader who was able to interact constantly with the agitating youngsters was Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Talking to Frontline after interacting with a cross section of the youth who participated in the protests, the political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh said a variety of social frustrations and political disillusionments had contributed to the outrage. “In its spontaneity, it has similarities to the Jayaprakash Naryanan-led movement of the 1970s, but singularly lacks the creative political orientation of that period. Put simply, it does not have the larger corrective potential of the J.P. movement,” he said. He added that even with this galling limitation the outrage had a message for the political class: “It is time to change your attitude to the issue of gender justice and violence against women. Political parties need to look at the issue seriously and come up with concrete measures and programmes, which should lead to a kind of transformation from within.”

However, the track record of the main political parties does not point to a readiness on their part to take concrete measures to address the concerns of women’s safety in public places and gender justice. An evaluation of the election manifestos of major political parties in the last two general elections shows that none of them has thought in terms of specific programmes in these areas. Of course, all of them have recorded their commitment to bring about 33 per cent reservation for women in legislatures.

And many have also resorted to a blame game for this legislation not becoming a reality. Thus, the BJP blames the Congress for its lack of commitment on the proposal and the Congress suggests that forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) have joined hands to block the legislation.

Rajeev Bhargava, political theorist and Director at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, has consistently held that gender justice is at the top of the unfinished business in terms of India’s democratic progress. He is of the view that the political dimensions of the problem reflect the larger societal attitude to it.

Said Bhargava: “As a society, we have gone through a lot of changes, including in terms of empowerment of many marginalised sections. However, our attitude towards women is resistant to change. This is partly to do with the mentality that women should customarily be “available” to those who have acquired power and money. But a deeper problem lies within the family where those who at one level love women members of the family also allow their commodification. They can be bread earners for the family but nothing more. That is why even when we want our girls to work and earn money for the family we do not give them the kind of freedom a man of the same age group enjoys. While measures like reservation for women in legislatures may bring in some improvement, they will not fundamentally alter our attitude to society. Perhaps, if something like women’s reservation had been implemented some four decades ago, there could have been some change.”