Amidst our obsession with the gladiatorial standoff between the prime-ministerial hopefuls of the two leading political parties in India, the events in Bulgaria last month went largely unnoticed in the country. They did not even catch the fancy of the more eclectic twitterati, let alone mainstream media. That’s quite a pity, because they could serve as food for thought for the political class in India, on either side of the political divide. That is, if their thoughts ever feel hunger pangs.
The people of Bulgaria, fed up of a weak, corrupt and apathetic government, took to the streets to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation. Seven weeks of continuous protests failed to move the government, the PM refusing to resign. Frustrated and exasperated, thousands of protestors surrounded the parliament, with a sizeable number of MPs and journalists trapped inside. There ensued a prolonged standoff, with the peaceful protests turning violent when the police attempted to break through the barricades and evacuate the parliamentarians.
The ignition point triggering the protests was the appointment of a media mogul as the head of the national security agency, but people’s resentment stemmed from “a government dominated by murky business interests” and “private interests controlling state institutions”. The government remained insensitive to people’s sentiments even as protests were on – the parliament “voted in the first draft of a highly contentious budget deal, which sanctioned the emission of one billion BGN in debt, ostensibly to boost social welfare policies.” Sounds familiar?
People in India have also been increasingly vociferous about their dissatisfaction with the way the country is being governed – or rather, to be precise, the lack of governance. We witnessed the spontaneous outpouring of rage as an aftermath to the horrendous Delhi gang-rape in December. The protestors were ordinary people, probably out on the streets to make their voices heard for the first time. And while the barbaric rape and subsequent death of the young girl became the rallying point, it was actually the deep seated anger and resentment with the political class in general and the government in particular, that was behind the swelling ranks of protestors. The remarkable feature of the fortnight long protests was the complete absence of any leadership or political direction. The few times some politicians tried to cash in on the popular sentiment they were promptly put in their place by the resolute protestors.
The protests died down following the typical assurances by the government, and people returned to their troubled lives. A commission was appointed and submitted its report in record time. Trial of the accused in the case that sparked protests started, and continues. As do rapes in Delhi and elsewhere in the country – with regular frequency and increasing barbarity. The government gets increasingly apathetic and arrogant in its attitude towards the plight of the common citizens – be it the safety of women or the back breaking rise in prices. Scams and scandals continue to break, each more brazen and with a bigger price tag to the taxpayer than the previous. And in the midst of all this, Indian politicians continue to insult people’s intelligence with platitudes, jargon and rhetoric.
It is interesting that whether it is India or Bulgaria, or for that matter Egypt, the people are getting more vociferous and reactionary in demanding their dues from their elected representatives. Conversely, the representatives also uniformly remain apathetic and insensitive to their demands, leading to the street protests across continents.
The big disconnect between the government and the governed probably gives the former a false sense of security and insularity. Modus operandi of the Indian politicians has long been to use caste, religion, pseudo secularism and regionalism as an opiatic substitute to governance – to law and order, infrastructure, creation of jobs and similar functions that people expect in return of their franchise and taxes. And, like parents of the yore, they believe that people should be seen (in election rallies only), and not heard (ever). And like it often happens with lies and yarns, they seem to have started believing firmly in their own. The absolute disconnectedness from reality was displayed by stalwarts and spokesmen of some parties when they spoke about the availability of cheap food in various parts of the country.
The people’s frustration rises from the double whammy of the fact that the alternatives to the corrupt and inefficient government don’t inspire too much confidence either. The institutions such as the law enforcement and investigative agencies have been effectively neutered or selectively empowered to act in accordance with political expediency of their masters. Whenever there are attempts by any external agency to enforce a degree of probity or accountability in them, the political class as a whole closes ranks. When the Chief Information Commissioner ruled that political parties are under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, there was near political consensus against this and the cabinet approved an amendment to the act to prevent this. When the Supreme Court ruled that criminals in jails cannot fight elections, an all party meeting promptly ‘expressed concern’ over judicial overreach. It is ominous that the latest move to tinker with judicial appointments has engendered uncharacteristic bonhomie between bitter opponents across political lines. And the graphic below shows why – criminalization cuts across party lines.
So, if the government is corrupt and inefficient; the opposition opportunistic, weak and probably also corrupt; the legal system being willfully rendered ineffective – what recourse do the people have? The global trend of popular street protests, with Bulgaria as its latest focus, is an indication that the citizens of 21st century are not content with waiting for the next elections to express their dissatisfaction through the ballot. The politicians must wake up and smell the coffee or disregard the warning signs at their own peril, as their insularity is no longer a given.