By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 5, 2008
MUMBAI, Dec. 4 -- In the course of the three-day battle between security commandos and the 10 gunmen who laid siege to Mumbai last week, many Indians found a new villain -- the politician.
Members of India's restive urban middle class have vented their anger and frustration over the attacks by denouncing the entire political class for the failure to protect them. Politicians have been lampooned and abused on the streets and on TV, in newspaper columns, text-message campaigns and blogs, and on the social networking sites Orkut and Facebook.
After a week of simmering fury, things came to a boil Wednesday, when tens of thousands of people marched in Mumbai shouting slogans -- "Throw all politicians into the Arabian Sea!" "Stop voting!" "We want army rule!"
"Politicians have let us down. They have high-security protection for themselves, but they play with our lives," said Heenal Panchal, a 19-year-old commerce student who took part in a protest with her sister. "They are only interested in fighting elections. They play politics with a grave issue like terrorism."
An angry text-message campaign began the day after the gunmen arrived by sea and struck Mumbai. One message read: "For a while we will not forget about those who came by boats. But we must always worry about those who come by votes."
Fueling the anger has been a string of insensitive comments by politicians who failed to read the public mood.
Last Friday, R.R. Patil, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, appeared to dismiss the enormity of the multipronged attack, saying, "Untoward incidents like this do happen in big cities like Mumbai." Patil resigned three days later.
On Monday, a senior leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, took to national television to offer a unique analysis of early protests. "Some women wearing lipstick and powder and men in suits and ties are abusing politicians and have taken to the streets in Mumbai," he said. "They are spreading dissatisfaction against democracy. This is what terrorists are doing in Jammu and Kashmir."
But it was a remark by V.S. Achuthanandan, chief minister of Kerala state, that sparked the greatest outrage. After the grieving father of slain commando Sandeep Unnikrishnan refused to meet with the politician when he visited the family home Monday, Achuthanandan said, "If it had not been Sandeep's house, not even a dog would have glanced their way."
At the protests Wednesday, one participant carried a placard reading: "We prefer a dog to a politician." The chief minister apologized the same day after condemnation by his party boss. "I am sad that Sandeep's family was hurt by my remark," he said, adding, "The media and the opposition parties have twisted my statement."
"The pot of anger has been filling up for a long time, but the Mumbai attack is the flash point that broke the pot," said Sanjay Nirupam, a spokesman for the ruling Congress party in Mumbai. Nirupam holds two-hour sessions daily on his Facebook site addressing the issue of public contempt for politicians.
In an advisory Thursday, the Indian government moved to contain the angry outpourings and directed TV channels to stop showing "gory scenes" from the attacks and instead "project that India is not demoralized."
Much of the inspiration for the angry candlelight protests in cities across India is drawn from a 2006 blockbuster Hindi movie called "Rang De Basanti," which tells a story of urban Indian youths nurturing profound anger toward politicians. Many of the Mumbai marchers sang songs and imitated the protest tactics from the movie.
"People have been stirred deep by the events. The anger toward terrorism has grown into anger toward politicians," said Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra, who directed "Rang De Basanti." "I hope the next step is introspection on how to strengthen and improve the democratic system."
"Let's put it right this time," Mehra added. "All this anger should not be allowed to go to waste."