Why the Arab Spring Hasn't Spread to India—but Should

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Democratic but poorly functioning, Indian political culture badly needs a shake-up and a transformation. Will the widening class gap bring about an Indian Summer?

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Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Last summer in Delhi, when a new overpass was built where the massive Outer Ring Road goes over Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, I would see a small family of four taking shelter under the arches. Now that family has grown. There is a community of about 50 people, including more than a dozen children, and their meager belongings. There are two makeshift tents and clotheslines strung across. There are plastic containers of water and a stove. Several women busy themselves tying flowers into small bundles and pointing the children to vehicles that stop at the intersection. The children look into the cars, show the red roses, and plead with the occupants to buy their wares. The more persistent ones tap softly for attention on the closed windows of air-conditioned SUVs. I often wonder what stops them from breaking the glass and shouting "It's not fair!"

Many say that the heady jasmine scent from North Africa will never waft across the Arabian Sea to India. We are already a democracy, in our own inimitable way. We are brimming with employment opportunities. Our rights of free press, free speech, and peaceful dissent help release pressure and avoid greater malcontent. Yes, we have rich and poor, but after all we are, as we romantically like to call ourselves, "a land of contrasts." But that is no longer a compliment; it's a portent.

Protests need not happen only in un-democratic countries. They occur at each G7 Summit. In Greece, and later in Spain, crowds took to the streets to reclaim democracy from failed institutions.

Those failed government institutions, morally corrupt or at least morally inept, certainly exist here as well. Last year alone, the Indian government was implicated in corruption scams that amounted to billions of dollars swindled from the public. Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index ranks India at 87 -- below Serbia, Colombia, and even China. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, ranks 59. Even the families living under the overpass need to pay off the police to allow them to remain there.

India's failed institutions also include those that fail in their role of looking after a large section of the population. Two formal reports have independently estimated the proportion of Indians living below the poverty line as 77 and 50 percent, though the Indian government touts a third report, which found a more palatable 37 percent. But even this figure would put some 420 million Indians in poverty. Other statistics are equally galling. Even among BRICS -- the informal community of developing economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- India lags behind the other nations in, for example, literacy among women and girls in secondary school. The latest Global Hunger Index ranks India as 67 out of 84 countries -- far below neighbors China at number 9, Sri Lanka at 39, Pakistan at 52, and Nepal at 56. UNICEF reports that some 56 percent of Indian adolescent girls are anemic and 42 percent of children under the age of five are underweight. And food prices are rising.

There is a growing disconnect between India's affluent and its poor. One man who has lived in Delhi all his life told me icily that there are no beggars on the streets here. Is he being defensive, or has he just stopped noticing them? An elderly woman complains that servants are no longer what they used to be, i.e., content with their lot. They are demanding time off, asking for raises, and trying to buy a scooter. A well-to-do Indian family of four could easily spend on one dinner at a nice restaurant the equivalent of their housekeeper's monthly wages. A coffee in one of the city's elegant five-star hotels costs the same as one day's wages for the woman digging the ditch just outside in the sun, while her toddler sits bare-bottomed on the pile of rubble.

Just as every camel has its last straw, even every poor Indian will reach the end of his karmic tether

Poverty is not new to India and, strangely, the poor have been long accepting of their fate. Part of this may be due to the Hindu belief in karma. Because the poor have done some dastardly deed in their previous lives, one might conclude, they are stuck with a miserable existence in this one. And those who are wealthy this time around have not only accumulated lots of money, but have obviously stored up lots of good karma as well. In that interpretation, everyone is deserving of what they have.

The Indian poor's apparent willingness to accept neglect at the hands of those in power raises a poignant question that Edward Said asked in a different context: What happens when you are the victim of the victim? Something similar has happened in India. Here, all politicians present themselves as freedom fighters and Gandhians who have suffered long, fought hard for their country, and overthrown the yoke of imperialist rule for the sake of the common man.

Furthermore, in a society where children often follow their parents' line of occupation, the fact that politicians assist their own children into plum political positions is not derided as "heredity democracy," as it might be elsewhere, but seen merely as the natural cycle of life.

Combine all this with a culture that frowns on questioning one's elders (which includes almost all Indian politicians: the Prime Minister is 78 and the finance minister is 75) or one's betters (be that financially or by caste), and you get a situation where those in authority are rarely scrutinized.

And by the way, you may well need that corrupt politician's help one day to get your son, whether deserving or undeserving, that coveted government job or to get approval on the extension, legal or illegal, of your house.

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Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and editor based in India. Her articles have appeared in The International Herald TribuneThe New York TimesThe Christian Science Monitor, and The Wall Street Journal.

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