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

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?


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.

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.

But just as every camel has its last straw, every issue has its tipping point, and even every poor Indian will reach the end of his karmic tether.

The climate is already changing in India. With 24-hour cable TV and news channels, people -- literate and non-literate -- now see what others have. Many are beginning to ask, "Why not me?" This divide may be part of what's driving the Naxalite communist insurgency now operating in vast swatches of the country. Even though it's painted as a political or militant movement, its impetus is basically economic. It is largely supported by the poor and disaffected that the government has let down.

Indian farmers, themselves mostly poor, are increasingly agitated. To build a highway to Agra, the government has purchased their farming land for a pittance, but then has resold parts to developers for a hefty profit. This is only the latest of a long list of grievances suffered by farmers whose utter desperation has contributed to thousands of suicides over the past decade.

There are also daily news reports of "servants" attacking their "masters", especially in urban centers. In most cases, the residents are tied up while the housekeeper makes off with the valuables, but in some cases it gets violent. Many of the large houses in and around Delhi have walled compounds and armed security guards. Last year, a lavish wedding in a farmhouse near my home out-did the other many lavish weddings: the groom was presented a helicopter by the bride's father. Last week, my driver, who has to bear the ignominy of driving a cheap Indian vehicle, asked me to verify the price of my neighbour's new Jaguar. "Can a car really cost so much?" he asked incredulously.

As India develops, it must bring along its poor. This has become so obvious that even the Indian government has recognized it and is making the right noises. Recently, the term "inclusive growth" has been conspicuously present in nearly every public communiqué, and the issue is said to be the main focus of the upcoming 12th Five-Year Plan. It's difficult to say whether this is merely lip service, brought on by fear of the Arab Spring and the widely popular protests in Delhi in April, or a long-term impetus for genuine change.

This summer, two things may happen. The blazing temperatures may bring things to a boil. Hoping for just that, there have been calls for another large anti-corruption protest in Delhi on June 4th. Philosopher and politician Joseph Marie de Maistre once said "Every country has the government it deserves." Maybe Indians will decide they deserve something better. Or the scorching heat could sap the energy of the would-be protesters, who may decide to quietly contemplate their karma and simmer until yet another winter of discontent.

In the meantime, the situation at ground level is obvious and growing worse.

My car draws up to another intersection -- CDR Chowk, named after the man who presented the helicopter to his son-in-law. To date, I've seen only traffic here, and lots of it. But today I see two children, perhaps brother and sister. They can't be more than five years old, and yet they seem to be on their own on this busy, unruly street, holding hands and weaving in and out between cars, asking for alms. They are not tall enough to look into my window but I've been tracking their progress. I roll down the glass and hand them each a package of biscuits -- I keep a bunch in the car just for this purpose. When I roll up the window, I notice them motion excitedly behind them. The green light comes on and as my car moves forward, I spot a third little child running to catch up, hand extended.