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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Revolt Against Mubarak: What It Means for India

An improbable feat, an unimaginable feat till it happened, took place in Egypt: immediately after the Friday prayers, hundreds of thousands of people bravely took to the streets in Cairo. Shedding off decades of fear, Egyptians of all ages and religions, driven by the simple desire of bettering their lives, assembled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding an end to the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. This collective demand for driving out a regime, which was considered to be the most entrenched, was peaceful—people did not resort to violence even when provoked by the regime’s thugs. That this locally originated and well-organized peaceful movement, backed by the strong determination of people, could finally drive out the dictatorial regime in just 18 days, that too without any external assistance, it is indeed a rare and incredible display of ‘people power’.

What a transformation for the image of the Arab world! Driven by this newfound courage, young crowds started greeting themselves, “Lift up your head, you are Egyptian.” The ousting of the Mubarak regime by sheer people’s power has sparked an explosion of national pride that was unseen for decades, as could be sensed from the utterances from Tahrir Square: “We were buried, but now we have emerged.” True, under the stultifying leadership of Mubarak, the national psyche had been pummeled as Egypt lost its regional leadership in every sphere—economically, culturally and diplomatically it appeared to have been overtaken by the neighbors.

During the past few years, Egypt had been overpowered by despondency and self-loathing—a country that enjoyed a vibrant Parliamentary tradition earlier,  had turned into a land of tyranny. Mubarak, who initially wanted to rule for two terms, turned out to be a president for lifetime. Over the years, becoming imperious and dismissive, he bent Egypt to his will. As press reports indicate, his highly ambitious wife, Suzanne, with her haughty manners and a strong taste for wealth and power, and his son, who was seen as the one preparing to inherit the reins from his aging father, had further inflamed the discontent of the people.

Aside from this western analysis of Mubarak’s downfall, the real cause for the revolt is: economics. At a time, when the economic reforms have become the darling of the globe and countries like China, Brazil and even Indonesia are bringing more people out of poverty, that too, at a faster rate than human history has ever witnessed, Egypt simply stayed out of it. Under per capita income, it ranked 137 among the world nations—40% of its people live on less than $2 a day, while 44% of its population is illiterate. Its crony inefficiency has been well-known for years. Its GDP growth is confined to around 4-5%. Low wages, rising food prices and high unemployment left the youth—two-thirds of the Egyptians are under 30—in an unending frustration. They felt that they had no future under the Mubarak regime that not only resisted the demand for political opening under the plea that Muslim fundamentalism would overtake the country, but also did not evince interest in economic opening. It is this economic frustration, coupled with their cry for freedom, both economically and politically, that brought the youth of all hues on to the roads defying the authorities.

Egypt’s upheaval certainly has something disturbing for the Indian intelligentsia, albeit subtly. It is a message which no patriotic citizen can afford to ignore. Seen from within, India, on the one hand, is experiencing a debilitating crisis of governance—the present government is facing mounting criticism for not doing anything substantial against growing corruption and inflation and for not undertaking any purposeful structural reforms that could augment the inflow of foreign capital on a sustainable basis—and on the other hand, is facing the challenge of guaranteeing food to one of the largest concentration of poor people in the world. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, argues that singular focus on headline growth numbers makes no sense so long as the condition of the chronic undernourishment that is stunting the growth of half the country’s children is not addressed satisfactorily. So, what matters the most is whether higher growth in economy is changing the lives of the poor, else, the risk of insurgencies arising out of the surrounding inequalities intensifies.

Which is why there is always a fear of revolt against the state if the basic needs of common men are not met, that too, amidst plenty in some quarters of the country. Fortunately, India, unlike Egypt, is a democratic nation. But democracy by itself is not a guarantee against the risk of insurgency, particularly in the light of the already existing Maoist activity across the country. Indeed, such glaring inequality across the nation is a strong incentive for the Maoists to bring more people under their influence. And no one can afford to forget the fact that the wealth of a society matters a lot to the sustainability of democracy.

The moot question is: Can the India of today afford to remain indifferent to these undercurrents? To be honest, the answer is: No! For, the more glaring the economic inequalities are, the more intense would be the political disturbances. It makes great sense to bear in mind that be it democracy or autocracy, it doesn’t make any difference when it comes to the power of people’s self-knowledge. It means, the state has to govern. And it is the responsibility of all the political parties to make the party in power work towards this end. Else, the writing is clear on the wall.

GRK Murty


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