CHENNAI, India — Now that President Hosni Mubarak has finally relinquished power in Egypt and the military has taken control, the question in India is whether such a people’s revolt can possibly happen there.
The issue has gained enormous significance in the light of how the Egyptian revolution has provoked others in the region, notably Iran, Bahrain, Libya and Morocco, to try to get rid of their own dictatorial regimes. Their aim is democracy — to transfer power to the people. What is a more pertinent point there is corruption. The people are tired of seeing dictators plunder their countries of their wealth.
Corruption is also an extremely pressing problem in today’s India. It has seen in recent years a virtual anarchy in its administration that has even spilled over to its media. The country had two terrible scams recently. During the Commonwealth Games, millions of dollars were taken in kickbacks by corrupt bureaucrats and ministers. Earlier, the allocation of the “2G spectrum” to telecom players also saw huge losses to the state exchequer.
Both financial scandals have shaken the average citizen’s trust in the federal government, which is run by a coalition headed by the Congress party, which once boasted of highly virtuous and upright leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel.
India has a history of financial scams, but it is only now that the media have begun to expose the corrupt, often taking a very bold stand. So, the question then arises, how has India, despite such bad and terribly corrupt governance, been able to keep an Egyptian-style uprising at bay? Here are some facts to ponder.
Although India’s growth (close to 7 percent) has been greater than Egypt’s, Egypt’s per capita monthly income is around $130, about twice that of India.
Yet, Indians may never see a revolution. The military may never rebel. India’s billion-plus people may never take to the streets to topple the government. An important reason for this is the country’s unfailing democracy that has weathered many violent storms and wars.
The democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the police force, have remained intact for all of the 60-odd years of India’s independence. These institutions may be ineffective — or may have been at different times — but they have been extremely tolerant of criticism and opposing voices.
What’s more, India’s political elite come from different classes, castes and religious groups. We have a Muslim heading Kashmir as the chief minister. We have a low-caste Hindu leading Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state and the second-largest state economy in India (after the western Indian state of Maharashtra whose capital is Mumbai, the nation’s financial center). Uttar Pradesh contributes nearly 9 percent of India’s total GDP and, by virtue of its population, sends more representatives to the federal parliament, thus enjoying the power to have a decisive say in the making and unmaking of a government.
As one economist wrote: “This contrasts with a banana republic where the ruling coterie hang together. Every group member knows that together they are like a bunch of bananas; if you break free, you get skinned. By contrast, India is probably a banana-peel republic: its rulers are all over the place, slipping and sliding, from post to post, promise to promise.”
There are other vital differences between India and Egypt. India’s impressive growth rate even in the starkest period of the global economic recession did not admittedly bring about considerable development or significant rise in individual financial status. About 50 percent of Indians still live below the poverty level, going hungry every night.
Yet, there has been remarkable horizontal mobility. Far, far more Indians than Egyptians are looking out and on the move for jobs, and are perfectly willing to travel and set up home hundreds of miles away from where they grew up, places where their parents would never have dreamed of migrating. There may not have been any important vertical mobility, but horizontal movement, indeed a lot.
In fact, India is gigantic pot of migration. Its men and women are always on the move. More than 5 million train tickets are sold every year. Men and women travel to work or go home from work or visit parents in their ancestral villages or towns or cities.
With such horizontal mobility — from a village/town to a city or from a farm to a factory — dreams are fulfilled, ambitions realized. Such mobility reduces frustration so that times do not look as bad they really are.
On the other hand, Egypt is a society where not much horizontal movement has taken place. The country’s rural population has remained a constant 56 percent for many decades, while India’s has diminished from about 80 percent in the 1960s to about 70 percent today.
Millions have left their villages and agriculture and gone to cities and to a relatively more comfortable existence. India’s informal sector absorbs most of those who come from the countryside. Egypt’s informal sector is way behind in this; 31 percent of its workforce is employed in the now stagnating public sector, one cause for the rising joblessness.
India has also afforded wonderful opportunities for self-employment, and some of the poorest regions have seen this happen, thanks to bank loans. Women in particular have benefited from this: They have set up small shops or tailoring units catering to the needs of their own small communities. A steady source of income is ensured. This is missing in Egypt.
Finally, Indians are an enormously tolerant race. They are willing to wait and watch. But a point could come when the thread snaps.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based author and journalist.
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