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Thursday, February 17, 2011

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(Published on on 17 February 2011, retrieved from

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It’s hard to believe the citizens who overthrew Hosni Mubarak were actually inspired by the Tunisian Revolution. The men, women and children who assembled in Tahrir Square will go down in history for bringing down a thirty-year-long dictatorship in less than a month. Now, the 82-year-old man who was clinging on to power for as long as he could, has announced through a representative that he wants to die in his resort at Sharm el-Sheikh.

I’ve studied and worked with Egyptians in the past; none of them struck me as particularly unhappy with the way things were going in their country. There were the Mubarak jokes, of course. But they didn’t seem to carry the angst of the Iranians, the fury against a regime that told them what to do and what not to do.

To many analysts, Egypt seemed the most unlikely country in the Arab world to step up and overthrow its government. Mubarak had been around for too long, the people who were being oppressed didn’t have the means to do anything, and the ones who weren’t oppressed didn’t care – or so the world believed.

Yet, the country has taken everyone by surprise. Weeks after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 began, echoes are being heard across the Arab world and the rest of the Middle East – with a country as tiny as Bahrain demanding a change of rule.

Now, let’s move further east, to the largest ‘democracy’ in the world, a nation whose population comprises nearly a quarter of the world’s. Never has a nation that holds elections every five years, with only one period of Emergency in its history, been subject to rule by so many dynasties at so many levels.

There may be as many political parties as there are opinions; but the leadership of each of the major ones – with the possible exception of the BJP, unless you count the RSS family, and Maneka and Son – seems to be hereditary.

At the Centre, the Nehru-Gandhi family has stayed at the forefront of politics, with at least one member playing puppet-master irrespective of who the figurehead is. Take a look at the list of MPs in Parliament, and you’ll find all the “young ones” (which in our country, seems to comprise the 30-50 age group) are the offspring of politicians.

While the First Families of State Politics – the Thackerays in Maharashtra, the Karunanidhi clan in Tamil Nadu, and the Abdullahs and Muftis of Jammu and Kashmir – may not have remained consistently in power, other parties have held a monopoly in states, even without keeping it in the family; take the CPI(M) in West Bengal.

And once these parties and clans come to power, no one seems to be able to keep a check on them. Opponents file criminal cases, and deal with counter-accusations. Every decision taken by the president of the ruling party, both at the State and Central level, is unilaterally passed.

As politicians play Robin Hood and use public funds to serenade those who are believed to be at a disadvantage going by poverty and caste criteria, their band of Merry Men makes a neat little packet. Politicians, who claim to have come from the humble homes they visit in villages, declare bank balances running into tens of crores of rupees (notwithstanding what they’ve got stashed away in secret accounts across the world, and property in the names of their multiple spouses, parents, in-laws and children).

Yes, there are elections. But what with booth-capturing, names missing from the voters’ list, malfunctioning machines and freebies, they’ve become a farce in most states. And even if they were “free and fair”, as the phrase goes, what do you do when you have a choice between the devil and the deep sea?

We can wonder why Egypt could do what so many of us would like to, but haven’t been able to; how the death of a young man like Khaled Said could be a factor in the end of a regime like Hosni Mubarak’s.

A Kashmiri friend of mine says, “The more I understand why Egyptians made it, the clearer it gets to me why Kashmiris haven't. The Egyptians had no ‘leaders’. The Kashmiris have them in plenty.”

That could be extrapolated to the whole of India. We have so many leaders that we automatically look for one even when we want to take them on. We have ‘caste leaders’, ‘party patriarchs’, ‘industry captains’, and even ‘high-profile activists’.

Perhaps change can only come about when everyone is willing to be a leader, and everyone is willing to be a victim; when our opinions and ambitions matter more to us than our safety; when our voices can stop trying to outdo each other, and merge into a chorus instead.


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