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In the Bloody Aftermath, India Yearns for Change


Public protests may mark a turning point in attitudes toward the country's sclerotic political leadership

Mumbai - It was supposed to be a quiet candlelight peace march to state government headquarters—the second such procession since the terrorist attack on Bombay ended. But by 6:30 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 3, the march had turned into a spontaneous crowd of thousands, walking quietly with discipline and determination. They wore T-shirts that stated "Enough is Enough" and carried banners saying: "You come to our land and take our lives, but you can never take our spirit"; "The pride of India is bleeding"; and, referring to the scorned political class, "Some criminals come by boat, the others come by vote" and "Beware, politicians ahead." Then, every so often, groups within the massive demonstration would stop and belt out the Indian national anthem. Rash Pal, a reporter from Kashmir who came to cover the Bombay siege, said he'd seen a lot of terrorism over the years, but "I've never seen such a response from the people. It's an eye-opener."

This is Bombay, a city of 16 million that's almost a country by itself. It's the "golden songbird" of India, as author Suketu Mehta describes it; its streets have always been paved with gold. Millions migrate to Bombay because they can somehow make a living—and if they're lucky, they can even make a fortune. My family is one of those migrants: My parents fled to Bombay from Sindh, Pakistan, years after the partition of the two countries in 1947. Bombay gave us all refuge, it gave us jobs, it gave us smarts, glamor, and sophistication. "I'm from Bombay," I still say with a certain sniffy air when asked where I come from. Not from Mumbai—the name change was foisted on the city in 1995 by local politicians for local reasons. To its globally minded citizens, the metropolis will always be Bombay.

Its infrastructure is dilapidated, but Bombay is India's richest city—economically, culturally, intellectually, creatively. It has always been, and still is, India's face to the world. The Taj and Oberoi hotels embody the Bombay that showcases India's potential. The service is superlative, on a par with, and sometimes better than, any other in the world. The newcomer's introduction to India is usually a visit to the historic Taj—either the actual monument, the Mughal Taj Mahal in Agra, or the namesake hotel in Bombay, opposite the Gateway of India, an arch built by the British to commemorate King George V's 1911 visit to his bejeweled empire in the East.

My friend Nidhi Sinha, who was born in Patna, Bihar, but who grew up in the U.S., remembers returning to visit relatives, with a mandatory stopover in Bombay—at the Taj, of course. "We spent hours at the Gateway just looking at the waves and the Taj. You don't have to be from Bombay to understand that; you just have to have been there once to know it," Sinha says. Then she adds: "It's like those terrorists pushed their way right into my home."

That feeling of violation has hit Bombay and those of us who love it. The city has been attacked by terrorists three times since 2003. But each time, Bombaywallas have picked up the torn pieces of their hearts, stitched them back together, and moved on. Marches are common after any trauma, man-made or Lord-made; everyone participates. The shops reopen quickly: The Leopold Café, riddled with bullets on Nov. 26, is already serving customers again. We know the drill well.

This time, though, the peace marches are just one of many initiatives across the city, and we are all repeating the slogan on the T-shirt: Enough is enough. Bombay's businessmen, who move in rarefied physical spaces and who during the boom acquired private jets and yachts—which were anchored in the sea in front of the Taj—are shaken. The Taj and the Oberoi are their watering holes, places where deals are made and alliances forged. Now they are saying, "How can we change things so this doesn't happen again? How do we make our politicians accountable?" The airwaves and newspapers are full of citizens' ire, but for the first time businessmen are joining the debate; never before has the business class taken such an interest in security issues and foreign and public policy.

OLD DIVISIVE POLITICS

It's about time. India's businessmen, not its politicians, have long been the agents of positive change in the country, but they have not launched a national dialogue on the reforms so urgently needed in the public sphere. The hesitation of business created yet another schizophrenia in India: In addition to young, liberalized India being ruled by aging, conservative India and rich India contrasting sharply with poor India, there is also New Corporate India being run by Old Socialist India.

While business was making entrepreneurship a role model for millions of young Indians, the country's politicians continued playing the same, dated, divisive games of caste, religion, and poverty instead of playing up the country's strengths and supporting its institutions. In what will be remembered as India's Marie Antoinette moment, one political leader after another made gaffe after gaffe in the aftermath of the attacks. One brought a film director to the scene of the assault shortly after the terrorists left so the Bollywood biggie could have an authentic view of the damage for a future film. Many thought the episode trivialized the tragedy that had just occurred. Another politician said that attacks like this "happen" in a big town like Bombay. A third complained about the women who wore lipstick during the peace marches, while another shouted down a society queen and leading social commentator on a television show, asking: "Who do you think you are?" (A citizen with rights, responded the People's Diva.)

Most egregious of all, P. Chidambaram, the Finance Minister who was asked to take on the homeland security portfolio, said grouchily that he was "disinclined" to accept because there was much to be done in the finance ministry (he eventually took the job). Three ministers have been forced to resign so far, but still, no one in India's Cabinet has publicly mourned Bombay's losses.

A revolution in attitude is nigh. India's elite—its corporations—may be at the forefront. Indians are yearning for their leadership. So are foreign investors. Those who have visited India and seen its potential aren't fleeing. Ted Hartley, chief executive of RKO Pictures, who was in Bombay the week before the attack and stayed at the Oberoi, said he'd like to "climb on a plane and come back again to pitch in, just to show the terrorists the show can and will go on."

Lists of suggestions are being posted on the Internet on how to rebel, from tax revolts to shifting corporate headquarters out of Bombay to other Indian cities with better governance. Additional ideas include starting a Better India Fund for security infrastructure and running it privately without political input, sealing the coastline, starting policy institutes, getting Bombay to secede from Maharashtra state (where the city is located), creating a chief executive for the city, and going back to calling the metropolis Bombay, not Mumbai.

The last one is my favorite. Mumbai belongs to Maharashtrians. Bombay belongs to all of us.


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