Outrage Over Mumbai Changes India's Politics

When Adlai Stevenson remarked that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve, he could have been talking about India. This country's middle class is reknowned for its apathy at the polls. By ceding the electoral process to the uneducated, poverty-stricken masses, they have allowed opportunistic politicians—many of whom face criminal charges—to thrive by encouraging riots and distributing booze. The crisis in Mumbai may have jolted middle-class voters out of their torpor. As Condoleezza Rice made a lightning trip to the subcontinent this week to keep tensions between India and Pakistan from spiraling out of control, thousands of middle-class Indians in Mumbai, Delhi and other major Indian cities took to the streets to protest against India's politicians, regardless of the party they belong to or whether they were in or out of power. The movement was spontaneous and amorphous, but the anger was palpable. Milind Deora, who at 32 years old is among the youngest members of the Indian Parliament, was the only politician who dared show his face among the throng. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf about how the middle class anger against politicians—which included calls to vote "none of the above" in the next election and to stop paying taxes—could become a real force for change. Excerpts:

Newsweek: What do you think about the protests in Mumbai and other Indian cities against the country's politicians?
Milind Deora: In Mumbai, at least, it was a welcome step to see India's urban middle class out on the street protesting and demanding accountability from the government. I, too, took part in the protests at the Gateway of India. I went there as someone who has lived in the city, who was born in the city, and not as a member of Parliament or a politician. I think that anger and frustration and perhaps that feeling of being violated and let down by the government is definitely justified. But there has to be some solutions in place, and people have to be much more constructive. The kind of messages going around, which were all politicians are bad, and governments are bad, won't do anything to help the situation. If this is not channeled in the right way, we'll lose an opportunity.

Did the people there perceive you as the enemy, because you are a politician, or were you spared because of your youth?
There were some people who were saying, "You are a politician, and you guys have failed us." There was this anti-politician rage, for sure. But the majority of people were happy to see me. They were shaking my hand and saying, "Milind, get us out of this."

At some level, there are many things that only the government can do, and the government, by nature is made up of politicians. How do you think the protesters can take their enthusiasm for action and make it matter?
The solution is to have more powers given to local governances; a devolution of powers from the state government to Mumbai. This is an opportune moment to demand that. If there's one thing that people should demand of the government, it's that, because tomorrow this anger could be about a collapse in terms of civic infrastructure, not a terrorist attack necessarily. We need to fix the governance system and use this as an opportunity to do that.

Some politicians tried to use the attacks to gain political mileage, but they were greeted with disgust by the people. Is it possible that a politician who focuses on these administrative issues you're talking about could capitalize on this anger?
I think they could, and I'm trying to do that. But it is unfortunate. If people were disgusted by [the blatant political opportunism] then they should give these politicians and their parties a befitting reply in elections. The sad thing is, I think that once this is over and the dust settles, not only will politicians get back to their politics, but so will the electorate.

The kind of action that needs to be taken to improve security is complex, so it's difficult to sell as an election platform. Has there been talk about how to boil these complex reforms down into a campaign message?
Right now the focus is not on our communications strategy. Right now the aim is to focus on what the government is trying to do—to overhaul the entire system. The political communication part of this will come much, much later.

Your party, the Congress, sacked the home minister, as well as the chief minister and deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. Does that kind of action send a message that politicians will be held accountable, or is it just a game of musical chairs?
I think that removing chief ministers and home ministers who failed to reassure the people and failed to lead from the front can help. But 90 percent of the difference will come from re-looking at the security establishment, and that means much more than just the home minister. That means the entire bureaucracy, the intelligence agencies, the policing capability, all of that needs to be looked at and realigned.

Were you encouraged that this protest was directed at all politicians, rather than the ruling Congress party?
I didn't go there and think of it as what is the political mileage for the Congress and what is the political mileage for me. I still haven't got down to thinking of it in that sense. Even if I had not been an MP, I would have been there. I felt it was my duty to be there and show solidarity with what is happening. For me it was encouraging to see the middle class out on the street protesting, but it was also saddening to see their blind rage against politicians and the government.