The Mumbai attacks hit India's rich the hardest. They may now take democracy more seriouslyby James Crabtree / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Elegant apartment blocks stand tall above the gardens of Malabar Hill, the most exclusive district in south Mumbai. The area juts out on the far side of a bay, like the thumb of a hand stretching for the sea, as if trying to keep at arm’s length from the body behind. Property prices here rival downtown Manhattan. When the smog isn’t too thick, residents can gaze east across Back Bay, to see the city’s seething downtown fingertip. Few places would have given a better view of the smoke rising from the Trident Oberoi and the Taj hotels.
The attacks that began on 26th November, in which 188 died, shocked India. But unlike the events of 11th September 2001—to which they have been too readily compared—this was not shock springing from the unexpected. India is used to violence. The same group behind this devastation, Lashkar-e-Toiba, bombed Delhi in 2005. The next year, 209 Mumbaikers died when seven explosions ripped through their commuter rail system.
True, the latest attacks were more public and prolonged. The sieges, shoot-outs and hostages shinning down drainpipes had a cinematic quality suited to the home of Bollywood. But the novelty came in the choice of victims. Tragedy in India usually hits the poor, whether bombings, riots or the simple brutality of everyday life. This time, the gunmen attacked India’s prosperous new elite, many of whom died on the floors of the Taj hotel.
In choosing Mumbai, the Islamist radicals picked the icon of “India rising”—a subcontinental derivative of the American dream. This new national myth tells of a country escaping autarchy and socialism to become Asia’s superpower-in-waiting. Its proponents think India will soon outstrip China, powered by the English language, brainy PhDs and hi-tech knowhow. One day it might. But November’s attacks revealed many holes in this tale of hope. They also dredged up deep-seated insecurity among the elite that India’s recent rise could be all too easily reversed.
The course of the attacks revealed how thin this veneer of confidence can be. At first, crowds gathered outside the burning hotels, to cheer and backslap exhausted commandos, while wedding marches continued, pointedly, in the streets. For the 60-hour siege, the city pulled together. But this solidarity petered out before the last gunman was mopped up. Media focus turned quickly to poorly-equipped police with rusty Lee Enfield rifles and plastic helmets taking on terrorists with high velocity assault rifles. Suddenly, everyone noticed that crack commandos had turned up to save the Taj in fleets of clapped-out school buses. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, leading the elite NSG troops, first failed to establish a perimeter, and was then shot and killed on the street while directing his men. Operation “black tornado” had the air of the keystone cops. Anger, and a sense of shame, began to focus on India’s state for letting the crisis drag on.
In truth, the government’s story of national renaissance has always been part myth. Impressive growth and a vibrant democracy can’t hide an economy hobbled by endemic corruption, and a business sector that, outside the golden high-tech services sector, remains absurdly shackled in red tape. The country’s infrastructure, as economist Meghnad Desai has argued (Prospect, January 2007), is a shambles: “When you go to China you see new airports and the Shanghai maglev. In India, the airports are slums.” Mumbai’s eye-watering property prices, meanwhile, are largely explained by silly regulations that discourage construction and building repair, degrading housing stock while pumping up prices.
In darker moments, the elite fret that this less-than-shiny edifice may soon crash to earth. Their insecurity stems from there being, relatively speaking, so few of them. “India rising” popularisers talk up a bulging social mid-section, while management consultants McKinsey predict that India’s middle class will outnumber the entire EU by 2025. But today, official figures suggest only about 60m qualify. That’s a middle class of only 5 per cent—about the same fraction who speak English—compared to around half of Americans.
Beneath this tiny peak of privilege sits more poverty than in all of Africa. Dharavi, central Mumbai’s epic slum, houses about a million souls, piled up in an area barely bigger than Regent’s Park. But Mumbai’s 12m slum dwellers are the lower working class. The truly poor, including half a million homeless, make do in doorsteps and awnings.
Given such extreme inequalities, it’s easy to see why a pampered and isolated elite could fear the “mob” and fret about the possibility of social collapse. There are historical parallels. Mob violence was common in 18th century England, stirred up by disputes over wages, minorities, taxes or wartime embarrassments. London’s elite cowered in their drawing rooms during the 1780 “Gordon riots,” as prisons were burnt, aristocratic homes ransacked and both the Bank of England and the House of Commons assaulted. Parliament didn’t fall. But the upper strata found the experience psychologically bruising.
Can the same be true of modern India? Tempting, but no. Georgian London was a village compared to modern Mumbai, with 25m fewer residents. During the 1970s India’s seething mass came close to engulfing its fortunate few. But while rural Marxists and Nepalese Maoists do cause social unrest, few think outright revolution is likely in cities like Mumbai.
The most striking difference is political. In old Europe the elites controlled the state; they feared the mob might kick them out. In India the poor have already taken over; they are its active citizens, voting in vast numbers. The old elite have long been disengaged. Malabar hill is said to have India’s lowest voting rate, instead putting its energies into the “traditional” influence of clubs, contacts and palm-greasing. But the new elite, the wealthy urbanites living in places like Bandra, a trendy Mumbai suburb, are just as apathetic. Liz Mermin, director of Shot in Bombay, a film about Bollywood, told me that while “they all feel the country is in big trouble, not a single one of the smart, argumentative media types I hung out with bothered to vote. The only person I met who did was my friend’s maid.” India’s old elite chose bridge over the ballot. But its new generation think politics contemptible too.
In the west, bourgeois life preceded democracy. In India, democracy predates the middle class; the source of endemic elite apathy. And this is why discontented post-attack rumblings among the Bandra brigade matter. Their beef wasn’t with Muslims, or Pakistan. India itself was to blame, especially its dithering political leaders. Scandalised emails, texts, and Facebook groups, fanned by “enough is enough” headlines, hinted that a minor political awakening was possible.
India’s elite has long seen itself as a cosmopolitan island, fused to globalisation but apart from its nation. But, having come under attack, the rich may have cause to think again. Their nation’s rise will surely stall if its brightest and best remain estranged from government; the state needs their help, not their scorn. Perhaps a new sense of national responsibility will rise amidst the shambles and carnage of Mumbai. India’s wealthy, at least, have realised that they are not untouchable.