July 26, 2013

India looks back in anger

India looks back in anger

By Shashi Shekhar on July 26, 2013

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, speaking recently in his Lok Sabha Constituency, remarked that there was “anger” across the country. It appears that the Congress general secretary has started to feel the heat of the political reality staring his party in the face. A week-long television show on CNN-IBN presented the results of an electoral survey conducted by a Delhi-based NGO. The findings of that survey reveal the BJP to be on an upswing in Uttar Pradesh and other key States while the Congress struggles in its strongholds like Andhra Pradesh. Perhaps, in a reflection on how hot the “anger” that Rahul Gandhi is perceiving is, the Congress also went into an overdrive on the issue of Telangana. At the time of the writing of this column, it appeared that a decision may be imminent, but given the track record of the Congress on this issue, this writer is not holding his breath.

In a very perceptive remark made on social media a few weeks back, Sidin Vadukut of the Mint wondered aloud if “Anger” was the one issue that would define the next election.

In many ways, Sidin Vadukut may be right. A defining moment earlier in the week was the incident at a restaurant in Mumbai. Mumbai Mid Day had an elaborate series of reports on the innovative and funny manner in which Aditi Restaurant in Mumbai had chosen to express its anger over the Congress-led UPA Government’s economic policies. With a pithy comment printed at the bottom of every sales receipt, this vegetarian restaurant in Parel, Mumbai, chose to remind every one of its customers of the steep price both it — the restaurant — and they — the customers — were paying on account of the UPA’s mismanagement of the Indian economy.

It is interesting how that sales receipt from Aditi Restaurant has now gone on to become an iconic image of the power of social media in shaping the political discourse in India.

While the image had been doing the rounds in Social Media for a couple of days it was not until Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP Campaign Committee Chairman Narendra Modi intervened that it went really viral across both social and mainstream media. The trigger for Modi’s intervention was the report in the Mumbai Mid Day on how alleged workers of the Youth Congress had forcibly shut down Aditi Restaurant in reaction to the protest through sales receipts. The Mumbai Mid Day also had a conversation with the owner of the Restaurant who put the reasons for his protest into perspective.

“Because of the government including all AC eateries in its purview for paying service tax, I suffered losses and I had to shut down the AC section of my restaurant altogether”
“ I had thought of this idea when the law enforcing service tax at all AC restaurants came out. I had wanted to do it since a long time and I did it.”
This innovative protest by a small businessman over the tyranny of an irrational tax imposed by the UPA marks perhaps how the contours of political debate in India are fast shifting from the traditional template of vote-banks and entitlements to the new template rooted in hopes and aspirations of the ‘Neo Middle-Class’.

Following Narendra Modi’s intervention, the sales receipt from Aditi Restaurant went truly viral with thousands of Twitter and Facebook conversations and many hours of television reporting on it. The image of that sales receipt has since found its way to major newspapers like Times of India and the Indian Express apart from television channels like ABP News, Headlines Today and Aaj Tak giving it significant coverage. It was also illuminating that few of the other television channels that belatedly got into the game to report on this story did so only to provide cover to the Congress by beginning their coverage with a clarification from the Mumbai Youth Congress.

The real impact of the spark of protest by Aditi Restaurant in Mumbai can be best appreciated by going beyond the twin echo chambers of social media and mainstream media. In neighbouring Gujarat, prominent business associations have announced plans to do an ‘Aditi’ in their own neighbourhoods by including on their menus dishes named after the many scams and scandals the country has witnessed during the UPA regime of Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.

What started as a solo token protest over the irrational provisions of the service tax is now on the verge of becoming a wildfire fueled by the latent anger against the UPA’s abject mismanagement of the Indian economy. That iconic sales receipt today has captured both the angry sentiment of the Indian citizen and the hopes and aspirations of the ‘Neo Middle-Class to exemplify what the debate for the next Lok Sabha election will be about.

It is a shame that the Congress led UPA has not learned any lessons from the viral response to the protest by Aditi Restaurant even as its Youth Wing persists with its harassment of this small business through the filing of a police complaint. By giving voice to the angst of this small businessman, Social Media has created a defining moment in the run up to the next Lok Sabha in what perhaps may be described as India’s very own Boston Tea Party moment. Narendra Modi’s intervention gave it a steroid boost.

With the wildfire from the spark in Aditi Restaurant now spreading to other States it will take much more than Anger Management by the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress to shore up its prospects in the upcoming elections.

No comments: