Letter From India: Young, Wired—But Not in an Egyptian Mood

Letter From India: Young, Wired—But Not in an Egyptian Mood

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KOLKATA—Facebook might just be the new Gandhi. Barack Obama reached back into history to compare Egypt’s revolution to Gandhi’s great nonviolent struggle against the British Empire. But in Gandhi’s homeland, the bespectacled bald man in a loincloth is just a ghost of revolutions past. In India, where everyone seems to have a cell phone and thousands spend hours cyber-chatting in hole-in-the-wall Internet cafes, revolution watchers are looking to Facebook for Egypt’s lessons for India’s fractious democracy.

“If social media helped liberate Egypt, Egypt could trigger the liberation of social media from its American origins,” writes Swapan Dasgupta in The Times of India. Dasgupta says the U.S. always touted every Chinese or Iranian tirade against Google and Facebook as a triumph of U.S. soft power. Now the social network has actually helped unseat a dictator, ironically one that was propped up by Washington for decades.

“Revolt of Egypt’s networking babalog” reads the headline of Dasgupta’s column.

“Babalog” is India’s terms for the pampered sons and daughters of the elite, the children of privilege and entitlement, who grew up with nannies and chauffeurs. While admitting that Egypt’s revolution was not just about the social-networked well-educated middle class, Dasgupta marvels that the sons and daughters of the Establishment also showed up in Tahrir Square. “The Egyptian revolution is also a babalog revolt against the lack of personal and creative freedom,” Dasgupta writes.

In India, the babalog are not as restless as in Egypt. There’s plenty of personal and creative freedom, and India, unlike Egypt, is a democracy. Mostly. In the gunfire-scarred valleys of Kashmir, where the state has come down hard on dissidents, politicians are looking at Egypt for inspiration. The People’s Democratic Party is kicking off a campaign for peaceful change on February 14 demanding self-rule and developing Kashmir as a free-trade zone. “Some events have global impact,” says PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti. “Egypt shows peaceful protests can lead to positive change.”

No one really expects India to become caught up in the domino effect unleashed by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Sankarshan Thakur, who reported from Cairo for the Kolkata daily, The Telegraph, admitted that he mistook the revolution for just another demonstration that would peter away as had happened many times in India. In the late 1980s, protesters (more than in Cairo) had camped out on the lawns of India’s capital, but their leader eventually struck a deal with the powers that be. A “Total Revolution” had toppled the iron-fisted Indira Gandhi in the 1970s but then collapsed in infighting.

But writing in the Hindustan Times, Karan Thapar warns that the widening economic disparity in India could lead to a real revolution. Reader Tanya Sudan agrees. “As our democracy is tarnished by endless scams, the patience of the 77 percent of the Indian population surviving on 20 rupees (about 50 cents) a day is bound to run out,” writes Sudan in a letter to the Hindustan Times. “The fact that our youth is increasingly drawn towards Maoist ideology is an example of their losing faith in democratic institutions. This is a revolt in itself,” agrees another reader, Rakesh Sherawat.

The babalog might still be relatively complacent, but the other stock figure of Indian politics, the aam admi or everyman, is getting fed up. A new Mood of the Nation survey from the Times of India finds that 70 percent of the aam admi think corruption is at an all-time high. Sixty percent think that politicians are to blame.

Novelist Chetan Bhagat just penned an open letter to Sonia Gandhi, the head of India’s ruling Congress Party, demanding an end to corruption. “Corruption is worse than terrorism,” wrote Bhagat. “Terrorism blows up existing infrastructure… Corruption prevents such infrastructure from being made in the first place.” Bhagat wrote that he was resorting to an open letter because the Sphinx-like Sonia Gandhi was not on Facebook, nor did she Twitter.

Gandhi might not be plugged into the social network, but other politicians are quickly logging in, hoping they won’t become as out of touch as Egypt’s Mubarak. In West Bengal,the doughty Marxists, in power for three decades, have embraced the Facebook Age in the hopes of tapping into the youth vote. Tourism minister Manab Mukherjee told the Times of India that he has more Facebook friends than even the biggest film star in Kolkata. But Trinamool Congress, the main opposition party, which hopes to unseat the Marxists in elections this summer, says Facebook friends won’t make up for unkept promises. “After all, real revolutions are not fought on Twitter and Facebook,” scoffed Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien. “They are won and lost on ground reality.”

If Egypt’s revolution comes to India, it might find fertile ground in Kolkata in West Bengal. The entrenched Communist government is battling its own 30-year curse. According to the Times of India survey, 90 percent of Kolkata residents think corruption is at an all-time high. And Kolkata already has a long tradition of mammoth processions, as thousands of protesters converge on the heart of the city, waving flags and protesting everything from the price of onions to the war in Iraq.

A million showed up this Sunday as well for a humungous rally. But it wasn’t exactly Tahrir Square. This one was organized by the Communist government itself to rally the faithful.

Whether the aggrieved aam admi, stuck in snarled traffic and missing flights and trains, reacts in anger with a virtual revolution remains to be seen.