The besetting sin of the Indian ruling class might prove to be exceptional stupidity rather than pervasive corruption. Successful politicians are clever, or they would not be successful. But they can become foolish enough to believe that the rest of us are stupid.
The subtle lie is a fine art, and a crisis rouses veterans to their slipperiest best. The murder of crime-busting reporter Jyotirmoy Dey in Mumbai by a posse of motorbike gunmen, in the soggy daylight of a monsoon afternoon, was a public relations catastrophe for the Maharashtra government. The crocodile tears of ministers began to compete with the monsoon instantly. Carried away by excessive piety, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Home Minister R.R. Patil and all-purpose busybody Chhagan Bhujbal even promised a majestic law to protect journalists.
Since this law has not been passed, should we assume that it is currently legal to shoot journalists in Mumbai?
There is no shortage of laws in India. There is a terrifying shortage of legal order. The order of the day in Mumbai is determined by a politician-police-criminal coalition that deploys private armies to send a periodic message to pests who interfere with their lucrative control of the economic sinews of the black economy. They do not kill journalists, or whistleblowers, every day. Discretion is the better part of their valour. Their purpose is just to let everyone know whose finger is more effective on the trigger. Dey’s death was one such reminder to the media.
The litany of alibis, including a few pompous ones like the proposed legislation, trotted out by politicians is designed to cajole, flatter, fudge or even buy the Mumbai establishment’s way out of a crisis that threatens the stability of the cops-criminal-minister nexus.
I often wonder why we keep calling Mumbai’s criminal gangs the underworld. They live in, and dominate, the overworld. ‘Underworld’ tends to give them a shadowy, even ethereal presence, as if they float in dark corners of the city like phantoms on the prowl. They are masters of the day, not vampires of the night. They are in league with, if not colleagues of, high officials who shield them from those suicidal enough to challenge their kingdom.
Within 48 hours of Dey’s murder, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Anil Mahabole, in charge of the Azad Maidan precinct, had been downgraded. His ranking senior, police commissioner Arup Patnaik said that he was “neither denying nor confirming Mahabole’s role” in the incident. Such equivocation suggests guilt, at the very least. Simple question: how long does it take an assistant commissioner of police to get corrupt? 24 hours, or 24 years? If Mahabole’s reputation was common knowledge, why was he in control of Azad Maidan police station? On one side, Azad Maidan runs along a green lung to Bombay Gymkhana. Turn 180 degrees, and life shifts: just beyond the great railway terminus lie the congested lanes where Dawood Ibrahim used to live, and from where his brother and sister still control their prolific business. A few weeks ago, a motorbike squad tried to kill Dawood’s brother in one of these lanes, and got his driver instead.
You do not have to be as brilliant as a chief minister or a police commissioner to guess what the Mumbai police’s brief is: promise just about enough to appease journalists, but do nothing to destroy the enriching partnership that rules Mumbai. Round up scapegoats. Sacrifice one or two, strictly if necessary. Photograph the applause. Limit this to a media issue, not a citizens’ cause. Circumstances are on your side: the culture of an ambitious metropolis is determined by the self-interest of anonymous survival, not the generosity of community consciousness. Mumbai knows that the “bhai”, the gangster, is an ineradicable part of the city’s ecology. Take your time. Reporters will return to their grind, with another tiny germ of fear etched into their hearts. A reporter’s death is a statistic. Mumbai is not sentimental about statistics.
The ruling class will rule, until the phlegm at the base finally rises, and boils over into rage.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.