The people of New Delhi have become increasingly better at street protests, even though it is a new experience for most of them. The Indian government, on the other hand, continues to bumble about with no talent for cooling down enraged citizens.
Over the past few days, faced with public outrage yet again, the government was unable to produce officials who were articulate or knew how to employ the language of tactical humility or could at least say the right things in the right manner. Nor was it able to ensure that the minister of home affairs did not doze off in Parliament as a female legislator was talking about yet another rape that has been at the heart of protests in the capital.
Last week, news broke that a 5-year-old girl had been raped and left to die, held captive in a small room for two days with no food or water. A doctor who treated her said that she had several injuries and that pieces of candle and a bottle had been inserted into her. The girl's father told the news media that the police had offered him 2,000 rupees, or about $37, to keep quiet about the affair, and that he must be grateful she was alive.
Enraged crowds began to gather in various parts of New Delhi including outside the police headquarters. They demanded the resignation of the minister of home affairs and the police commissioner. Women waved cash at the faces of police officers to taunt them for having offered money to the child's father. Meanwhile, a senior police officer was caught on camera slapping a young female protester.
There is nothing about the appearance of the New Delhi police, the most visible face of authority in the capital, that commands respect. Most of the young police officers look impoverished and undernourished. Many of the older ones are obese. They often stand in a languid way in their cheap, ill-fitting uniforms, and face angry protesters with chuckles or rustic curiosity. It is not unusual to see female officers amble through a demonstration, holding hands and chatting. A majority of those who are posted to control the crowds do not wear any protective gear. In fact, it is a wonder that it is not the police who flee during street protests.
The government responded in predictable ways. Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress party, which heads the government, paid a visit to the little girl in the hospital, and the prime minister's office issued a statement that said that the prime minister was "deeply disturbed."
The minister of home affairs, Sushil Kumar Shinde, delivered a statement in Parliament that the girl was recovering, that two men had been arrested over her rape, that the police officer who slapped the female protester had been suspended, that two other officers had been suspended "for lapses in investigation" and that the accusation that the police had offered the girl's father money to hush up the case was being investigated.
But, in the written version of his statement, Mr. Shinde added that instances of rape "have been reported from other parts of the country also." He had included this to hit back at political rivals who were accusing him of incompetence and to point out that all was not well in the regions they governed. Naturally, the home minister's defense inspired a fresh bout of disgust and rage in television commentators.
The Delhi police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, did not speak to journalists until Monday. At the news conference, he was combative and insisted he would not resign. "If my resigning prevents such depraved acts in society, I am ready to resign a thousand times," he said. But since it would not, he added, had no reason to do so.
As for taking responsibility for the lapses of some police officers, he asked whether an editor would be asked to resign if a reporter had been incompetent. His manner, if not the substance of his defense, further enraged women, many of whom told television channels that he must quit because there is a crisis of confidence in his leadership and that he does not make them feel safe in New Delhi.
The government appeared equally inept last December, when the rape of a young woman by six men in a moving bus shook the nation and prompted extraordinary street protests.
Increasingly, a class of urban Indians who never used to agitate on the streets or disrupt normal life, are choosing to do so, especially in New Delhi. At first glance it might appear that such demonstrations are a natural part of a benevolent democracy. But, in reality, this is a new confrontation in India between electoral democracy, which is fueled by the votes of the masses, and the prime constituency of the news media, the middle class, which has long had contempt for the supremacy of politicians.
This confrontation began not with the anti-corruption movement of 2011 in New Delhi, but in 2008 in Mumbai, after the terrorist attacks on the city. Young, educated Indians hit the streets in such numbers and with an intensity that was unprecedented in modern India to shout insults against a government that had failed to protect them. As the news media broadcast this rage, politicians did not know how to address it. At a news conference, the chief minister of Maharashtra State, whose capital is Mumbai, laughed and winked at journalists while explaining why he would not resign. As a result, he had to go.
Even as Indian politicians and officials continue to be clownish, the new demonstrators and the television news media have become natural and potent allies who believe they can change things around here.
Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel "The Illicit Happiness of Other People."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.