A demonstrator holds a placard as she takes part in a protest rally in New Delhi on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS
A demonstrator holds a placard as she takes part in a protest rally in New Delhi on December 27. Picture: REUTERS

LAST year ended for India on a note of public outrage that has burdened the country with anger, frustration and pessimism. The cause, as all the world knows, was the fatally brutal rape of a young woman on a moving bus, after which she and her male companion — himself beaten nearly to death — were thrown, naked, into the street on a freezing night.

The savagery and wanton cruelty of the attack shocked the country to its core. But there is more behind the spontaneous protests that have choked the great central vistas of Delhi (to such an extent that the government was forced to change the venue for meetings with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin).

The anger that has poured onto the streets of Delhi and many other Indian cities was fuelled by a great accumulated discontent — at the bestial rape and murder of that woman, yes, but also at pervasive public and private corruption, the absence of governance and accountability, and much more. Years of pent-up rage are now flowing out.

Of course, the government deserves — and has received — no quarter. The government failed to prevent the crime, then failed again when its unresponsive, inefficient and crooked police force was unable to respond appropriately. A wholly moribund and sclerotic administration simply did not know where its duty lay.

When protests erupted, the government, in a fit of blind idiocy, set the police on peaceful protesters, men and women, with long batons, water cannon and tear gas. This heavy-handedness of course resolved nothing. Citizens’ fury deepened into grim resolve; the government’s repressive impulse was challenged and defeated.

Since then, tokenism has replaced leadership. Not one government official had the courage, skill or decency to rise to the occasion. The opposition, too, floundered, doing no more than simply faulting the ruling establishment.

After an unconscionably long delay of seven days, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally broke his incomprehensible silence about the rape. But his public statement offered no answers and no balm — indeed, nothing but platitudes. Then, humiliatingly, Mr Singh inquired, sotto voce, of those surrounding him: "Was it all right?"

A torrent of electronic wrath burst forth. Protest placards could be seen all over the country: "No! prime minister, it is not all right." Clearly, Machiavelli was correct: for a political leader, the people’s contempt is worse than their hatred.

Then, in another mindless act, the victim, struggling for life, was flown to a hospital in Singapore. No one would or could say why. It was there that she died — some say that she arrived already braindead. Her body was then hurriedly flown back to India, where it was quietly, almost surreptitiously, cremated. If the government feared her alive, it was petrified of her dead. All of India was shamed by this callous and inhuman folly.

As a result, India’s Congress-led government has irretrievably lost the public’s confidence; the establishment’s authority has evaporated. A blunt question is now being asked frequently and openly: "Is this India’s Tahrir Square?" Even if it is not, how can an internally roiled India respond adequately to its many external tests, the severity of which was underscored recently by Pakistani troops’ killing of two Indian soldiers along the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, as India flounders, northeast Asia has been astir choosing new leaders, who have now been installed in China, Japan, and North and South Korea. With an assertive China, continuing regime change in Myanmar, a troubled Bangladesh, a constitutionally stymied Nepal and continuing ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka, India’s eastern challenges are many and mighty.

But they are even more severe to India’s west, with Pakistan heading into elections (one hopes) in the spring of 2013, and Nato troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. Indian diplomacy faces a time of trial in both countries.

Farther west, too, India’s statecraft is in question. Where does India, which remains dependent on Middle Eastern energy, stand on that region’s many crises? How will it address the nuclear issue in Iran — a country with which it has close historical, cultural and economic ties — or the civil war in Syria, the rise of Salafism in Egypt and the Israel-Palestine standoff?

Moreover, India no longer appears to be the vigorous economic dynamo that was the darling of global investors only five years ago. Already some say that the "I" in Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) should now stand for Indonesia. India is running high current account and fiscal deficits; food-price inflation is in the double digits; and the rupee has weakened. As for trade with China, The Economist points out that "for every dollar’s worth of exports to China (principally raw materials), India imports three."

Can outrage turn to catharsis? Clearly, the government is unable to bring about any of the necessary changes. A possible answer lies in an early election: a new mandate for an India that is in desperate need of renewal.

• Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister and defence minister, is the author of Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence.

© Project Syndicate, 2013 www.project-syndicate.org