Image: Indians vent their feelings on the recent terror attacks
Saurabh Das  /  AP
Indians vent their feelings about the Mumbai terror attacks by writing messages on a large board put up near the Taj Mahal hotel on Dec. 3.
updated 12/12/2008 5:51:32 PM ET 2008-12-12T22:51:32

In India, the elite stay above the fray. They live in walled compounds, have their own source of electricity, hire their own security guards and educate their children in private schools, avoiding the issues confronting the government and the masses.

But the 60-hour siege that struck the heart of India's financial and entertainment center, killing 171 people, has fractured that secure existence, galvanizing thousands of middle- and upper-class Indians to get involved.

A day after the assault ended, dozens turned out for a march along Mumbai's elegant Marine Drive. "I'm gonna vote!" shouted Shrenik Kenia, a 24-year-old engineering student. "We're all gonna vote!"

It's not something many affluent Indians bother with, but middle- and upper-class Indians are vowing to change that. Long considered apathetic about the political process, they have begun to take the fight for national security and government accountability into their own hands.

Since the attack, lawyers, corporate executives, engineers, and elite students have taken to the streets, as tens of thousands of protesters marched through Mumbai calling for change. They've filed an unprecedented lawsuit, organized petitions, called for a tax strike, and are even talking of starting a new political party.

Class politics
At the heart of their determination is the realization — at least for the time being — that they can no longer continue to sidestep the state, with its notoriously turgid, corrupt, and inefficient government.

"Well-to-do Indians think the state is irrelevant. We keep doing what we do, living in private enclaves, and making money," said Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Indian software giant Infosys Technologies Ltd. "This has been a rude awakening."

The question is, will their involvement make a difference?

India is run by a massive, lumbering, outdated and frequently corrupt bureaucracy. While a civil service job used to be among the greatest professional plums for India's educated classes, these days the rich and ambitious focus far more on the country's fast-growing private sector.

And politics is riddled with century's-old class conflicts, religious divisions and nepotism.

Icons of luxury
Also, in the 60 years since independence, India's leaders have done the math and turned to the nation's hundreds of millions of rural poor to win office, prompting the middle class to withdraw from the political process.

The rich and well-connected have been largely unscathed by the wave of terror strikes that roiled India in recent years, with most bombs exploding in markets and on public trains. The Nov. 26-29 attacks hit far closer to home. The gunmen attacked south Mumbai, a center of social power graced with stately old buildings and great, weeping trees.

Two of the targets were the iconic Taj Mahal hotel and the luxurious Oberoi hotel, sites of countless business meetings and the playground for Mumbai's high society.

Residents lost friends, relatives and colleagues and live with the dread that it could have been them trapped as the gunmen sprayed five-star restaurants with bullets and grenades. Many now wonder where to meet for lunch.

Calling for change
The attack "has galvanized the middle class and elite like no other act of violence has before," said Nilekani, who has just written a book on Indian society and politics, "Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century."

Their quest for change is not unprecedented. The swelling ranks of educated, affluent Indians have already transformed the country into an emerging economic power and a high-tech leader. But this has been largely done despite the government and India's primitive infrastructure.

For now, the frustrations amount to little more than symbolic gestures and an inchoate demand for change.

The Society of Indian Law Firms, a group of 60 top firms across the country, filed a petition last week, urging the Bombay High Court to compel the government to take concrete steps to improve security and set up a citizen oversight committee to make sure reforms stay on track. The Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a group of about 2000 businesses based in Mumbai, signed on in support.

Sriram Subramanian, who runs a consulting company, sent out an e-mail to a hundred friends and colleagues calling for a new political party, which would draw on the expertise of India's educated urbanites.

"I've never done anything like this before," he said. "I'm the typical engineer and MBA."

His inbox has been swamped with responses. "Such a moment requires an inspiring leader, someone with charisma and moral uprightness. It's going to come from us," he said.

What's after protests?
But even those ardently pressing for change are not sure where this new activism is going, if anywhere.

India is gearing up for national elections next year, but voters have yet to call for a revolution. Many expected the ruling Congress party to take a beating in recently concluded state elections. Instead, opposition party attempts to capitalize on terrorism fears and widespread angst yielded little. The ruling party captured three out of four states that held elections after the attack.

"I'm watching and waiting to see whether this becomes a sustainable effort at reform or if the anger dissipates over the next few weeks," said Nilekani. "It's going to be longer and harder than what people think."

That realization is also dawning in the streets.

"You go protest. Fine," said Kenia, who has been to four marches. "Now what's going to happen?"

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