THE EERIE PATIENCE OF THE TIRED CROWD

People are waiting, for money and for their faith in the govt to be rewarded. But it could all change with time.

Crowds fascinate me, particularly Indian crowds. They possess a grammar that I am trying to understand. Mahatma Gandhi understood crowds. He said the British do not need to teach us law and order when the Kumbh worked season after season. Gandhi could talk to crowds whether at Noakhali, or in South Africa. The rioters could turn satyagrahi under his magic eye.

Often when I watch the vigilantism of crowds, or riots in a city, I wonder if we have lost that magic of control. It is difficult to predict when a crowd will be uncontrollable, and when it can be pacified. I often remember the socialist years in which people waited in lines for hours. Waiting became one of the great fine arts of the socialist era.

I was reminded of this as I watched the serpentine queues around ATMs and banks over the last week. People seem to wait patiently. Their body language is interesting. It conveys their tiredness, but emphasises their patience. Waiting almost becomes an act of patriotism, a civilian sense of the self- discipline the new economy seems to demand.

It is not as if the crowds are silent. They complain, but their complaints are more about officials in banks than about the regime. They virtually convey the idea that each line is an act of solidarity with Narendra Modi. There is little protest, hardly any violence. Sometimes, the patience of the tired crowd is eerie. They wait quietly and are content to return with paltry sums. Their rituals make sense to them, and what gives it meaning is the promise of the future. Sometimes, it is more. The Indian citizen feels, at least as of now, he is participating in an act of reform. He is helpless in the line, but feels empowered as a crowd. Many people – drivers, traders, dhabha owners – confess to difficulty, but they all feel it must be worth it. There is a sense of trust, which one does not always see in an Indian citizen. As a citizen, he is ready to wait, give this government a chance to redeem its promise. One must confess that the Modi regime has touched some reserve of trust, of solidarity that the common man feels for this act of governmentality.

Part of this attitude is attributed by many to Modi’s histrionics during his recent speech. When he broke down and wept, the very act of vulnerability appears to have touched a nerve of sentiment and solidarity. Secondly, people are genuinely tired of corruption and feel the need to back any battle against it. Thirdly, they seem to think this battle is against black money, and, therefore, it empowers them for the future. Others feel it is a confusing time and that it is best to wait it out. A sociologist friend of mine added that people are not protesting because they are too busy standing in queues.

Protest will come when there is a greater desperation. Right now, time seems to be in limbo, people have suspended judgment, and are waiting and watching. To call them a pack of sheep would be unfair. These are citizens waiting. The next fortnight might be different.

It is clear this fortnight has been a bit historical in its own right. The government has created a vector of action and trust. The voter has felt that the policy itself was inaugurated with the best of intentions. He has given the benefit of doubt to the regime. His silence may not be a full act of solidarity, but it is a mix of trust, expectation, the tiredness of waiting, and the sense that he, too, is sacrificing his bit for the nation. Sacrifice creates a different focus from suffering. Sacrifice is focused, individual, and exemplary. Suffering speaks a different language of pain, anxiety and protest. If sacrifice turns to suffering, the crowds outside the ATMs may no longer be patient, and then, the same crowds waiting patiently may speak a different language. Theirs is the silence of tiredness, expectation and waiting. A shrewd politician said “a week is a long time in politics”, and this week has been exceptionally long. The next week might be different. The spectator has to wait to see if the next week triggers new emotions and responses, in which the alchemy of the crowd may be different.

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