09/23/2013 11:57 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

The Power of Indian Public Opinion

Friday, September 13, 2013 was a big day in Indian news; possibly one of the biggest of the year so far. The four men responsible for the gang rape of 23-year old Nirbhaya last year in Delhi were issued the death sentence, and the controversial Narendra Modi was officially crowned the opposition party's candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general election in 2014.

Though they seem unrelated, the two pieces of news and the public and media reactions they generate share what I find to be a troubling hypocrisy in public opinion.

Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh Singh were sentenced to death by a judge in Delhi. Jubilation ensued, and understandably so, on the streets and in social media. "Justice has been delivered," said Nirbhaya's father.

It truly is a victory of public opinion -- to be able to sway a fast-track court into action in a country where justice is known to be served too late or never at all -- is no mean feat. Nirbhaya's story touched a particularly sensitive nerve in the country. As the Economist put it, the young physiotherapist Nirbhaya, on her way home from a screening of Life of Pi with a male engineer friend, "was the friend, sister or daughter of an entire social group" -- India's emerging middle class. The gruesome wounds inflicted upon her, and her subsequent tragic death, served as the ultimate catalysts to action.

Several concerns gnaw at me amid the surrounding euphoria, though. What about all the other, less-known rape and gang rape cases with less media attention and no fast track courts? My reservations regarding capital punishment as an effective deterrent or justifiable punishment aside, I share Indian journalist Nilanjana Roy's worry of the possibility that "it would make an already low rape conviction rate even lower, since judges would be unwilling to hand down such an extreme sentence except in the worst and most brutal cases." Tara Rao, Director of Amnesty International India said in a statement that while those responsible for the gang rape should be punished, the death penalty would accomplish "nothing but short-term revenge."

More troubling though, are the calls to torture and the indignation that even death was not enough that manifest themselves on my social media feeds. The joy and celebration that follow the deaths of criminals: the Delhi rapists, Ajmal Kasab of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and even Osama bin Laden, always leave me uncomfortable. They suggest that what our society wants is not justice, but its base cousin: vindication. A more somber or ambivalent reaction to this sort of retribution provokes accusations of being insensitive, sheltered, unpatriotic.

In complete contrast to the hot anger currently shared by the Indian public for the Delhi rapists, is the cooled attitude toward the Gujarat riots of 2002 when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister. The riots, in which hundreds of Muslims were killed, burned, raped and gang raped, are now seen as a mere small blemish on an otherwise redeemed and sparkling economic record, managed by a wildly successful image building campaign under Apco, an American PR firm used by dictators in the past. Modi remains totally unapologetic, and the BJP urge the public to forget and ignore. Far from vindication, the desire for justice to be delivered is nowhere to be seen, drowned in the despair for the current ineffectiveness of the NDP government, and a desire for change.

The arguments against Modi's involvement in the riots, often used by his supporters, are, at best, that the courts have failed to find substantial evidence in support of it (and suddenly, in the context of this argument, Indian courts are heightened to a status of absolute efficiency, free from all potentially corrupting influences of politics, and beacons of justice). The groundbreaking Tehelka sting operation of 2007 told a very different story.

At best, the takeaway from the reactions to these two pieces of news is this: Indian public opinion has the potential to be extremely powerful. It has had the power to call for a fast track court to issue the death penalty to the rapists in Delhi, and it could have the power to make Narendra Modi India's next prime minister, or indeed -- and more consistent with the emotion and empathy behind its support for Nirbhaya and the hundreds of men, women and children in Gujarat -- demand from him an apology.