By Ojha Jai Prakash:
What did the Anna Hazare agitation for the enactment of a stringent anti corruption law and the street protests in Delhi and parts of urban India over the brutal gang rape of a 23 year old, had in common?
Both of them witnessed unprecedented participation of middle class and catapulted it to the mainstream national discourse. For years after independence, the middle class was the favourite whipping boys of the politicians and often despised, due to its proclivity to remain aloof from elections and alleged apathy towards the poor. For the politicians, enmeshed in vote-bank politics, rural India with its vast population and ignorant voters offered more hope. Subsidies, distribution of freebies, dole outs and extension of patronage benefits to their respective constituencies were the standard operating procedures of the ruling politicians to win the support of the poor.
As far as elites were concerned, they had to be pampered and a sort of quid pro-quo existed between them and the political class. The rules of engagement were crystal clear–the elites were to provide funds to parties and the parties were supposed to take care of their business or other interests while legislating.
The country is already witnessing the gradual withdrawal of the state from the realm of economic activities on the pretext of deepening economic liberalization and in the process; the state has abdicated its social responsibility of protecting the interests of the working class. Not contending with this, the state has not hesitated to collude with the private, capitalist interests in the plunder of national resources like land, mines and spectrum, revealing the predatory face of neo-capitalism.
But now, all of a sudden, the politicians are scurrying for cover as the middle class rage and frustration have come out from the comforts of the drawing rooms and spilled over the streets of urban India. The Congress, at its Jaipur Chintan Shivir, realized the exigency of connecting with the aspirations of the urban middle class and decided to broaden the ambit of its ‘Aam Aadmi’ to include the middle class also. The question that naturally springs up is why there is a new found focus on the middle class and has this class got the mettle to draw the contours of our future polity?
The ushering in of liberalization post-1990 created opportunities and gave wings to the aspirations of the middle classes to swim with the global tide. The Mandalisation of polity also empowered the marginalized backward communities and enabled them to synchronize their aspirations with the upwardly mobile middle classes. As a concomitant to the ongoing process of economic reforms, the trajectory of urbanization registered an upward swing. At present, one out of every three Indians lives in an urban area. The middle class has virtually exploded in numbers from 25 million in 1996 to 160 million currently and if the present trend continues, by 2020, it will touch 300 million. This makes it a sizeable chunk of our electorate which any political outfit can ignore only to its peril. Out of 542 Lok Sabha constituencies, 200 fall in urban zones where the role of urban middle class will be crucial in deciding the electoral fortunes of candidates.
The rapid strides made in information communication technologies (ICT) have also facilitated the emergence of middle class as a potent force in democratic India. Middle class protests do not need leaders or grand organizers to gain visibility as mutual exchange of ideas can be done by the mere click of a mouse. Social media, internet and Facebook have provided the platform for the middle class to engage with each other on matters that concern them and hence, a seemingly innocuous issue can easily snowball into a major one. The middle class upsurge has caught the administration on the wrong foot on several occasions because of the phenomenon of flash mobs and unpredictability. It is not the case of India only but several regime changes in Africa and the Arab world have been brought about by the grand networking on internet among the disenchanted working class, unemployed youths and the middle classes. The Occupy Wall Street Movement in USA and the anti austerity protests in Europe are nothing but manifestations of the growing frustration of the middle classes against the neo liberal world economic order. The Great Indian Middle Class Awakening has also been brought about by better connectivity with the global developments and the homogenizing globalization syndrome. Till now, the electoral clout of this class may have been suspect but when it comes to opinion making, it is the most articulate among all the sections of our population and even the media is dominated by it.
In this age of connect and galloping urbanization, urban-rural fringe zones have proliferated and today, even the rural areas are hardly untouched by the prevailing national mood. Rural India has witnessed a gradual attitudinal transformation and it will not be surprising if the urban middle class sentiments have a trickledown effect in the villages. The rules of the political game are changing and in the coming years, urban middle class may become a much sought after constituency.
The new middle class has no qualms against taking on the state because they are not products of the Nehruvian socialism and their fates are not tied to state employment and pensions. Politics of patronage, symbolism and handing out doles to them is not going to work as their aspirations have gone up a notch further. Our much hyped democracy has failed to provide answers to the various ills that are plaguing our system with the political class evading responsibility and accountability. The trust deficit between the ruling class and the middle class is widening by every passing day. Politics based on narrow identity markers like caste, religion, language and ethnicity has torn the social fabric of the nation and holding back the forward march of the nation.
Armed with information and better education, the middle class can easily see through the nefarious designs of our vote-bank obsessed politicians. Nepotism, kinship, preferential treatment to favoured groups, bazaar canteen model of economy and feudality that characterize our country are not compatible with the free ethos of a market economy. Naturally, the middle class is exasperated and the feeling that nothing can be achieved by being a mere passive onlooker has gained ground. The middle class comprises a substantial youth population who are not bogged down by past, tend to look ahead and desire active participation with the state on matters that concern them. The surfacing of civil society, the proactive role of media and the recrudescence of judicial activism have led to the gradual expansion of our basic fundamental rights with innovative judicial interpretations, the coming into effect of RTI & Citizen’s Charter, e-governance etc have had far reaching repercussions.
The political class may blame the middle class as representative of the upper castes only but the fact remains that this class has a considerable sprinkling in it of the upward mobile sections of the dalits and the backwards. The issues that middle class raises are mostly secular and affect the day to day life of most of the people. The consolidation of this class as a vote-bank may sound a death knell to politics of caste & religion and check the growth of undesirable subaltern movements that lack an all inclusive secular faÃ§ade.