Thank God — I was thinking yesterday — that I don’t live in Mumbai, or even, Bangalore. Mercifully, Delhi managed to go beyond the gabfest of angst and activism and actually vote. The otherwise much-maligned middle class walked the talk.
But, when you stack up the numbers — even in the political capital — almost one in every two people did not bother to vote. And yet, we are being all self-congratulatory. It got me thinking. Why is it that the same middle class that is often used to measure India’s booming modernity tends to be so indifferent to the democratic process? Is the connection between economic growth and political apathy that direct? Could it be that the cities that mark India on the global map are the very cities that have seceded from its domestic hurly-burly? Take Bangalore for example; it’s even got the American President all worked up. Mumbai inspired the global blockbuster of the year and the world’s empathy after 26/11. Is it that these cities don’t need politicians or is it that politicians don’t take the middle class seriously as a constituency?
Like all generalisations, neither is strictly true. There’s that bitingly caustic SMS joke doing the rounds on why Malabar Hill didn’t vote in large numbers — ‘No valet parking at polling booth; spotted servant in queue ahead of us; elections over dude, Obama won’ — you get the drift. But even if snotty and cringe-worthy indifference can explain the attitude of the Louis Vuitton ladies, what about the ordinary folk? What about people like you and me?
I think with us it cuts both ways. We have partly only ourselves to blame and partly we have been pushed to the periphery of politics. At first it seemed as if one of the healthiest trends of the last few years was middle class activism. People were no longer ready to look the other way. Injustice evoked anger; not defeatism. So rebellion set sail from the shores of TV studios. Court orders were overturned; resignations were forced from the corrupt and the guilty and heartbroken parents often led campaigns that swelled into full-fledged people’s movements.
To some extent, that trend has persisted. Jessica Lall’s case was a precursor to the dignified battle we have seen Professor Raj Kachroo waging on ragging in our schools and colleges. All this is worthy, unobjectionable and welcome. The problem begins when activism perennially positions the politician as the enemy. On my Sunday talk shows, it is difficult sometimes to restore cool logic to the thread of a discussion when the audience round of questions begins. As far as they are concerned, all politicians are scummy and this point is always made to rapturous applause. I have a lot of personal admiration for people who are motivated enough on public issues to take to the streets in protest. It certainly beats the attitude of the manicured elite who will neither vote nor stir out of their homes for anything. The problem begins when placard-waving becomes an end unto itself. And candlelight becomes synonymous with enlightenment. We don’t seem to understand that if our protests are not accompanied by participation in politics, at best, we look collegiate and somewhat corny.
But there’s a deeper question to be answered. How did the middle class get to be so disillusioned with politics? I think its because on the totem pole of political influence, the struggles of the middle class are always pushed to the bottom. The rich and powerful always have the government’s ear. Industrialists may or may not vote, but it won’t impact their access to politicians. And come election season, India’s poor have netas pouring into their villages and homes armed with promises of a better life.
But the political establishment has a much more disparaging view of the middle class. The unspoken attitude seems to be that it’s a bunch of people who already has more prosperity than they deserve. So, if you and I want to talk about how difficult it is to get our child into school, how our electricity bills are rigged every month or how the metro has eaten into the only neighbourhood park — who can we talk to? If we want to talk taxes or inflation or how high the monthly ration bill has become, we will be treated as a group of self-indulgent freaks. So, for example, if Bangalore or Mumbai want to talk about collapsing infrastructure, it’s mostly dismissed as an elitist concern. You will hear a few noises every now and then, but nothing really changes. And then there’s the biggest irony of all. In election season, the poor and the rich have a much better chance at meeting their politicians, than you or I do. Can you imagine regular town hall meetings with our candidates and elected representatives? It just doesn’t happen here.
I’m not building a case for victimhood here. But the fact is that our politics has shown a lack of imagination in dealing with a constituency of opinionated and aware men and women, who need to be made stakeholders in the system.
In the meantime, let’s do ourselves a favour and cut out the whining and moaning about how crooked all politicians are.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV