It’s still an amorphous haze near the horizon, but the political mobilisation of the urban Indian middle class can potentially change the way India is governed — and transform the patron-client relationship that has, to a great extent, marked India’s relationship with its rulers.
I accept that this class is still selective about the issues it chooses to espouse. But as the 2006 protests in Delhi and elsewhere against the initial clean chit to Jessica Lall’s murderer, then the support for Anna Hazare’s 2011 crusade against corruption and, last month, the protests against the Delhi gang rape showed, the urban Indian is increasingly willing to come out on the streets to press for his demands. So, the urban middle/upper class individual is standing conventional wisdom on its head.
It is almost universally accepted in Indian politics that the urban middle and upper classes are apathetic to politics; they don’t particularly care for anybody but themselves; they’re too disparate — both ideologically and geographically — to matter politically; most of them don’t vote. Therefore, politicians say, it wasn’t worth pursuing this group as a vote bank. But slowly, and almost imperceptibly, the colour of this beast is changing. And this has caught Indian politicians napping.
The white collar employee, the NGO worker, the school teacher, the doctor, the self-employed professional — in other words, all the so-called genteel people — are angry. They are fuming at the denial of basic amenities like bijli, sadak, paani. They are annoyed by the corruption they face every time they have to apply for a passport, driver’s licence or building permit. They are outraged by the rampant nepotism, corruption and loot that they see all around. And they are infuriated by the breakdown of law and order in the cities (and the resultant cases of rapes, molestations, road rage, etc). And increasingly, they’re giving vent to their frustration by coming out in force to lodge their protest.
The mainstream political parties don’t know how to deal with this phenomenon. Their old strategy of dealing with dissent — of throwing scraps at the dissenters or using overwhelming force against them — is not working. The response of the government to the recent protests in Delhi shows that it is grappling with an animal it cannot tame and doesn’t know how to ride. The protesters were not aligned to any party. There was no central authority coordinating their assembly. They were brought together by a shared sense of despair — at the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman, yes, but more than that, at the collapse of the sacred but unwritten consensus — that India is a country governed by the rule of law.
The urban middle class respects institutions, lives by systems and thrives in an environment governed by equality and the rule of law. The politician, on the other hand, has, over the years, subverted various institutions and made a mockery of the law. There is little meeting ground between the two. And that is at the root of this clash. It didn’t matter earlier. Empirical evidence suggests that only 15% of the urban middle/upper class votes. But that could change.
Those of you who are old enough, look back at the decades gone by. Those who haven’t lived through those decades, ask your elders. The crowds at rallies in earlier decades comprised almost entirely of people carted in by the truckloads by political parties. They applauded on cue, booed on call and were available for any cause that caught their leaders’ fancy. But the crowds at last month’s protests in the Capital were different. They assembled not because of they were mobilised by professional political activists but because they agreed with what some amateur social activist had posted on Twitter and/or Facebook. It was the clarion call of their conscience and outrage at uncaring authorities that brought them out. They are the children of economic liberalisation — 24/7 news channels have made the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression a reality for them; cheap telephones have made distances irrelevant; and affordable internet and the mushrooming of social media have made political clarion calls unnecessary.
More than 200 of the 543 parliamentary seats that will be up for grabs in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will be urban ones. If one party or formation can sweep these, winning, say 140-150 of them, it will give itself a very good shot at grabbing power in Delhi. But there’s one problem. This amorphous group still doesn’t have a leader.