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A new middle class fidelity?

In 1990, Mandal stir marked the political coming of age of the middle class, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint.

india Updated: May 21, 2006 10:06 IST

Do you remember where you were in the autumn of 1990? If not, let me remind you. You were probably reading your newspaper — perhaps you were reading the HT — and quaking with anger about VP Singh’s decision to implement the reservation proposals contained in the report of the Mandal Commission.

You felt betrayed; you felt despondent; and you wondered where this country was headed. And, if you are in your thirties now, then you probably worried about what reservation would do to your prospects in the job market or how easy it would now be to win a place at an institution of higher learning. Perhaps, you even marched in the streets to protest. Certainly, you were determined to ensure that Prime Minister VP Singh — a man you may even have supported a year earlier — was ousted from office.

I remember that period well. It was the first time that the urban Indian middle class united in a frenzy of political outrage. Many of us felt that just when India was on the verge of achieving the global recognition that was our due, cynical, vote-hungry politicians had pushed us back to the Middle Ages.

The Mandal agitation marked the political coming of age of the middle class. But most of us had recognised that we were a global force to reckon with — or, even, a powerful bloc within Indian society — only five or six years earlier in the heady, Camelot-like honeymoon months of the Rajiv Gandhi regime.

If you were to trace the political awakening of the middle class, you would probably date it to 1985, to the year when Mani Shankar Aiyar, then a Joint Secretary in Rajiv’s PMO, told the Washington Post that India contained a middle class of one hundred million (my guess is he made up a figure on the spot: I have never seen any authentication for that number) that looked up to Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv was not middle class in the sense that most of us are or were — he was born into India’s ruling family — but unlike all his predecessors, he had been a salaried employee, had held down a job, had paid income tax and remained friends with the middle class people he had been to school with. In that limited sense, at least, he was one of us.

And because we identified with him, he was the first Prime Minister to politically engage an active middle class constituency. Because he spoke of computers, of the evils of bureaucracy, of the menace of power-brokers and the challenges of the 21st Century, he finally addressed the formerly neglected middle class.

Three years into his term, alas, Rajiv was to learn the Golden Rule of Indian Politics: there is no constituency more fickle than the middle class. Even as he struggled to change the system, the middle class switched its affections and found a new darling: VP Singh who appealed to the middle class’s puritanism and to its mistrust of the corruption in Indian politics.

By 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi lost his parliamentary majority, the middle class had fallen utterly in love with VP Singh and his pious pretensions.

The Mandal proposals, therefore, came as a slap on the face for Singh’s middle class supporters; it was as if the man they loved had been caught in flagrante delicto with the whore of vote-bank politics. The middle class reacted with the fury of a woman scorned, of one who had been seduced and dumped.

The protests were as much about betrayal as they were about reservation.

Since then, the middle class’s fickleness has translated into political promiscuity. If Rajiv had won us over with his attention and VP with his puritanism, then we flocked to Manmohan Singh because, by opening up the economy in 1991, he plugged us into the world and ended our economic isolation. But even as we were enjoying the fruits of liberalisation, we flirted with LK Advani and the BJP because they appealed to our horror of minority-ism.

By the time the BJP finally came to power, it had the middle class eating out of its lap. It offered us all the things that seemed to matter: prosperity, globalisation, an end to minority-ism and a sense of being rooted in Indian culture (or Hindu culture, at any rate).

So successful was this appeal that two-and-a-half years ago, almost everybody I knew in the middle class reckoned that the Congress was finished and that the BJP would rule India in the decades to come. It is fashionable now to laugh at India Shining but, at the time, it was seen as a stroke of genius that accurately captured the public mood.

In the run-up to the results of the last General Election, when the exit polls began suggesting that perhaps the NDA would not win an overall majority after all, few people — and that includes nearly every media pundit — dared believe the unthinkable: that the Congress would be able to form the next government with only its pre-election allies and the Left.

When the results did come in, nearly every middle class person I knew was in a state of shock (except for members of the last government, who were comatose). How, I wondered, would the middle class ever learn to love Sonia Gandhi’s Congress?

In the event, it has been surprisingly easy. Sonia won over most of her detractors by refusing to accept the Prime Ministership but the honeymoon has lasted much longer than I ever thought it would. Nearly every urban poll conducted to mark two years of the Manmohan Singh government suggests that the Congress — which won the last election only because most of India is not middle class — would defeat the BJP if polls were held today. Sonia’s and Manmohan Singh’s approval ratings easily eclipse those of AB Vajpayee and LK Advani.

And yet, the UPA has done little to pander to the middle class. The tax-regime has tightened the screws on us, through the absurd and needless fringe benefits tax and the expansion of service tax. Such great middle class touchstones as privatisation have been largely forgotten. The Left has kept up a constant howl of hysterical protest. At 10 Janpath, the NGOs and jholawallahs are listened to with respect. The Employment Guarantee Scheme has been passed over the sneers of the economic press and the business community. There is much talk of helping the weaker sections, disadvantaged women and the landless. And frequently, there is fairly blatant minority-ism in an effort to win back the Congress’s Muslim vote-bank.

The final straw should have come last month, when Arjun Singh tried to copy his one-time contemporary VP Singh, to emerge as a champion of reservation. Surely, this would be the breaking point, I thought, as memories of Mandal came flooding back.

But no, the middle class seems to have taken Singh’s proposals in its stride. Nobody likes them, of course, but they are not the deal-breaker they would have been sixteen years ago — in the sense, that they are not enough to cause people to turn against this government.

Even the public mood seems different. In 1990, the Mandal protesters were middle class heroes. Now, opinion about the striking doctors is much more ambivalent; many people say things like, “We agree with them, but is it right for doctors to deny treatment to sick people?”

What explains this apparent contradiction? Why is the middle class, stuck with a government it never wanted, willing to tolerate that government’s apparent indifference to middle class interests? Why have we not reacted as we did in 1990? Why is there no resurgence of the anti-Mandal fever? Why does nobody want to bring this Prime Minister down?

I can think of four reasons. One: there is no alternative.

The BJP has collapsed. And on such issues as reservation, it is on the same side as the government, anyway. Two: the government benefits from the personal goodwill enjoyed by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi (especially after her resignation and re-election). Three: the economic boom has led to so much prosperity that the middle class is quite content to look the other way as long as it keeps making money.

But it is the fourth reason that gives me cause for hope. Could it be that the middle class has matured? That we have realised that most of India is not like us? That the vast majority of Indians have not benefited from India Shining and that it is only fair that the government redirects some of the country’s new-found prosperity towards those whom the boom has left untouched?

My guess is yes; the middle class has finally come of age.

We are less selfish and more mature than we have ever been. And we have come to terms with the paradoxes and contradictions of India.

Too optimistic?

May be. But then, you’ll have to explain to me what other reason there could be for the middle class to like a government that has no love for it.

Perhaps, we have just grown up.