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A sense of exclusion

The middle classes are angry with politicians but don't want to take part in politics. This aversion towards politics is bad news for Arvind Kejriwal - as well as India. Barkha Dutt writes.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2012 21:13 IST

That Arvind Kejriwal - the anti-corruption crusader-turned-politician - has mastered the idiom of the media is an irrefutable fact. Where significant political leaders either embrace silence or bluster, or worse still, as in the case of senior Congressman Virbhadra Singh, lose decorum and get mad at merciless cameras, Kejriwal has learnt the language of what translates into a media moment. It's equally indisputable that his campaign has tried to break down the tall iron gates that fence India's enclaves of privilege and careful collusion away from prying eyes.

What's less clear is how his dramatic capture of the headline space will impact electoral politics - an arena he can no longer effectively disassociate from, having chosen to jump right in with gladiatorial confidence. In the popular parlance of the online world or the excited chatter of the Delhi drawing-room, Kejriwal is described as a neta for the middle class; an everyman from a 21st century morality play. So, if he has come to epitomise urban rage at entrenched and systemic corruption, can he lure a typically cynical socio-economic stratum into voting differently, or indeed voting at all, when the time comes? The answer to that question will be the dipstick test for whether our democracy is changing in any measurable way.

The potency of Kejriwal's protests - because his party, so far, is still defined by what it opposes rather than what it affirms - depends eventually on the relationship between India's middle class and the political process. The passionate wagers being placed on the longevity of the Kejriwal effect may not have factored in how the aspirations and cultural values of the middle class itself have changed over the decades.

At least, part of the middle class disgust with the political class today has to do with a sense of exclusion. The reason, an 'outsider' like Kejriwal is a relatable symbol is precisely because the urbanite sees herself as an alien in the mysterious land of electoral politics. Anecdotally the argument for why this is has centred on the chicken-egg conundrum. Are politicians to blame for the antagonism of the middle class because they focus all their energy on the constituencies of either the influential or the impoverished? Or is middle-class disengagement with voting the reason for the indifference of the political establishment?

Political scientists have also spent considerable time studying why some groups don't show enthusiasm for political participation. In their well-regarded paper (Why the Poor Vote in India: "If I don't Vote I am dead to the State"), Amit Ahuja and Pradeep Chibber reversed the question to analyse why those who live on the margins of society and have historically been treated without empathy by any government, except when elections are imminent, should care enough to vote. They argue that especially because of the "capricious" nature of the Indian State, the "poor see the act of voting as a Right. The non-poor by contrast vote either to gain some benefit or as fulfilling a civic duty."

It might then be interesting to probe how the relationship of the middle-class - people like us - has changed with the State post-liberalisation. Those shaped and formed by the pre-1991 years - my generation and older - may remember a time when "middle-class values" coincided with a coyness about obvious wealth. If anything, there was a distinct, if irrational, distaste for the pursuit of money, with a premium placed instead on the pedigree of education and the purposefulness of the hard-working professional (As opposed to the ambition of, let's say, an entrepreneur). This is not a nostalgic account of so-called nobler times but a matter of fact chronicle of shifting aspirations.

With globalisation and a near-consensus on capitalism as the contemporary model for growth, the dreams of the middle-class changed rapidly. We now began to draw a sense of self-worth from how many Indians were on the international billionaire power-lists. We imagined that as our society unshackled itself from the cobwebs of government control, we too could be those men and women, or anything else we wanted. Wealth-creation was now a legitimate, respectable desire and merit the best courter to chase it.

So the rage the middle class feels today is also about being denied a level playing field to make it big, as we watch money manipulated by the incestuous connections of the powerful. Their closed circle of influence seems impenetrable even to the illustriously talented, subverting the principles of merit as we understand it. The sense of exclusion the middle class felt from politics has now extended to feeling that honestly-earned economic betterment is now inaccessible to us as well.

The anger over this is perfectly legitimate; but in a country as desperately poor, cruelly hierarchical and grossly unequal as ours, it isn't quite the crusade of the aam aadmi. To benchmark ourselves against the "common man" is to compare apples and oranges or in today's lingo, mangoes and bananas. It is the abject failure of leadership that a genuinely middle-class prime minister could not retain hope or confidence among his constituents. But, while it doesn't undermine the validity of our cynicism, we must concede that relatively we remain people of privilege and this volatile, well intentioned churn may be classified as what academics Stuart Corbridge and John Harris once called "elite revolts."

This elitism is most dangerously reflected in the number of middle-class folk who think nothing of casually advocating a brief spell of dictatorship (yes, really) instead of the competing and messy forces of democracy. The why-can't-we-be-more- like-Singapore-or China argument is a dead give away of our disconnect from the struggles of the average Indian citizen. If we move even further away from the democratic process, it would not just mean a failure for Kejriwal's nascent political campaign; we would have failed ourselves.

And India.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative

The views expressed by the author are personal