Long before Mamata Banerjee, there was Mrinal Gore. In crumpled sari, rolling pin in hand and fists clenched, the socialist leader was the original political streetfighter who built a formidable reputation as a middle-class heroine of Mumbai in the 1970s. Her agitation for providing clean drinking water to a Mumbai suburb earned her the sobriquet ‘Paniwali bai’. Her causes were distinctly middle-class: clean water, affordable housing, lower prices. When she organised a rally, the neighbourhood would come out in spontaneous support. 2010 is not the India of the 1970s: which is why when the opposition organised a Bharat bandh last week, we didn’t see either a Mrinal Gore-like figure leading the charge nor did the urban middle-class join the protests.
The opposition claims the bandh called against rising prices was a ‘success’. If economic dislocation is a sign of a successful bandh, then perhaps the opposition has got it right. If demonstrating unity of opposition forces was the goal, then the bandh was a success. But if getting ready support from the Indian middle-class was the objective, then the bandh did not achieve its target. The vast majority of those who had gathered on the streets were party activists. In some instances, especially with the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, they were lumpen elements who saw in the bandh an opportunity to engage in street vandalism. For ordinary citizens, on the other hand, it was an extended weekend, always useful to catch up with the latest tele-serial or a replay of the late night World Cup match.
Which raises an important question: why is the Indian middle-class relatively apathetic to participating in a bandh on an issue like price rise which is directly connected to their daily lives? Why don’t the Mumbaikars who readily expressed their anger on the streets after 26/11 join a Bharat bandh on prices? Why don’t the Delhiites who willingly participate in candlelight vigils against the failings of the criminal justice system join a march against inflation? The answer is simple: rising food prices anger us, but politically choreographed bandhs only add to a mood of collective cynicism (the freeze frame picture of an auto-rickshaw driver’s vehicle being broken by political goondas could be enough to keep us away from bandhs forever).
At one level, this might reflect a deeper disconnect between the middle classes and the political leadership. In the 1970s, there was an instant chord that leaders like Mrs Gore would strike with the masses by their complete involvement in ‘people’s’ issues. These were not leaders who whizzed around through the year in air-conditioned Pajeros and then suddenly descended on the street for their one day in the sun. For leaders like Mrs Gore, politics was an extension of their lifelong commitment to public service, not 15 seconds of fame earned by courting arrest once every few years. The middle classes could identify with such politicians and the causes they represented in a manner that today’s aam aadmi cannot with leaders whose lifestyles are so far removed from his daily concerns.
But its not just the netas who have changed: the middle-class, especially the more affluent sections, have dramatically shifted their priorities and become more self-centred than ever before. A credit card-induced, acquisitive culture has meant that tomorrow is dispensable, what matters is the here and now. As long as an endless cycle of consumption is not significantly altered, there seems little empathy for the daily wage labourer who is struggling to survive. Double digit inflation is just a statistic, not an overwhelming concern. It’s a reality which might explain why a middle-class neta like Mrs Gore has disappeared off the political map.
Sharad Pawar, the Union Agriculture Minister, has an interesting take in this context. At a recent press meet, when asked why there hadn’t been a more widespread agitation against spiralling inflation, he suggested that the crucial difference between the 1970s and today lies in the fact that while prices may be climbing, there is no scarcity in the marketplace. Food shortages 30 years ago, he felt, made people angry enough to pour into the streets; today, price rise was something the Indian consumer was willing to adjust to provided the shop shelves were well-stocked.
The last election that a political party lost because of rising prices was probably the Delhi election of 1998. It was the ‘onion election’, where Sushma Swaraj found that charisma cannot defeat a humble vegetable at election time. Since then, political party fortunes have been remarkably immune to the vagaries of price rise, and there has been no evidence of an electoral loss on account of mismanaging food prices.
Which is perhaps why the price rise debate often veers between governmental complacency and opposition tokenism. How often has the prime minister taken the nation into confidence on inflationary pressures on the economy? Why haven’t we heard a squeak from Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi on an issue that is integral to their claims to represent the aam aadmi? On the other hand, how often has the opposition tried to seriously debate issues like petrol price deregulation in Parliament? It’s almost as if both sides are only shadow-boxing on an issue which is unlikely to directly impact their immediate electoral fortunes. A charade it seems is being played out before a worryingly indifferent Indian citizenry.
Post-script: it is ironical that on the day of the Bharat bandh, the politician who was the pioneer of the idea of an all-India strike — including the historic all-India railway strike of 1974 — was being wheeled into a courtroom while suffering from Alzheimer’s. George Fernandes belonged to an era of politicians for whom street agitational politics came naturally. That era is sadly coming to an end.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief , IBN Network. The views expressed by the author are personal