We are living in curious times. For the past few years, the middle classes of this country — and there are many different kinds — have been vigorously raising their voices against the system that has given birth to them.
Resident welfare associations (RWAs), big city and small town people, university students and their teachers, and doctors and lawyers, among others are taking to the streets to protest over a number of issues.
The unifying factor is the object of their ire: the State. People are protesting against State corruption, lack of public security, failure of public utilities, a seemingly unresponsive judicial system, besides many other things.
How does one explain the anger against the State of a self-proclaimed middle class which has emerged out of and is still mainly reliant upon the State for its livelihood and other (such as educational) requirements?
The obvious answer might be that the middle classes are simply fed up. And yet, the conditions against which people are protesting have been with us since 1947. Then what triggered the sudden rush to the barricades now?
To begin with, there has been a tremendous decline over the past two decades or so in the idea of the nation-State as a parental figure and a guiding hand. That is why, while we live by nationalism on the cricketing field, we no longer think that the State should be treated as a sacrosanct entity.
Notwithstanding the qualms towards the State in the years immediately following Independence, current scepticism towards it far outweighs anything we have witnessed earlier. It is this, that for example, is partially responsible for the falling participation of the middle classes in the voting process.
There is also another break from the past which concerns the contemporary emergence of the idea of a middle-class activism for itself.
Historically, middle-class activism in India has primarily been on behalf of the poor. The rapid proliferation of the NGO sector is evidence of that and NGO activity in towns and villages has focused upon achieving social and economic justice for the poor.
NGOs run by middle-class people have sought to blunt the edges of economic suffering through providing access to education, better healthcare, clean drinking water and a host of other resources.
There has been a dramatic change in this perspective in recent times and the number of organisations that take part in public activism with a view to furthering middle-class interests is growing.
In some instances, as in the case of RWAs that file Public Interest Litigation cases for slum removal, this results in direct conflict between the middle classes and the urban poor.
The notion of ‘middle class for itself’ has been some time in the making. It has emerged in the wake of a changed set of beliefs regarding private enterprise and the rise of a new consumer culture, and an altered media landscape that provides space for articulation of real or imagined grievances.
The State’s Five-Year Plan, while seen to have largely failed at economic development, is also perceived to have stymied personal growth. Private enterprise, on the other hand, is imagined to be everything the State isn’t: dynamic, efficient, merit-based and uncorrupted.
Interestingly, despite evidence that large-scale State corruption has close links with different aspects of economic liberalisation, the anti-State clamour grows by the day.
This is unsurprising, for while the State reserved for itself an aura of purity and neutrality, it simultaneously frittered away the trust based in it over the past 65 years.
The moral claims that the State made for itself — as neutral benefactor in the post-colonial era — are no longer taken seriously. In fact, it is middle-classness itself that is now in the nature of a moral claim.
While we may have many income-based definitions of middle-classness, individuals from widely varying income categories call themselves ‘middle class’ and it has become a shorthand for being a certain kind of person.
Middle-class activism is premised on this perception and this is also what unites people from very different backgrounds.
The reality of middle-classness may be quite different from perception, but that’s not the point. The current spate of agitations against politics, politicians and the government derives from this fundamental shift in ideas about the moral and ethical nature of systems of governance.
Sanjay Srivastava is Professor of Sociology, at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal