Some weeks ago, I wrote about the strange paradox of this government’s relationship with the middle class. No regime in recent memory had seemed less concerned about the middle class, I said. And yet there was no overt hostility from this, the most fickle and high-maintenance of all constituencies. Part of the reason, I suggested, was that the BJP was in such disarray that no alternative was in sight. And part of it, I added, was that both Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh enjoyed a certain amount of goodwill which made up for the government’s almost deliberate disregard of middle class concerns.
Well, I have to say that I’m not so sure that this formulation will hold for much longer.
Over the last fortnight, I have sensed so much disappointment and frustration that my guess is that the middle class is finally turning. It has nowhere to go:
Rajnath Singh is hardly a 21st-century pin-up. So the shift is not easily discernible. But there is less and less affection for this regime; there is a feeling that the government has lost the plot; and there is an overwhelming sense of drift.
Oddly enough, it is not the big things that have led to this growing shift in the middle class mood. I suspect that most of us recognised — in the aftermath of the NDA’s defeat at the last election — that India was Shining only in the cities; that there was something wrong with a country where the CII feted Chandrababu Naidu even as farmers committed suicide in his state. We accepted that the gains of liberalisation had not been equally shared and our guilt led us to recognise that more needed to be done for the disadvantaged, the rural poor and those outside our circle of urban privilege.
When sections of the BJP complained that 10 Janpath hosted too many jholawallahs and when right-wing commentators sneered at the rural employment guarantee scheme, we refused to be provoked. At some level, we accepted that the balance needed to be redressed.
Nor did reservation create the kind of middle class alienation that it had engendered during the Mandal agitation: there are more jobs to go around now. And there has been a huge expansion of higher education in the private sector so there are more seats available to be shared.
(Except in the medical sector — which is why doctors were the primary agitators.) Even private industry, driven by some guilt about the disproportionate distribution of the benefits of liberalisation, now seems willing to consider voluntary affirmative action.
So, why is the mood changing? My sense is that the middle class annoyance stems from the small things. It emerges out of a growing feeling that the Finance Ministry is run behind-the-scenes by income tax officers (ITOs), and that the Finance Minister expends too much energy stubbornly defending decisions that are of little consequence in the big picture. At a time when black money is playing a much smaller role than it ever has in middle class lives (even the film industry works on cheque-payment now, as today’s Brunch tells us), do we really need to be policed so vigilantly? Do we need to depend on the discretion of ITOs who decide which of our fringe benefits they will tax? Must we submit details of every expense in the new income tax form? Shouldn’t these jokers be worrying about running the economy rather than hassling honest people?
This bewilderment with the government’s priorities extends to the recent rise in food prices. I am not a professional economist but as far as I can tell there has been no great agricultural crisis. So why should tomatoes cost twice as much as they did last year? Why is sugar so expensive? Why does nobody in the government seem able to spot these trends and take action before the public outcry begins?
For many middle class people, the answer seems clearer and clearer: this government is unable to get its act together in many crucial areas. The problem for Dr Manmohan Singh and his colleagues is this: the Congress party is also beginning to feel the same way.
Some of this stems from envy. There are political dinosaurs in the Cabinet who resent Manmohan Singh’s elevation and are jealous of the universal respect he commands as a decent and thoughtful man. Some of it comes from the normal mid-term blues. Two years into the life of every government, many party hacks realise that they are not going to get anything out of the regime and decide that they have nothing to lose by bad-mouthing it.
And much of it also arises out of the normal power play between every government and the party hierarchy. When AB Vajpayee was PM, it was traditional for the RSS and the BJP to complain loudly about his policies. The intention was less to get those policies changed and more to force the government to defer to party functionaries. Vajpayee is a veteran political power-player so he handled conflicts adroitly. Manmohan Singh is determinedly apolitical so he is less skilful in coping with the party’s attempts to extract its pound of flesh.
But let’s not pretend that all of the criticism is motivated. The truth is that there is a very real feeling of disappointment within the Congress. Many important party functionaries — who respect Manmohan Singh personally — are concerned that the government seems to have lost its grip over issues; that too many mediocre civil servants call the shots; that the allies are being poorly managed; and that the government lacks the political understanding to know which issues really matter. When the party starts complaining (usually through leaks to the media), it reinforces the middle class concern that there is a problem at the heart of the government. A minor mis-communication — for instance, party leaders were misinformed about the true extent of the last hike in petrol prices — threatens to explode into a major conflagration.
In the Vajpayee-era, the government’s conflict with the party was resolved in closed rooms over jalebis and kachoris. The PMO’s media apparatus was kept out of the loop; even the mighty Brajesh Mishra was excluded from government-parivar gatherings; and Vajpayee himself never allowed his true feelings to be communicated to anybody, preferring to maintain a Sphinx-like silence while concentrating on the jalebis.
One of the problems with this government is that we are constantly told how unhappy Manmohan Singh is with the party; how despondent he is and, on more than one occasion, how he will resign if his critics within the party do not back off.
If you read the news analysis in much of the press, then it is not difficult to work out where all this is coming from. As The Times of India wrote yesterday about the rumour that Manmohan Singh had resigned: “It was a detailed account of the PM’s despondency — liberally shared with the media by the PMO — over the disinvestment debacle that appears to have provided the fodder for the rumour.”
There is now a certain sameness to most of the editorials: “PM must be supported… party must be disciplined… Sonia must act… reforms cannot be sacrificed for mere political expediency… decent Manmohan has stood up to the hooligans of the Congress… etc.”
Now, all of this may well be true. But should it be “liberally shared with the media”? And is it surprising that it has the effect of further alienating the party, of making Congressmen feel like vandals who have to be disciplined?
Worst of all, it reinforces the image that there is a battle for the soul of this government. Anybody who reads a newspaper or watches TV cannot but feel that Manmohan Singh is a Prime Minister under siege; that the poor guy is not being allowed to function by the very party that made him Prime Minister. Rather than enhance Manmohan Singh’s image as a decent man who believes in reform, it conveys the wrong impression: that he is a rather emotional, ineffectual fellow who reaches for a resignation letter rather than a handkerchief.
So far, at least, everybody that I have spoken to within the Congress takes the line that the middle class does not matter. After all, the BJP counted on the middle class and still suffered. So, the Congress will appeal to a different constituency.
I think this approach is wrong-headed and dangerous. It is the same advice that party hacks gave Rajiv Gandhi in 1988:
“Bofors is only a middle class issue so don’t worry about what the press writes…” The middle class does matter. It still sets the agenda and when it withdraws its approval, governments lose their moral legitimacy. (Remember VP Singh’s transformation from Man of Integrity to Casteist Vampire in 1990?)
It does this government no credit that battles between the party and the Cabinet are played out on the front pages. For every leak, for every plant, for every rumour and for every briefing, there will be a day of reckoning. And a price to be paid.