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Middle class’s growing distance

The sad reality of the UPA is that it does not respect or reflect the hopes, aspirations and dreams of the Indian middle class, writes Vir Sanghvi.Write to the author

india Updated: Apr 24, 2007 16:44 IST

Depending on which set of results you choose to look at, this government is either doing very well or it’s doing very badly. If you look at the opinion polls commissioned by a variety of TV channels, newspapers and magazines, they all tell the same story: the UPA is far more popular today than it was when the last general election was held. If India went to the polls now, the government would easily be re-elected.

That’s one set of results. But others tell a completely different story. Wherever there has been an election over the last six months, the Congress has been defeated. It lost in the Delhi municipal polls a few days ago; it lost crucial by-elections in Maharashtra last week; it lost in the Bombay municipal polls; and its state governments were defeated in Uttranchal and Punjab.

Which set of results you choose to focus on probably has more to do with your own biases than it does with any objective reality. Central ministers argue that municipal elections cannot be regarded as a referenda on the government and ascribe defeats in assembly elections to regional factors. They may be right but it is hard to be upbeat about the Congress party when every election result contains a new humiliation or a new reverse.

We can spend all Sunday arguing about the significance of each set of results. But, as far as I am concerned, there’s only one fact that really seems to matter: most educated people appear to have more faith in the significance of the electoral defeats than they do in the cheerful message of the opinion polls. Ask any member of the educated middle class how he thinks the Congress party is doing in office and the answer will almost invariably be the same: the government is on a slippery slope and the good times are over.

Most times, this opinion is offered without rancour or bitterness, and only as a matter-of-fact summary of the true state of events. There is little middle class anger against this government. Sonia Gandhi has managed to retain the popularity and admiration she gained when she turned down the prime ministership and Manmohan Singh is widely respected as a decent, thoughtful and honourable man.

Nor is the middle class unaware that India is now experiencing a boom of unparalleled proportions. Salaries are at an all-time high. The stock market has risen to levels that were considered unimaginable when the BJP demitted office. Foreign investment is flowing. Consumer goods are flooding the market. India is the global flavour of the decade.

So, if we have never had it so good and there is no personal bitterness towards the leaders of this government, then why is the middle class so willing to believe the bad news over the good news? Why do so many people think that the government is on the skids? Why is there an almost detached recognition that this is the beginning of the end?

These are tough questions and I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with the answer that has been provided.

The usual response is framed in terms of inflation. There’s no doubt that the rise in prices has hurt middle class people though, of course, the aam aadmi has been hardest hit. But while public anger over the inflation of food can have a huge short-term impact (elections have been won and lost over the price of onions), it is not enough to entirely explain the resigned detachment with which so many educated people now say that the government is in trouble.

And my guess is that the middle class’s readiness to give up on the government has less to do with tangible events or factors and more to do with a growing disconnect between the Congress and the educated Indian.

When this government was elected, it said it had got to office by focusing on the aam aadmi, the man for who India was never Shining, the fellow who had been excluded from the gains of liberalisation. Obviously there was something to that view. The BJP had failed to keep a broader vision of India in mind and had reached out only to the urban middle class.

But I had two problems with this formulation. The first was that despite its expensive ad campaigns, I’m not so sure that the BJP completely won over the urban middle class. If you look at the results of the last election, you’ll find that the BJP was comprehensively defeated as much in the cities as it was in the villages.

The second problem is that while the middle class can be shallow, fickle and selfish, I think many of us did recognise that the new prosperity was not being equally divided. If the Congress had only been the party of the aam aadmi, then the middle class would have hated it from the day it was elected. In fact, the middle class was largely well-disposed to the new government.

And, in the months that followed the elections, there was widespread support for many of the welfare measures that were expressly aimed at people outside the urban middle class. When commentators sneered at the “jholawallahs who had invaded 10 Janpath” or tried to mobilise opinion against the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, there was virtually no public response. Even as emotive an issue as education quotas failed to dent the government’s standing with the middle class.

Clearly, the middle class was willing to let the gains of growth be redistributed. Despite the unflattering caricature, the middle class was actually willing to admit that there was a social imbalance that needed to be corrected.

So, what has changed now?

Simple: I think the government has lost the plot.

The UPA has got so enmeshed in the politics of quotas, of winning back Dalits, of recapturing the Muslim vote and of keeping the CPM happy, that it has forgotten that it is presiding over the biggest boom in our history. And it has neglected the architects of that boom.

Like it or not, the middle class is the engine of India’s prosperity. Other countries have coal and oil; India has educated people and sheer brainpower. The India boom is not based on cheap labour for the export market or the efforts of the traditional industrial class. It is based on the enterprise, energy and education of the Indian middle class.

It is nobody’s case that therefore the middle class must reap all the gains of economic success. But equally, you cannot run a government during this boom and simply ignore the middle class. The sad reality of the UPA is that it does not respect or reflect the hopes, aspirations and dreams of the Indian middle class. Instead, it takes the boom and its architects for granted.

Let’s take just one example: the finance ministry. Does it not strike you as odd that despite our spectacular economic success, nobody gives the Finance Minister the credit for the boom? Instead, he’s seen as a guy who just happened to be in office when it all took off.
Think about the budgets. Most economists tell me that they bear all the hallmarks of the macro-economic brilliance that characterises the Finance Minster. And yet, the middle class reaction is always the same. There is anger over the cess on bank withdrawals, annoyance over a tax on stock options, irritation with discretionary powers given to revenue officials to judge taxable fringe benefits, rage over new service tax rules, and so on.

It may be, as the Finance Minister says, that middle class objections are unreasonable. But I think he’s missing the point. The middle class looks for some acknowledgement from the government of the role it is playing in creating wealth and value. Instead, it gets mindless taxes, needless hassles and longer tax forms. The revenue implications of giving in to middle class demands are negligible. But still, the government stubbornly persists.

I’ve chosen the Finance Ministry as an example but the same principle holds true throughout the government. For instance, nobody grudges the HRD minister his obsession with quotas; they just wish he’d also do something for those who are ineligible for his quotas. In almost every other ministry, there is no recognition of the aspirations of the booming middle class and no attempt to identify with the architects of India’s spectacular growth.

None of this seriously hurts the middle class. The taxes are a nuisance rather than a problem. There are enough new educational institutions opening up to make up for the quotas.

But it does have the effect of distancing the government from the middle class and from the boom itself — one reason perhaps why most educated people believe it would have happened anyway, no matter who was in power. And it leads to a curious detachment where nobody hates the government; they just feel far removed from it.

You could argue, as many Congressmen do, that the middle class is a political irrelevance and that there is nothing to be gained by pandering to it.

But think about it: the Congress party is in power during an era of unparalleled prosperity. And yet, not only does nobody give it any credit, but the people who drive the boom feel that the Congress has no time for them.

Is that weird or what? And can it ever be good politics to preside over prosperity and to still ignore the people who power it?
How much better and how much fairer would it be for our own government to acknowledge the aspirations and dreams of a new India — especially when the rest of the world is rushing to do exactly that?