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Middle road for the middle class

india Updated: May 07, 2009 22:28 IST

Hindustan Times
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India’s middle class and affluent are steadfast in one respect: their apathy towards governance. Every second voter in Mumbai and Delhi did not show up. Many may argue that this is a satisfactory turnout. But given the accessibility to polling booths in metros, many more could have voted. This suggests the loosening strands of the social contract that the middle class has with the State. A section of the population that can — and does — buy itself private healthcare, education and security is likely to find itself an unwilling stakeholder in governance. It grudgingly pays its taxes, and goes out and purchases all the ‘public goods’ it has stopped expecting in return. Those that do expect public goods — that includes every other Indian, who lives in the countryside — have a greater incentive to stain their fingers with polling ink. The village vote has historically been more robust than the city vote in India.

The irony is today’s affluent Indian owes his station in no small measure to government largesse. He, or his parents, have lived off cheap, even free, public goods, to get where he has. Those on the outside, looking in see the aspiring affluent cornering subsidies — from oil to university education — in what is a zero-sum game. A fragmenting polity tries to stymie this usurpation. To get to a State-owned college, one needs to go through the village school, which, if it exists, often does not equip its students with an adequate education. Identity politics — based on ethnic and caste loyalties — is an attempt by the peasant to pitchfork himself into a better life. The numerical superiority of the countryside should ensure that this brand of politics will prevail.

The dialectic presents a clear message to the political establishment. If affluence breeds apathy, providing public goods that take people out of poverty will yield diminishing political returns. However, as more people join the ranks of the middle class, either by growth trickling down or by active income redistribution, the polity has a better chance of consolidating. Pity, this process is way beyond the planning horizon of our political parties. Most of them have created a workable space for themselves by becoming ad hoc arbiters of official patronage. Which can be huge in an economy where the government spends one in four rupees of the national income. There is more to the aam aadmi than a political slogan.