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The Indian middle class has begun to care

I am always hesitant about making predictions regarding the public mood but I am going to stick my neck out and say that we may be witnessing some seismic activity in the attitudes of the Indian middle class. Vir Sanghvi writes.

columns Updated: Aug 29, 2010 12:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

I am always hesitant about making predictions regarding the public mood but I am going to stick my neck out and say that we may be witnessing some seismic activity in the attitudes of the Indian middle class.

For the last decade or so, educated Indians have been overwhelmingly market-friendly. (And this includes the Communists — at least, when they are in government though they may say other things in Opposition.) We believe that years of socialism set India back. We recognise that growth rates only shot up after the reforms of 1991. We are convinced that the road to superstar status lies in removing the socialist shackles that imprisoned the ingenuity of the Indian people for so long. And we realise that we are all much better off now than we were in the pre-1991 era.

It is not my case that this consensus has altered dramatically. Certainly, it has one thing going for it: it happens to be the truth.

But the problem with the middle-class consensus has never been one of accuracy. It has been the problem of inclusiveness. However complacent we may be, the reality is that things have not got so much better for the non-middle class sections of India. And for many people they have actually got far worse. India may well be shining for us. But as the BJP discovered, when you ask the entire country to endorse that proposition, the responses can be unexpected and hostile.

Though inclusiveness has been an issue almost from the beginning of the reform process, we in the middle class have resisted admitting this. When people have argued that the failures of the market to reach all of India make it imperative to have direct transfers of wealth — in the form of write-offs of farmers’ loans, subsidies, NREGA, etc. — we have sneered. This is populism, we say. It is bad economics. It is the sort of thinking that got us into the mess that prevailed till 1991. How can we possibly allow it to go on, etc. etc.?

My sense is that the middle class consensus has now shifted slightly from this absolutist position. We are prepared to accept, both consciously and subliminally, that inclusiveness is a major problem. We see this most clearly in our attitudes to land acquisition and to the tribals whom the Maoists claim to represent. In both those cases, we are no longer as sure of the infallibility of the market as we once were.

Land acquisition is inevitable in almost any society. Roads have to be built. Railway tracks have to be laid. And so on. But now many of us fear that this wave of acquisition is guided by other principles. We are taking land away from poor people, paying them tiny sums for the farms that have been in their families for generations, and then handing the land over to fat-cat businessmen who will make thousands of crores by setting up projects on the land or by mining the soil for precious minerals.

Most of us reject out of hand the extremist position put forward by Maoist supporters that their movement is a revolution against a corrupt upper-class (i.e. you and me) that has elected governments that combine with industrialists to banish or exterminate poor people so that we can profit from the mineral deposits in the areas they once inhabited.

But we no longer deny that from the perspective of displaced tribals, this view might seem credible.

You can measure the altered middle-class response in the hesitation many of us feel when military responses to Maoist violence are discussed. Even those of us who believe that the State must assert the rule of law are troubled by a slight sense of guilt. Have we first robbed these people of their lands and then sent armed policemen after them? Isn’t there something wrong in a system where we have seen our prosperity increase while life has got much more difficult for those at the margins of our society?

You sense the more nuanced middle-class response in attitudes to the Vedanta project in Orissa. Without wishing to delve into the rights and wrongs of the issue, there is no doubt that in image terms, many of us see Anil Agarwal as a villain out of Avatar and the tribals as heroes fighting to preserve their way of life.

You can perceive the shift in the middle-class consensus if you look at our willingness to listen to the farmers who descended on Delhi in their thousands on Thursday. The farmers say that the UP government is confiscating their land, allegedly for a highway, but actually to hand over to favoured industrialists. They may or may not be right but given a choice between the views of desperate farmers and the implacable determination of Mayawati to seize their land, it’s not hard to see why so many of us are willing to believe the farmers.

There are other manifestations of the change in mood. Once upon a time, we would all have treated Vedanta’s acquisition of Cairn India as merely a corporate affair. But now, we believe that the government has a right to intervene and check out the kind of people who are going to be drilling out the oil that belongs to the Indian people. On the Nuclear Liability Bill also, one reason why the Opposition has been able to force far-reaching amendments on the government is because the public believes that nuclear manufacturers have no concern for the ordinary people who might suffer if their plants malfunction. (After Bhopal, who can say that this fear is unjustified?)

None of this is to suggest that we are losing faith in the market or even that we are turning into a nation of jholawallahs. We still believe that less socialism equals more prosperity for everyone. And we have no desire to turn the clock back to the pre-1991 situation.

But as the middle class matures, as we get used to the fruits of the new prosperity, we are finally rising above our own selfish interests to take a look at what is happening in the rest of India.

And I, for one, think that this is a good thing. Indian democracy works best when those with a lot look out for those with too little.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Aug 28, 2010 22:04 IST