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Waiting for a strong leader: there's revolution in the air

The increasingly politically assertive middle class sees politicians as largely ineffective and corrupt. But it wants a strong leader to solve problems, exactly what Rahul has warned against, Varghese K George, Charu Sudan Kasturi and Vikas Pathak write.

delhi Updated: Apr 25, 2013 22:36 IST
Varghese K George,Charu Sudan Kasturi,Vikas Pathak

Satish Kumar admits he doesn't know much about the Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by Arvind Kejriwal and his colleagues, and probing questions fetch an embarrassed smile. But it took just one message on Facebook for the 28-year-old engineer who works with a Gurgaon call centre to skip work and join Kejriwal's protest at the capital's Jantar Mantar last July.

"I'm fed up with waiting for politicians to improve, correct all that's wrong with India," said Kumar, originally from Bhiwani, Haryana. "Kejriwal looks like someone who can fix things."

Kumar represents the politics of the young, emerging middle class that is exploding across cities and towns, something that political parties across the spectrum recognise, but are struggling to address.

Unlike the yesteryear politics shaped in the immediate geographical surroundings - in a constituency or a district - this middle class politics is national and is driven by mass media and new media. The mass movement that broke out on the streets of Delhi after the December gangrape of a 23-year old physiotherapy student is an example.

Sanjay Paswan, 30, works for an NGO in Patna. A Dalit, he feels caste still exists in India. HT Photo/AP Dube

"I've felt angry about women's rights before, but I would n't have joined the protests if I hadn't felt the push from others like me on Facebook," accepted Parul Prasad, a 23-year old school teacher who participated in the protests that grabbed headlines.

What the likes of Prasad and Kumar want is a strong leader, though they are loud in their distrust in politicians. Something that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi warned against recently, addressing a gathering of industrialists. Don't wait for a "man on the horse," he said, who would come and single-handedly solve all the problems of India. Instead, he suggested, the country must collectively tackle the challenges. But the middle class yearning for a strong leader is so unqualified that they would not mind even an authoritarian one. HT analysis: Rise of the cellphone voter

Bangalore-based marketing executive Shashank Shekhar, 34, was born in Patna, and grew up in a generation when caste dominated politics in Bihar. He believes that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has turned around the state, and wants the same nationally. "For that, you need strong leadership," Shekhar said. His preferred candidate for that role is Narendra Modi, who, ironically, is strongly opposed by Nitish. As a party, Congress is his first choice, but he is seriously planning to switch sides if Modi is BJP's PM candidate. For him Nitish and Modi both represent strong leadership.

The attraction of strong leadership seen to deliver quickly isn't surprising, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economist Abhijit Banerjee. "But what worries me about this segment of the population is this search for quick fix solutions," he said.

A leader who offers instant solutions for all problems is something that the middle class is looking for. For many, their travails - from rising prices and a slowing economy to day-to-day problems like a broken drainage system and traffic jams - are linked to the absence of a strong leader.

The media discussions that demand and suggest instant solutions for issues ranging from corruption to sexual offences egg on and thrive on this class. And that opens this constituency up for leaders like Kejriwal and Modi- who are never short of solutions.

Gigi Saji, from Wayanad, Kerala, came to Bangalore a decade back with the dream of becoming a beautician. Her salon in Bangalore's Domlur neighbourhood is doing well but last year's anti-Northeast violence hurt her business because most of her employees were from that region and left for home in fear. She opposes politics that pits immigrants against locals. HT Photo/Virendra Singh Gosain/HT Photo

But in Kejriwal's case, there is some skepticism. Manoranjan Udayar, 36, who runs an event management firm in Mumbai, said: "Kejriwal is capable to be a leader, but it is mysterious how his party is getting funds to run their activities."

In power for a second term, naturally, the Congress is at the receiving end of middle class impatience - though the party had seen this coming. Speaking to newly elected Congress MPs soon after the 2009 election, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged the youth votes the party had won but also cautioned his colleagues. "It is in the nature of youth to be impatient," the PM said. "They will not tolerate business as usual. They expect us to work with renewed energy. They expect the government to cater their aspirations. They expect a more responsive government. They expect a more efficient government."

Related to the yearning for a strong leader is a broadly held perception that India is a soft state. And India's attitude towards Pakistan is seen by many in the new middle class as a pointer to India's "soft" nature. Even politicians aren't immune. In a discussion at the January conclave of the Congress party in Jaipur, younger delegates were frenzied, almost vituperative when the topic of relations with Pakistan was taken up. Rahul Gandhi had to intervene to calm them down.

But while the argument for a strong state is recurring, many in this class have an ambiguous attitude towards the rule of law in their own personal lives. Rajesh Kumar, a cab driver who wants to start his own cab agency, is willing to pay a bribe to get the licenses he needs to start his business. "I don't have any other option."

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First Published: Apr 21, 2013 23:14 IST