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Change or perish

To win elections in a fast urbanising India, politicians will have to deliver economic growth and also sell a narrative of optimism to the 'new' middle classes. Ashok Malik writes.

india Updated: Feb 05, 2013 01:35 IST
Ashok Malik

Some 200 of the Lok Sabha's 543 seats can be described as broadly urban. An incremental number - 50, 100, the figure can only be guessed - are influenced by trends in big cities. Put together these 300 odd seats are where the Congress and the BJP are in serious contention, if not direct competition. It is these constituencies that will decide whether one or the other national party will have enough seats (180-200) to run a coalition on its terms after the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Electoral politics is configured in concentric circles. The national party that wins urban middle-class support ends up doing better in those 200 or so urban seats. It then goes on to have an advantage in the wider, 300-seat spectrum where the two national parties have a realistic chance.

However, political and media discourse is thoroughly confused as to who exactly comprises this urban middle class. Part of the challenge lies in the Indian habit of describing even obviously rich people as middle class. Anecdotally many wealthy individuals self-identify as middle class on the basis of compliance with alleged "middle-class values". In a recent news-television debate, at least one person associated with the Congress said the middle class that goes to big shopping malls is a product of Manmohan Singh's 1991 reforms and does not like the BJP because that party opposes foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail.

Such an assessment is decidedly problematic. In nobody's reckoning can somebody who goes regularly to an upscale shopping mall for retail therapy be called middle class. What India is experiencing is a massive, real-time expansion of one homogenous 'middle class' - doctors, lawyers, civil servants, bankers, all of whom had the same cultural reference points and similar family and educational backgrounds in, say, the 1970s - into a much larger and very heterogeneous "middle classes". This expansion makes contemporary India fascinating. It also makes contemporary Indian politics unpredictable.

An example would help. An executive working for an MNC bank and visiting big shopping malls every weekend may be exercised by the issue of FDI in retail. He would belong to the old, conventional definition of 'middle class'. Yet, by any standards - income, net worth, lifestyle choices - he should be categorised as rich. On the other hand, his driver is perhaps the first member of his family who can afford to buy his daughter two glasses of milk a day, is attempting to get her into some type of 'English-medium school' and whose home-maker wife has only recently made the shift from a coal-fired stove to an LPG cylinder.

Each of these aspirations - a glass of milk for the child every morning and evening; access to English education, even if the parents don't understand the language; and the quest for an LPG cylinder that empowers the woman in the kitchen - is a real and easily identifiable benchmark. That milk prices have doubled in the past five years, or that LPG rates are climbing may be an inconvenience for the proverbial MNC banker's family. For the driver's family, these are life-altering concerns. For the absolute poor, they don't matter at all.

Consider people you know: friends and colleagues, neighbours and employees. How many of them belong to families that met all three benchmarks - milk, LPG cylinder, English-medium school - a generation ago and how many have made the grade only in the past 10-15 years. The first category belongs to the old 'middle class'; the second to the new 'middle classes'.

It is these middle classes, many members of which have worked and clawed their way up from a working-class, near-poverty situation in the past decade or two, who are completely at odds with our political system, its closed doors and its hierarchy of privileges. The Congress's most momentous error in the past nine years has been to underestimate the sheer volume of these new middle classes. Comfortable with the rich city-poor village dynamic, it has taken party veterans and their fellow travellers a long time to acknowledge this new segment even exists.

What has created this segment? The immediate answer is of course economic growth. This has given the MNC banker and his driver a stake in the same larger economic policy ecosystem - which determines incomes, grocery options and the well-being of both, even if only one of them understands how this ecosystem works. When the driver goes home to his village - where he may well be registered as a voter - he senses this daughter's access to a glass of milk is going to be determined by forces beyond his constituency MLA and his traditional, caste-linked political affiliation. Inevitably this influences his vote in a national election.

The new middle classes are also glued together by the news media. A few weeks ago, a friend travelled to rural Kutch to research water shortage among agricultural communities. He found himself interrogated instead on the December 16 Delhi rape incident. Television has created a pan-Indian constituency far faster than politicians have realised.

Today's adept politician has to respond to these urges and hopes. He has to be a good communicator (lest news media efface him), has to deliver economic growth and has to sell a narrative of optimism. Test the UPA government against these parameters. It will explain why the urban middle classes have turned against it.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal