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The man in the middle

The recent terrorist attack on Bombay gave a fascinating glimpse into the working of the middle-class mind. 26/11 has brought the middle class to the frontline in the war against terror, writes Soumitro Das.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2008 22:13 IST

"Nationalism means that the guy living across the border is not a human being.” Imran Khan. The recent terrorist attack on Bombay gave a fascinating glimpse into the working of the middle-class mind. Under normal circumstances, when it is fully conscious of its privileges and its disproportionate influence on public life in this country, the middle-class is coy, reticent and politically correct. It dons the garb of piety and mouths self-righteous platitudes. 26/11 changed all that: It placed the middle class on the frontline of the ‘war against terror’, sanctioned a muscular display of nationalism on its part and freed it from most of its inhibitions. For a moment, it was forgotten that ‘middle class’ is not synonymous with ‘people’. So when the English-language audio visual media said that the people were angry, nobody was asking what the neighbourhood chaiwallah thought. The media ‘very naturally’ turned to its own constituency for an opinion.

Against whom was this anger directed? Against all politicians. This,again, is a typically middle-class thing to do. The middle class in this country does not have an ideology. It has a philosophy and a religion. The religion is by and large upper-caste Hindu, and the philosophy is managerial, with the efficiency principle and profit-making at its core. If the middle-class condemned all politicians it was because they had shown themselves to be inefficient and had failed to deliver where it counted most. On the other hand, the NSG and the Marcos had lived up to public expectation. The fact that they took several hours to reach the crime scene was attributed to the short-sightedness and the managerial inefficiency of the political class as a whole. The resulting equation: politicians are inefficient, the Army is efficient. The logical conclusion: the Army is better equipped to run the country than the politicians.

This explodes the myth that the educated, English-speaking middle class is the mainstay of our democracy. It is not. The middle-class has an abiding fantasy of a benevolent dictator who will rule with an iron hand, restore order and commit everything to making material progress. Its favourite country is not the US, that lumbering giant so brilliant and so confused, but Singapore. It dreams of an authoritarian father figure, like Lee Kuan Yew, who will impose order on our chaos and reaffirm our civilisational values which are based on the family. Not family as in love and affection, but family as in the uncritical acceptance of traditional wisdom and practices upheld by the elders. The middle-class is enchanted with toughness.

So it is with middle-class nationalism. There are three groups of people who think Pakistan is the enemy. The first nurses a historical grievance against Muslims, and thinks of Partition as a calamity and Muslims as foreign invaders, for whom Pakistan was created and where they should all go. This is the Hindu right wing. The other two groups are made up of people who have been victims of radical Islamic terror, such as the Kashmiri pandits, and our intelligence establishment as a whole — combined with elements within the Army. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Indians do not think that Pakistan is the enemy. All these groups have a middle-class character. Middle-class nationalism is virulently anti-Pakistan and, though it does not dare say it openly, anti-Muslim too. It is the common people, devoted as they are to their faith, who are truly secular. Another middle-class fantasy is of somehow exterminating the Muslims to solve the minority question once and for all.

Also, as noted by other commentators, the action for the 24-hour English news channels centred around the bastions of middle-class influence and wealth: the Taj Palace, Trident and Oberoi hotels. The fact that a dastardly attack on the CST had left roughly 50 people dead was of no concern to anybody because it did not involve the middle-class.

The middle class dominates every institution of our public life: the executive, judiciary, army, media, public and private sectors, the legal and medical professions et al. The only institution it does not control is the legislature, which is controlled by the rural masses and the urban poor — by people who do not know where their next meal is going to come from. This is why the middle-class ridicules our politicians. The only party which it feels an affinity for is the BJP which also dreams of authoritarianism and an Asian values regime a la Singapore.

Presently, there is a fierce struggle for power between the middle-class, on the one hand, and the rural masses and the urban poor on the other — a battle between the bourgeoisie and feudalism. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can say who will win. But will it be a victory for democracy, basic civil liberties and the rule of law? With liberalisation and globalisation, the middle-class is increasingly being thrust into a leadership position, amid a growing demand for efficiency and profit. If our democracy does not deliver that, the middle-class will edge closer to its authoritarian ideals, and globalisation and liberalisation will lead us towards dictatorship.

Already, there is a demand for consensus, for “national unity”, and political parties have to set aside their differences to set up a united front against a common enemy designated by the middle-class — Pakistan. In other words, a social and cultural status quo must be obtained and there must be no talk of revolution. Only efficiency — and not social justice — must count.