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Top, middle and grassroots

Formal politics is counting for less and less. The real action is coming from outside the political system: from middle class anger and grassroots activism, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2007 00:43 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

I know it’s a bit late in the new year to do my traditional ‘trends that dominated the last year’ Counterpoint but I shall have to fob you off with the usual excuses: I was travelling for most of a fortnight and it’s hard to get a grip on what’s happening in your own country when you’re so far away.

The other disadvantage with doing this piece so late is that you’ve probably had your fill of year-end issues by now and may well feel that there’s nothing left to say.

Perhaps. But I do think that there are three trends that have been insufficiently commented on.

The first is the mind-numbingly boring nature of today’s formal politics. I’m a journalist, I make my living from the news and I meet a lot of politicians in the course of my work, so God knows I have no business being bored.

But let’s face it: I am. We all are.

After the excitement of the BJP years, Congress politics has settled down into a tired, world-weary pattern. Even political journalists cannot name over half the members of the central ministry. (Don’t believe me? All right. You tell me. Have you ever heard of any of these people: Panabaka Lakshmi, Naranbhai Rathwa, KH Muniappa or Manikrao Gavit? They’re all central ministers.)

I’m not sure that this is necessarily a bad thing. We tend to pay too much attention to politics anyway. And perhaps the boredom of the last year is one indication that we’ve decided to get on with our own lives and finally accepted that progress in India occurs in spite of and not because of our politicians.

The second is the rise of middle class activism. Several factors contributed to this. But the two most important were these: the Indian middle class is bigger and more prosperous than ever before but it is also politically disenfranchised. Because middle class voters are spread across constituencies all over the country (unlike, say, caste and ethnic groups which can be narrowly concentrated), they have virtually no say in the selection of the government. (As the authors of the India Shining campaign discovered, at their cost.)

The middle class believes that it is the engine of India’s progress. It believes that we are the world’s largest democracy only because the urban middle class subscribes to liberal values. And yet, democracy has had the effect of actually taking effective political power away from the middle class and giving it to those at the bottom of the social pyramid. (Which is why Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath worked better than India Shining.)

For the last five years, middle class frustration has grown. So has the middle class contempt for politicians. A desperate search for middle class heroes has led to the veneration of judges (as in “thank God for the judiciary”) and of plucky civil servants and officers (the Kiran Bedi-J M Lyngdoh phenomenon). Most middle class people now believe that not only does the political system exclude them but that it favours the corrupt and influential.

The big development of the last year was that the middle class frustration finally found articulation, thanks to two relatively new forms of technology: the satellite news channels and the SMS.

The campaigns to reopen the Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases only make sense when you view them through this prism. In both cases, the newspapers had covered the stories, made the usual noises and then moved on. It was the news channels that had the vision to tap into the middle class outrage and to promise to deliver what most newspapers said was impossible: the reopening of the cases after the murderers had been acquitted and the handing down of guilty verdicts that the middle class regarded as fair and just.

Many traditional print journos laughed at the SMS campaigns. Others made valid criticisms (about tokenism, about the need to change the system, about TRP-driven activism etc).

But most of us missed the point. Television and text messaging had given the disenfranchised middle class a new voice and, with it, a measure of power.

No matter that the middle class only focused on middle class murders. Or that the anger was directed against beneficiaries of a system (top police officers and sleazy politicians who bent the rules to save their sons) that excluded the middle class — and not at People Like Us. No matter also that when justice was finally delivered, it came from traditional middle class heroes: the judges.

What matters is that middle class activism became a force to reckon with over the last year. And that trend seems set to continue.

The third trend deserves a piece by itself (and perhaps I will do one a little later) but its contours are still not fully clear.

Basically, my sense is that the traditional Left is dead as a rallying point for rebels and radicals. Partly it has to do with the death of communism in most of the world: it’s hard to subscribe to a 19th century system of economics that failed spectacularly in the 21st century. And partly it has to do with the Left’s own deviations from Karl Marx: is there really much ideological difference between Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Manmohan Singh?

But that still leaves a vast number of people who want to speak up against the system and for those at the margins of society. Once upon a time, they would have waved red flags and put up posters of Che Guevara. Now that Marxism has lost its glamour, a new kind of all-purpose coalition has emerged to fill that space.

This coalition is a broad church so it’s hard to be specific about its distinctive features. But it includes, at one extreme, the NGOs who Sonia Gandhi seems so enamoured with (the ones who made it to the National Advisory Council) and who tend to push for development measures which while statist (the Employment Guarantee Scheme, for instance) are not Marxist or communist.

At another level, it includes environmentalists (such as Sunita Narain whose work devastated the cola companies last year), animal welfare people, and civic groups dedicated to communal harmony and such causes.

At a third level are the radicals, the people who believe that development almost necessarily hurts the poor and will protest the building of any dam, the requisitioning of any rural land for industrial purposes and the resettlement of villagers as a consequence of projects.

The most obvious examples of this kind of activism are the likes of Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. Sometimes they form alignments across the divide — with Aamir Khan over Narmada or Mamata Banerjee over Singur — but rarely, if ever, do such alignments last or even make any consistent ideological sense.

It’s hard to generalise about this third trend because it includes so many different kinds of people pursuing varied causes. Sometimes the political system supports one kind of activism (the NAC NGOs, for instance) and attacks another (the Narmada agitation). Sometimes the middle class appears to agree (I’ve lost count of the number of mothers who told their children not to drink Coke because of Sunita Narain), and sometimes it turns violently hostile (the supporters of Mohammad Afzal, for instance, have probably damaged his case because their we-are-so-clever self-righteousness and hysteria have put off even those moderate people who were willing to listen to reason).

But like it or not, this is a trend that dominated the last year, whether it was the implementation of the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the hugely successful campaign on the Right to Information Act and the increasing number of agitations against land acquisition.

My guess is that the trend will grow. Vast numbers of young people who would have joined the Left once upon a time much prefer now to be identified with this kind of activism.

Is there an overwhelming pattern to all three trends? I think there is. Essentially, formal politics is counting for less and less. The real action is coming from outside the political system: from middle class anger and grassroots activism.

And that’s probably a good thing.

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First Published: Jan 14, 2007 00:43 IST