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January 11, 2013

A class awakens

The ground is ready for greater political involvement of the Indian middle class.

In their compelling new book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson make two principal arguments. First, sustained economic growth is only possible under the conditions of inclusive economic and political institutions. Second, politics; without understanding the political organisation of a country, it is impossible to address its developmental challenges.

It has often been said that the Indian middle class has “seceded from the republic”. Its disdain for India’s leaders and its Machiavellian politics is well known. A more sympathetic argument would be that because “India grows at night”, the middle class views the State more as a nuisance than as a springboard for its ambitions. Responding to the inadequacies of the Indian state, the middle class has attempted to construct an alternate republic where public goods – from water to security- are privately procured and exist independent of the state. But as Gurcharan Das argues in India Grows at Night, this process is inherently inefficient and has obvious limits.

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The estrangement of the middle class from the political process has had an insidious impact on the Indian republic. Political parties tend to ignore the middle class’ direct interests fueling a vicious cycle of further disengagement. More importantly, in any advanced society, it is the middle class that functions as the conscience of the state because the rich are often too entrenched in the system while the poor are too busy with their daily struggles. The emaciated state of the middle class for the longest period in modern Indian history has thus damaged the republic.

Coming as it does in the wake of the Anna Hazare movement, the protests in some of India’s largest cities against the brutal gang-rape-cum murder in New Delhi suggest a growing engagement in public affairs. The middle class is beginning to realise that while it may secure its homes, it still requires a functional state to ensure public security. The recent protests underline that India needs a strong liberal state — an entity, which to use from Gurcharan Das’s words, does fewer things but does them well.

Two critical questions remain. First, how to expand this movement to reflect larger issues of governance affecting all Indians and not just the middle class. Had the Delhi gangrape taken place in a remote part of the country (where such incidents are unfortunately only too common) it is doubtful if it would have led to candlelight vigils at India Gate. Indeed, the many sexist utterances of state level politicians reflects their bewilderment that the “dented and painted” women (and men) are so easily able to dominate the national headlines. This isn’t necessarily an “India versus Bharat” battle as many commentators have recently argued. After all, Bharat suffers even more acutely from lack of basic governance and poor delivery of public goods. The confluence of interests of India and Bharat is essential if any middle-class movement is to be sustained in the long-term.

This reconciliation is unlikely to happen in the cultural sphere in the foreseeable future. Large parts of India remain culturally conservative and superficially, there may be little common between South Delhi and Patna. The same dynamic, however, may not be true in the matters of economics and public policy. For instance, Bharat largely ignored the Anna Hazare movement restricting it to a primarily urban movement. It simply did not understand how the institution of Lokpal – even if managed effectively – would address its concerns. Linking the issue of corruption to the inability of the Indian state to deliver basic public goods – from good rural schools to easily accessible land records – would perhaps have been more effective in mobilising the larger Indian public opinion.

Second, how should the middle class engage in politics? Many commentators have correctly pointed out that adopting unconstitutional means can lead to what Dr BR Ambedkar evocatively described as the “grammar of anarchy”. A country with a weak rule of law carries the additional risk of violence and demands of retributive justice. However, the argument that democracy must always eschew agitational politics is inherently elitist in nature. It reduces citizens to the status of mere voters who after exercising their right to franchise should leave governance to the tiny elite capable of crafting sophisticated policies. The anger on Delhi streets may often be inchoate but it reflects the deeply felt frustrations of the common Indians with the political process. While it may not be the ideal form of political expression, it is definitely preferable to a complete disengagement.

Indubitably, as the Anna Hazare movement discovered, street protests without a binding set of political and policy beliefs, achieve little and the energies ultimately fritter away. Nevertheless, a more sympathetic attitude towards street politics among India’s political and policy elites may help redirect its energies towards more meaningful and long term reforms. At the same time, it may help establish a ground for greater involvement, where politics is not viewed as a dirty business unworthy of middle class aspirations.

The actual strength of the Indian middle class is a matter of vigorous debate. Nevertheless, it is clear that the middle class will play an increasingly important role in India’s social and political conversations. Its vigorous engagement in the political process is necessary for the emergence of more inclusive political and economic institutions. The events of the last year suggest that this process has begun and this can only be welcome news for the republic and indeed for the Indian growth story.

Photo: Ramesh Lalwani


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