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    South Asia
 
     Aug 24, 2011

 


 

Class muddles India's anti-graft push
By Sreeram Chaulia

Among the flaws of the social activist Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement challenging India's central government, one that stands out is that this is merely an urban middle class phenomenon.

The absence of the urban poor and of rural Indians in the protests is conspicuous and also a source of comfort for politicians facing the drumbeat of accountability. In a huge democracy that places significance on numbers, knowledge that the vast majority of poor Indians have so far opted out of the countrywide agitation engenders a degree of stubbornness among political elites to give in to Hazare's demands.

India may no longer exist solely in its villages and the size of the middle class has proportionally increased since the economy has liberalized. Yet, the overwhelming hordes of the poor are still the determiners of political fortunes at ballot boxes. Their seeming disinterest or inability to comprehend the value of Hazare's clarion call over the lokpal (ombudsman) institution (mandated to independently investigate corrupt public officials) is allowing the government to treat the clamor in urban centers as a crisis to wriggle out of rather than a death knell to its "business as usual" mode of functioning.

The class dimension of the Hazare movement must be placed in the larger global context of street fury that seems to be the order of the day. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote recently that "across the world, a lot of middle and lower-middle class people feel that the 'future' is out of their grasp, and they are letting their leaders know it".

His generalization is that competition to get into the middle class has intensified and that entering this category requires a lot more blood, sweat and tears than was the case in a pre-information technology era. Once people attain the "middle" layer, they feel enraged and frustrated at their "hard-earned" entitlements and taxes being stolen by corrupt and authoritarian politicians and bureaucrats.

An added resentment of the middle class has to do with the distributive outcomes of globalization, with those at the very top of the social pyramid accumulating wealth at a much faster rate through crony capitalist networks and with the connivance of rent-seeking government officials. Income inequalities in India are not as drastically high as in China or Brazil, but the perception that fast economic growth is benefiting the ultra-rich at the expense of the middle class is quite entrenched.

Although Hazare is a Gandhian versed in the art of mobilizing the indigent, the fact that he has yet to draw in the utterly destitute shows that his crusade has not been well translated to the huddling masses. Just as environmentalists who stress esoteric subjects like climate change have not won adherents beyond the middle and upper classes, Hazare can be faulted for focussing on creating an investigative agency whose benefits for the average and below-average Indian are not adequately explained.

So, ironically, while the poor are universally the worst sufferers of corruption and misgovernance, they seem to have mixed views about the Lokpal, unlike the educated middle class.

A cliched claim whenever the working class does not participate in social movements is that the impoverished lead hand-to-mouth lives and cannot afford to miss even a day's wages by joining in protests. But this popular myth does not stand empirical scrutiny. Peasants and workers in India and across the world have revolted myriad times on issues that resonate with their interests. The Lokpal cause has not been framed well enough to be a "catch-all" magnet.

The distinctly middle class nature of the current protests on the Lokpal also reflects on the effects of economic growth on political participation. As parts of the population move up the socio-economic ladder and expand the cluster of the middle class, they should be happier about their rapidly improving fortunes and, ipso facto, less dissatisfied.

But the converse has happened in history. With more education and incomes, newer generations become more distressed about what is wrong with the "system" and agonize over how to fix it. The historical cry of the American independence movement, "no taxation without representation", manifests the link between upward social mobility of the middle class and growing self-belief that they can collectively rectify their ruling structures.

At some point though, the correlation between material progress and the struggle to bring corrupt and unaccountable state authorities to justice breaks down. Good governance is a boon to any section of society irrespective of class, but the healthy distance which corporate India has adopted from the Hazare movement is as evident as the apathy of the poor.

Why is the upper class of India not partaking in or financing the ongoing protests? Corruption and red tape are the worst enemies of business and it is not uncommon to hear corporate honchos railing against arbitrary and unfair state practices that cripple their entrepreneurial potential. Interactions between Indian corporations and state officials often involve kickbacks, transaction costs that values-conscious companies would rather not pay if given a choice.

But fear of political instability is an even scarier nightmare for the business community, so much so that they would want to arrest the stock market turbulence and volatility through a speedy resolution to the chaos-portending standoff between Anna and the government. Here again, one sees trade-offs based on immediate class interests, which hamper formation of a broader national alliance.

The Hazare movement confirms a new era of middle-class activism in politics that had long been ruled out by pundits who assumed the consuming class would stay contented with retail therapy. Many middle-class participants in the current demonstrations in Indian cities hold the "illiterate masses" in contempt and blame them for electing undeserving politicians.

By coming out in full force behind Hazare, the middle class is reifying dreams of bypassing what it sees as the tyranny of numbers reflected in elections that are dominated by the votes of the "unthinking" poor.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ruling Congress party have rebutted Hazare's movement by labeling it "undemocratic", avowing that laws can only be made by legitimately elected representatives and not via "blackmail" from hunger strikes by civil society figures.

The government is, in other words, talking the language of class by insisting that it enjoys the confidence of the bulk of the working poor of India. With near double digit inflation squeezing the depressed classes, this is a dubious line but one that will nonetheless be used as a political weapon as long as the wretched of the earth do not clasp Hazare's hand.

By its own weight, India's rising middle class today renders Hazare's movement far more potent than that of another great Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan, whose "Total Revolution" of the mid-1970s peaked when the middle segment in Indian society was wafer thin. But the real test for Hazare's faithful is whether they can effect sustainable change by mustering a cross-class coalition to 'throw the rascals out' and deliver justice, as promised by democratic theory.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the first B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic affairs think-tank, The Takshashila Institution. He is author of the recently released International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones.

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