|Class muddles India's anti-graft
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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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