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Urban Middle Class Led Anti-Corruption Movement

Updated: September 24, 2011 1:33 pm

The just-concluded anti-corruption movement, spearheaded by Anna Hazare, has brought the urban middle class into sharp focus. The movement not only showed large-scale participation and support from the urban middle-class segments (upper/lower) in support of the Jan Lokpal Bill but in the process also reflected its firm resolve to force the political leadership to undertake the cleansing measures that can sanitise the existing state and political institutions from institutionalised corruption. It also revealed urban middle class, moral concern for the cannons of probity and accountability in public life. The sustained protest triggered by Anna’s indefinite fast that spread beyond Delhi to other cities succeeded in forcing the otherwise recalcitrant Parliament to bow to the demands for revisiting the government Lokpal Bill and unanimously accept ‘in principal’ the core demands of the Jan Lokpal Bill duly exhibited the growing clout of the middle classes in India’s democracy.

As the celebration continues for what is being dubbed the victory for civil society in India against corruption at the moment, ensuing political drive to further cleanse the system in the coming months as proposed by Anna himself while breaking his fast as well as by ‘Team Anna’ is likely to pose a grave challenge to already weakened democratic regime. The present UPA government would do well to pre-empt any such protest in future by addressing and taking the corrective measures like reforms in the electoral arena and ensuring much more effective decentralised democratic governance on the model of Gandhian idea of ‘village republic’.

In a more general mode while following the course of the movement: The voices heard and the spectacle watched, there emerged certain pertinent questions that relate to bourgeoning urban middle class (especially the youth category) and its shifting nature of relationship with the political democracy in recent India. First, how does one make sense of the growing trust deficit among the ‘new’ metropolitan middle class in the entire political setup and also in the formal democratic institutions and the procedures that enjoy long-standing well-respected constitutional sanction? The question assumes significance given the fact that it was the ‘old’ middle class, the precursor of the ‘new’ middle class in terms of spatial (read urban), sociological origins (read higher castes) and linguistic (read English as mobile social capital), that was entrusted with the mammoth task of institution building in Nehruvian India. Second, how does one make sense of the compulsion of the parties as a whole or more specifically the two polity-wide coalition-making parties namely the Congress and BJP to bow down to the ‘civil society’ demands?

Placatory attitude by the political class, decried as corrupt and opportunist, towards the urban middle classes led by Team Anna despite latter’s belligerence needs explanation especially if one considers the relative lack of ‘presence’ of the urban middle class in numerical terms, a distinct disadvantage in the first-past-the-post electoral system in India.

As for the urban middle classes showing growing disenchantment with the political system, evident also in terms of its (especially the upper castes segments) relatively lower level of electoral participation while India witnesses ‘democratic upsurge’ with the entry of newly mobilised social groups of rural low castes origins, it may be attributed to two factors: first, the middle classes’ wariness with the emergent identity-based electoral politics that encourages populism and patronage along the lines of ethnic cleavages. Arguably, ‘depoliticisation’ of urban middle class in electoral terms as evidenced in the national election studies conducted by Lokniti, CSDS can be viewed as the ‘backlash’ of the mostly urban, higher castes middle classes against the emergent political processes that have been witness to ruralisation, regionalisation and lower caste resurgence.

Being ‘secular’ and votary of ‘meritocracy’, middle classes tend to look at the emergent political culture as unfavourable to its affirmed vision of a harmonious and an organised ‘great nation-state’ based on pan-Indian cultural nationalism (Anna citing Vivekananda). Second, the hitherto political indifference among the ‘new’ middle classes could also be attributed to its overwhelming concern with economic rather than political issues. Now, of course, there seems to be ever-increasing realisation among the ‘new’ metropolitan middle classes, mostly employed in the service sectors in corporate world that unbridled corruption prevalent in the higher places remains a serious hurdle in the ongoing process of neo-liberal market oriented growth that is propelled by infusion of global capital and the realisation of ‘good governance’.

As to why political parties across the ideological spectrum (including the mainstream Left that has lost the support of some of the most vocal and eloquent voices of dissent and protest as the middle classes have ‘crossed over’ in favour of market) realise that they can ill afford to alienate the middle classes; one can refer to following factors: First, in terms of numerical ‘presence’, the middle classes form the fastest-growing segment of the India’s population. Its impressive growth can be attributed to the introduction of policies of economic reforms leading to boom in the service sectors. Spread of education as well as other affirmative actions allowed the social and economic mobility for the lower classes in terms of new opportunity structures being opened up in an increasingly urbanising and industrialising India.

With the exact number depending on the criteria used for enumeration, the middle classes in India is widely estimated to be between 250 and 350 million making it the second-largest middle class in the world after China. So whether 20 or 30 per cent of India’s population, in terms of sheer numbers Indian middle class is bigger than entire population of most of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and is almost as big as the US population in size. Second, the Indian middle classes in somewhat muted way have continued to retain their inherited caste and community-based privileges and loyalties even as it also seeks to de-legitimise the language of caste in the realm of politics.


Oceans of humanity rose in support of Anna movement

“It is not just Anna Hazare, who wants stringent anti-corruption laws. It is the country, including the common man like me, who wants to see the corrupt punished,” said RK Dhar, who had come from Gurgaon to participate in the Anna movement for Jan Lokpal bill at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi taking a one-day leave. And this was the common refrain among the participants, who belonged to all sections of society. What was unimaginable was the fact that all the participants had come at their own whims.

“This movement has a true objective with a true spirit and this is the reason I am here at Ramlila Maidan with my two kids to support Anna,” said Vandana Shastri, a housewife. And it was this spontaneous support from the participants brimming with enthusiasm and vigour that brought the government to its knee. And this movement was not confined only to Ramlila Maidan but had spread all over the country also.

Tens of thousands of people joined peaceful protests across the country, forcing a weak and fumbling government and an equally hapless opposition trying to placate growing frustration and anger at the political class. “Anna Hazare has raised our inner conscience,” said Vinay Mishra, a 42-year-old banker in New Delhi, who had his own story to tell. “A driving licence cost Rs 2000,” said Mishra, smartly dressed and Donning a Gandhi cap, adding, “Anna, we are with you,” as he described his brush with corruption. “Agents outside the driving licence office roam around. Those are the ones whom you pay,” said Mishra as he wiped sweat off his forehead under the scorching sun at the Ramlila Maidan, where Hazare lay on a public stage in the sultry monsoon heat in the second week of his fast. India has a long history of civil action movements, topped by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent campaign that led to the end of British colonial rule.

But this was a rare instance of India’s middle class putting aside their material concerns to take to the streets for a political cause. The near-double-digit economic growth India has enjoyed since the economy was opened up in the early 1990s has elevated millions of people to the middle class. They have long been apolitical, with many of them shunning the ballot box and forking out bribes to get on, sustaining a system where corruption became an unchallenged way of life. “What happened was a collective guilt. For, many of those who had come out haven’t voted or were not of voting age. They realised they had to take charge to change society,” said Prof DK Katju of Delhi University, an activist and an angry middle class rallied to protest against India’s endemic corruption.

The Hazare protest in New Delhi and supportive ones in other cities around India had sparked a revolution, and certainly marked a political watershed. The vast majority of protestors came from the usually apolitical urban middle class—doctors, lawyers, engineers, private sector employees, college students and retired civil servants—fed up with the parlous state of India’s governance. According to media reports, a public opinion poll in the Capital indicated an overwhelming support for social activist Anna Hazare, with 68 per cent of the respondents saying that his efforts would help in introduction of a strong Lokpal bill in Parliament.

The survey, conducted by the Delhi-based Shyam Vyas MARC, covered responses from mostly college students, in different parts of the city to gauge public expectations, views and perceptions regarding Anna Hazare’s movement and government action. A question whether Anna would finally be able to make a dent and reduce corruption, evoked a mixed response. While 44 per cent of the respondents supported him, 48 per cent were uncertain about the outcome. However, the respondents agreed unanimously that Anna was receiving massive public support because the common man was fed up with corruption at all levels. According to the poll, 96 per cent respondents felt that the powerful could get away with anything and the government was breeding a culture of non-accountability, 88 per cent said the government was apathetic to public grievances and 84 per cent expressed frustration over unfulfilled promises by politicians.

What is more the people used the latest technology to keep people aware of the happenings about the anti-corruption movement. An application was created for Android and Symbian platforms to spread awareness and empower citizens. It was named after ‘India Against Corruption’, the organisation which is spearheading the anti-corruption movement. The application could be downloaded from both Ovi Store and Android Marketplace. India Against Corruption (IAC) application has features like latest news, streaming videos, polling and information about Lokpal.

Mobile users can also register as volunteer for the movement through this application. Anna supporters had sometime created a topic on Facebook discussion to create mobile applications for the IAC, where tweets and Facebook feeds could be fetched continuously and they had even asked the mobile application developers to make a game where “a shoe will be hurled at politicians”. Even a Lokpal Messenger—a mobile application developed by two students of Sastra University, which helped the people keep track of all the latest news and events related to the movement—was created. It helped the people stay aware and remain active in India’s fight against corruption.

Lokpal Messenger application provided latest news regarding Lokpal, various blogs from popular political blogs, and all the latest events conducted by IAC. It could be downloaded from the Ovi Store. A Facebook page, India Against Corruption, clocked more than 1,00,000 supporters. On Twitter, the protests dominated Indian topics almost as comprehensively as the country’s victory in cricket’s World Cup recently.

The seeds of this middle-class upsurge against corruption lie in a long season of scams and scandals. Stories of padded contracts and graft—$80 toilet rolls, $19,500 treadmills and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate—marked last October’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi. In the so-called 2-G telecom scam, still under investigation, auditors claim that the government lost taxpayers up to $40 billion by handing out valuable telecom spectrum to favoured bidders at cut-rate prices.

In another scandal, top generals, bureaucrats and politicians apparently colluded to snap up plush apartments in Mumbai on land originally meant for war widows from 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. A spate of high-level corruption cases—leading to the arrest of former telecom minister A Raja among others—threatened to sour foreign investors on India. Despite near 8 per cent growth, foreign direct investment dropped by nearly a third to $24 billion in 2010.

Furthermore, the publication last year of transcripts of the so-called Radia tapes, secretly recorded conversations between a powerful corporate lobbyist and prominent politicians, journalists and industrialists, painted a picture of a country in moral freefall, with everything from the front pages of newspapers to judgments by the courts allegedly available for a price.

Last year, Transparency International ranked India a lowly 87th out of 178 countries surveyed. The Singapore-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rates India as the fourth most corrupt country in Asia, behind only Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Many Indians place politics at the root of this malaise. Indeed, Hazare captured a widespread middle-class sentiment about the masses who elect India’s leaders by pointing out that votes are often bought for as little as 100 rupees, a sari, and a bottle of liquor. So, it is high time corruption weeded out.

By Ashok Kumar

As such it more often than not articulates defines the interests of the ‘communities of their birth’, influencing the way their ‘own’ communities would operate in the democratic system that increasingly veers around electoral politics. Third, the middle classes are equipped with ‘cultural capital’ that give them access not only to the higher echelons of state institutions involved in policy making but also to print and visual media (24×7 news channels) and global audience in the present web-connected world of Facebook, SMS and Twitter. Arguably it is the media peopled by the urban middle class that has come to set the electoral agenda and mindset by orchestrating certain issues (prioritising middle class concerns) at the detriment of others. Fourth, the metropolitan middle classes’ ‘natural’ alliance with the entrepreneurial class (due to the shared spatial and sociological origins, uncritical support for economic reforms and adherence to consumerist culture) adds to its bargaining muscles vis-à-vis the governing political class.

After all, with the election campaigns becoming costlier with every passing election, it is the entrepreneurial class only that is in the position to make serious money available to the political parties (and also to fund the campaigns like the present one that meets its concerns) and assumed a position of hegemony in civil society and dominance in the state structure as a whole.

There are several other questions raised in the aftermath of campaign that remain unanswered at the moment. Would the increasing proclivity of the ascendant middle classes to ‘dictate’ to a political institution (Parliament) and its procedures as well as the state institutions (Judiciary), as on evidence during the ‘India Against Corruption’ campaign, pose a threat to the ongoing ‘silent revolution’ in the form of the political power being transferred steadily to the socially and economically marginal groups through electoral routes in terms of ‘presence’? Does it mean that the ascendant middle class has decided to compromise the already weakened political institutions increasingly representing the democratic majorities to further its class agenda? Would India’s present and future democratic regimes, facing the onslaught of now confident pro-market middle classes, be able to accommodate lower caste/class-based claims by continuing anti-reforms affirmative policies and actions that allow direct and indirect transfer of the public resources in the form of subsidies and protective discrimination with the same zeal? Would the middle classes having experimented and tasted success with the non-electoral technology driven ‘civil society’ route (referendum/recall) for exerting its political power and influence be able to finally get its concerns and feelings identified with that of entire country (recall ‘India shining’ campaign)? And what about the distinct economic, cultural and political choices and concerns of the ‘plebeian’ middle class of lower castes origin who are dissimilar in terms of its sociological as well as spatial origins?

As the technocratic/professional urban middle classes located in the metropolitan/’happening’ cities push hard for promoting non-party ‘new politics’ based on legal activism/theatrical media powered campaigns like the present one that are built around the support of the local associations in civil society (read NGOs funded by global capital) and the new middle class icons like saintly Anan Hazare and Medha Patkar or even spiritual/yoga gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Baba Ramdev, that speak with an urban, middle class accent (generally in English/khadi boli often using juridical/technical jargons), the question emerges is whether it would deepen further the crisis of democratic governance. The question acquires significance as there seemed a conscious effort to curtail the sway of the governmental agencies during the recent movement.

By Ashutosh Kumar

(The author is Professor at Panjab University, Chandigarh)






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