India's Great Middle-Class Moment

After decades on the sidelines, the growing ranks of Middle India are starting to find their voice. But can the political system respond?

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Supporters of Anna Hazare celebrate the end of his fast / Reuters

NEW DELHI, India -- What should the world make of the remarkable political churning in India this year? People around the world are braving bullets for the right to vote but here we were, turning out in the streets in large numbers, supporting demands made by such self-appointed leaders of civil society as the hunger-striking Anna Hazare for a draconian anti-corruption law.

Parallels with an "Arab Spring" in India don't fit, not least because we last did that kind of anti-regime business in August 1942, when Indian nationalists mobilized non-violent protests to get the British to quit India. And when Indira Gandhi dispensed with constitutional niceties and assumed dictatorial powers in the mid-1970s, we threw her regime out in 1977 not by shouting her down in the town square but by voting her out at the polling booth. Her return to power a couple of years later, again through the electoral route, proved the regime changing power of India's electoral democracy.

India's political churning this year probably heralds a new phase in Indian politics, with the urban middle-class joining the political process. For a long time, this group has seen politics as a spectator sport, to be watched on television in between cricket and Bollywood. Repulsed by the choices on offer in the political menu, unenthused by the anachronistic agenda of mainstream parties and therefore unwilling to spend the time to go out and vote, the middle class Indian has, in terms of political involvement, practically seceded from the Indian republic. Meanwhile, economic growth has propelled ever-greater numbers of people into the middle class, inflating its numbers and amplifying its expectations from the Indian state.

The mainstream political parties missed the plot entirely. The Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, which first came to power in 2004, set back the process of economic liberalization, by stalling on economic reforms, ostensibly in the name of the "common man." This led to cronyism on the top -- the last decade saw the expansion of family-held conglomerates rather than the start-up successes of the '90s. It also led to rampant corruption in sectors of the economy that were untouched by reforms. The Congress and its allies purchased electoral mileage by introducing entitlements for the rural poor, but Middle India was too rich to be bought off and too poor to be sold to. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which demonstrated a reformist outlook when it led a coalition government at the turn of century, has since become loath to challenge the Congress party's economic idiom, even after this approach failed it in the 2009 elections.

For the Middle Indian, stalled reform, cynical manipulation of constitutional institutions by the UPA government, and the entrenchment of an entitlement economy all meant inflation, corruption, and insecurity.

When massive corruption came to light in a scandal over cell phone spectrum rights -- the government issued valuable licenses to firms that paid bribes but had little or no experience, losing India $39 billion in revenues -- it transpired that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had known it all along. Worse, in an interview with senior journalists, he confessed that coalition calculus left him with little control over the appointment of a brazenly corrupt minister. By late 2010, the groundswell of disenchantment, outrage, and exasperation came to a head when a smug UPA government sought to brazen out some of the largest corruption scandals in India's history. There were few takers for Singh's pleas that his hands were tied because of the compulsions of coalition politics.

Presented by

Nitin Pai is founder and Fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review.

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