India's Great Middle-Class Moment

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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.

Middle India's anger came to galvanize around a group of celebrity social activists -- including Hazare -- who provided leadership, face, and direction in the form of a demand for a Lok Pal, an anti-corruption Ombudsman authority, who would have the power to check every level of the Indian government. Middle India was too angry and too impatient to examine the posed solution, or even to understand the real problem. It responded to the emotional call of the activists, turning up on the streets to participate in what was billed as the "second freedom struggle." The metaphor, the method, and even the stage props were reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent campaigns to oust the British Raj.

It turned into a bizarre game of "make the other side appear more reasonable," with activists attempting to railroad a draconian legislation through using blackmail and the government bungling up its political response by detaining the non-violent activists. The government, the opposition, and the activists around Anna Hazare found themselves in a showdown in New Delhi's Ramlila grounds in the last week of August. It ended when everyone compromised, with Parliament resolving on the need for a strong Ombudsman while not actually even tabling a bill and the Anna Hazare team settling for what is essentially a statement of intent.

Where does India go from here? A lot will be determined by four interconnected factors. First, whether or not the UPA government manages to deliver on its promise of an Ombudsman. Second, whether Hazare broadens his agenda to cover a slate of pressing and relevant issues, from electoral reforms to labor protection. Third, whether Middle India sustains its political awakening or retreats back to spectatorship. And fourth, whether Hazare's successful mobilization will lead to a rise in the politics of mass agitation, risking political instability.

Even if a Lok Pal is established, it is unlikely to dent corruption unless accompanied by a slew of economic reforms liberalizing labor regulations, simplifying land rights, encouraging investment, and controlling government spending programs. Such reforms, however, are opposed both by the leftist activists who have been co-opted by the government as well as by their counterparts who have been left out. Meanwhile, it is entirely possible that the surge in public outrage will now ebb as people get preoccupied with the quotidian realities of daily middle class life. Political parties will work to extract political benefit from the agitation, and to usurp the mantle of Middle India's hero that currently sits on Hazare's shoulders.

There are many uncertainties in the short-term. But, to the extent that India's political and social churning was led by Middle India and its changing expectations, its politicians will have to re-craft their agenda, which currently has little to offer them. It may happen slower than we wish, but in the coming years political parties will seek to differentiate themselves on how they will deliver what the predominantly urban middle class wants.

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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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