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Monday, 31 October 2011

Protests awaken a Goliath in India

Hazare movement that rattled establishment offers glimpse of what could happen if middle class mobilises

Shubhrangshu Barman Roy and his friends are among the winners in country’s economic rise. They have earned graduate degrees, started small companies and settled into expanding middle class. They sometimes take vacations together and meet for dinners.

Yet in August, Roy and his friends donned Gandhi caps, boarded Metro to join the anticorruption demonstrations led by social activist Anna Hazare. They waved national flags, distributed water to the crowd and vented their outrage at the political status quo. “I could feel that people really wanted change,” Roy, 36, recalled.

It may seem unlikely that middle class would crave change. They mostly live in rapidly growing cities and can afford cars and other conveniences. Theirs is the fastest growing demographic group in the country, and their buying power is expected to triple in next 15 years.

But buying power is not political power, at least not yet in India. The wealthier people have become the more politically disillusioned. The middle class has vast economic clout yet often remains politically marginalised.

Elsewhere in Asia, emerging middle classes once helped topple authoritarian governments in South Korea and Taiwan, as rising incomes brought demands for greater democratic rights — an equation still simmering in China. But India had democracy before it had vast wealth and the dissatisfaction of the middle class has focused on the failings of the democratic institutions.

For several years, the question of what could awaken middle class hovered over politics in the country. Now, the middle class seems to have awakened from its deep slumber. “People have lost hopes in all political parties and personalities,” said Arvind Kejriwal, a key adviser to Hazare. “They believe that every five years, you just change the face and parties but nothing is going to happen. There was a huge sense of despair.”

A generation ago, the middle class was smaller and centred around civil servants. Today’s middle class is a product of economic reforms of 1990s and is tightly wedded to the private sector. If the earlier middle class idolised Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, this middle class mostly regards politicians with contempt, placing more faith in business leaders or in NGOs. Government is no longer regarded as a provider, but as an obstacle.

The Hazare movement rattled political establishment because it offered a glimpse of what could happen if the middle class was mobilised across the country. Professionals and students provided organisational spine and money that brought hundreds of thousands of people of all backgrounds onto the streets in what many described as a political awakening. Some analysts say that India needs a politically engaged middle class as a corrective force. Others say middle class alienation is as much about caste as class. And still others suggest that middle class disgust with politicians stems from lack of patience with the messy mechanics of democracy.

Roy and his friends say they have spent years focusing on their career, acting mostly as spectators to politics. “We’ve been told, politics is bad, don’t get into politics,” said Partho Nag, Roy’s friend. “But the point is that somebody has to clean it up. We can’t just scold people.” In April, Roy was conducting a seminar at an auto parts factory, ignoring the messages piling up on his cellphone. During a tea break, he scrolled through his messages, stopping at one from a friend. “You shouldn’t be at work,” it read. “You should be here, trying to help your country rather than any company.”

“Here” was Jantar Mantar, where Anna Hazare was waging hunger strike against corruption. Roy had not been paying attention to the news and knew almost nothing about Hazare. That night, he turned on his television and saw thousands of people rallying behind Hazare against the government. “I saw that he was doing his bit,” Roy said. “So I thought, let me do my bit.”

Roy and his friends had grown up in New Delhi in the same government housing development. They were teenagers in the early 1990s when India embarked on the reforms that began dismantling the stifling licensing regulations that had choked the economy. Private enterprise would steadily emerge as the engine of growth. Nag would open a small IT service firm. Two other friends would start a textile trading company. Roy would earn graduate degrees and start a consulting firm.

Politics often seems to saturate life in India, but it was mostly a sideshow for Roy and friends. Roy was soured by his first taste of politics: In 1984, after assassination of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguard, riots broke out. Father of one of Roy’s friends was dragged onto street and killed. “I hated it,” he recalled. “From age 18 to 26, I never voted because I thought my vote wouldn’t change anything.” In his professional life, Roy found an ideology he could beli-eve in, the management philosophies of Toyota. He went to business school and began reading books by management gurus and wrote a thesis on reforming Indian education and eliminating corruption. He married and settled in Dwarka. Politics remained something his circle complained about — until Hazare.

Hazare’s April hunger strike forced government into negotiations over Lokpal. After those negotiations collapsed, Hazare came to New Delhi in August for a new hunger strike, sparking protests across the country. This time, Roy and his friends rushed to support him. Hazare fasted for 12 days before the government accepted some of his demands.

No one likes corruption, yet the Hazare movement raised a question: Why did the middle class mobilise on this issue?

Country’s poor have been hardest hit by rising inflation, yet inflation has also deepened the anxieties of the middle class.

McKinsey Global Institute, a consulting group, had estimated that India’s middle class could grow to nearly 600 million people by 2030. Today, nearly three-quarters of gross domestic product comes from cities, where less than a third of population lives, an imbalance that correlates with the divide between middle class economic and political power.

“For politicians, the city has primarily become a site of extraction and countryside is predominantly a site of legitimacy and power,” Ashutosh Varshney, a specialist at Brown University, wrote recently. “The countryside is where the vote is; the city is where the money is. Villages do have corruption, but the scale of corruption is greater in cities.”

Recent polls show that middle class and college-age respondents are optimistic about their long term economic future and that of the country, yet are deeply pessimistic about the state of politics and political parties.

On September 28, a month after Hazare ended his fast, a group of Hazare volunteers gathered around Rishikesh Sharma, a lawyer, as he pointed across Parliament Street at New Delhi police station. They were preparing to march onto the station grou-nds and ask officers to sign pledges refusing to accept bribes. The station house protest was one of the events organised in recent weeks to keep the Hazare movement energised and the middle class engaged.

In past month, Hazare team had waded into certain parliamentary races as part of a campaign to press the Congress on passage of a final Lokpal bill — even as it has struggled with internal squabbling. Recently, Hazare distanced himself from Bhushan over comments he made about Kashmir. Kiren Bedi had also come under attack for her handling of airplane tickets for speaking engagements. Some critics have been suspicious because of the support given to Hazare by rightwing Hindu groups.

For now, Roy is drawn to Hazare because of his rectitude more than any ideological kinship. Roy’s group has made a personal pledge to no longer pay bribes.


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