Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Great Indian Middle Class – game changer or mute spectator? Pavan Varma asks

New Delhi
The exploding tribe of the middle class in India has been a deciding factor in the 2014 election, commandeering the fortunes and swings at the hustings in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the country post-Independence. The writ of the middle class in India works in cue of the 21st century global game changers like the Arab Spring, the Latin American protests and the Tiananmen uprising - beginning with Hitler’s resurgent Germany – all of which were set in motion by the discontented middle orders craving for change .

This segment of economically hyperactive population – which is projected to touch the 300 million mark in another decade (in a country that host 1.2 billion people) – was the talk of the election rooms in May 2014 across the ideological and political divides with party managers and politicians losing sleep on how to translate their numbers into ballots to ride the wave.

Diplomat-turned-politician, writer and social commentator Pavan K. Varma in a new book has tried to understand the reasons behind this powering phenomenon of the India middle class that has been the driver of the country’s socio-economic growth for the last decade – to find out its bearing on India’s democratic polity.

The book, “The New Indian Middle Class: The Challenge of 2014 and Beyond”, which was released by politician-writer Shashi Tharoor in April in the national capital, uses the ongoing transformation of the middle class in India to analyse how this social segment can be engaged in discourses about vital political and democratic concerns to steer India to change – from an essentially electoral political milieu to one of effective delivery.

Varma says the year 2014 should “be the watershed for the middle class to make the transition from being a relatively marginalized political participant to being a factor of importance in charting the fortunes of India — for this to happen, it must develop alternative vision of India that should include ideas for better and inclusive governance.

“The middle class is not entirely unaware of its new-found importance. But it is also aware of what has changed and in what manner, and has it decided whether it will merely be diffused cannon fodder for manipulative political forces or a definitive game-changer in its own right. This is the historical choice before all middle-class Indians,” Varma says in his book.

The author brings out seven reasons for the rise of the middle class as a potential political player. The middle class for the first time has reached a numerical size that constitutes a significant critical mass of the electoral arithmetic of the nation. They have the numbers to make or break political destinies. The composition of the middle class has changed since the British rule, Varma said.

During the run-up years to Independence in 1947 and the years immediately following it, the middle class was an elite club created by interactions with the British. It grew gradually in the decades that followed to include millions of shop-keepers, small-time entrepreneurs, semi-skilled industrial and service workers, lower-level salaried households with small disposable incomes.

‘Among the new entrants were the bullock capitalists from the countryside, who husbanded their resources carefully and benefitted both from the state subsidies for agriculture and the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in 1990 on reservations in government jobs”. But the most powerful catalyst for the quantum of the growth of the middle class were the 1991 economic reforms and the bigger economic matrix, it heralded. 

Secondly, this growth in numbers has reinforced the “incipient homogeneity of this class to such  a point that the middle class has acquired a distinct identity which defies caste loyalties”.  

Thirdly, this socially pervasive class – on the strength of its numbers- has created a footprint that is more pan-Indian than provincial - helping it form an identifiable power bloc across the country . Fourthly, this class has never been younger with the bulk of its members averaging around 25 years of age. Fifthly, the class is empowered by its access of new age communication and information brought on by deep penetration of mobile telephony, the social media networks and the 24X7 news channels on the television.

Sixthly, the middle class is no longer insular. It has emerged from its cocoon of complacency to suggest that it is for the first time willing to participate in issues that are beyond its ken of immediate interest. Finally, the class is emoting. It has never been angrier at the “failure of governance, mismanagement of economy, corruption, cynicism, lack of idealism and the moral bankruptcy of the political class and those who are in collusion with it.”

“This book was written because it was the first time in the elections that in war rooms of political parties there was a sizeable amount of energy spent on how to deal with the middle class which has been an articulate player in Indian politics,” Varma said, explaining the need for writing the book.

In an interview to this writer, he said, “the idea was to sensitise the middle class to both its strength and weaknesses so that it can’t become an inadvertent adversary to what may not be in the best interest of India”.  

“The book has a simple and straight-forward message. The middle class must apply its mind to develop an alternative version of the nation. If it does not do so, it becomes cannon fodder for any political demagogue. This has had parallels in history where the middle class, impatient for change and not pausing to dispassionately examine issues or asking questions or interrogating claims, have become puppets in the hands of unscrupulous political forces,” Varma said.

The writer said he wanted to make the middle class aware that it could be an agent for “constructive change”.

The political importance of the middle class lay in its size, Varma pointed out.  “In 1996, by the international standards, the size of the middle class was 26 million. It stands at 200 million now and is slated to 300 million in the next few years,” Varma said

He observed that the middle class “has recently shown that unlike in the past it was willing to involve itself with larger issues, which go beyond its immediate area of interest like the Jessica Lal murder case – in which it rallied for justice – and the Anna Hazare crusade against corruption”. “Therefore, this class has become the unseen animal in the war rooms of all political parties,” Varma said.

The middle class, notwithstanding its new stridence, is still susceptible to two syndromes – the magic wand mindset and transient anger. The former is crippling because the middle class in India looks for a magic wand to set things right. The second takes the wind out of its sails – leaving the issues under spotlight unresolved.

“The middle class has this strange proclivity to wait for a messiah so that it can outsource its struggle to his sacrifice.  You are used, made dependant and then discarded. In short, anger without a willingness to engage with issues will be subtracted, derailed, subsumed or forgotten,” Varma said.  This class has the potential to do much more only if it assumes its role as a player.

“I make no mechanical comparisons of India with Germany or Hitler or with any other country because each society is different (Varma draws as examples the social and political changes in Brazil, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and China). I go back to the history of the middle class in India and to the examples of the behavior of the class in other countries to draw certain inferences. The Emergency of 1975 is a classic example- the middle class fell for it because it mistook the authoritarian regime for law and order – when it was meant to curtail democratic freedom,” Varma explained.

“The only reason, I cite Hitler’s Germany as an example is because of the enthusiastic support of the middle class to Hitler, who came to power in a democratic manner. But the middle class in Germany failed to realize that what they were supporting was a façade- and what they did not bother to question when they could have,” the author said, in response to a query about the comparison between Nazi Germany and the Indian middle class.

Yes and No…The middle class in India has learnt from emergency, but it still has a proclivity to support authoritarian leadership, which promises growth at any cost- and “this whole pre-occupation with the ‘danda (stick)’”. The leadership from the middle class will come when it engages with issues. 

“The middle class in India to my view must become the spokesperson for a prosperous, progressive, modern, democratic and secular India,”  Varma  pointed out . It should not fail its tryst with destiny.  

The book is a progression of Varma’s previous study of the country’s fastest growing demographic segment, “The Great Indian Middle Class”. Varma has authored more a dozen books on Indian society, mythology, politics, history, literature and culture.

-Madhusree Chatterjee 
(The book has been published by Harper Collins) 

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