India’s Gilded Age

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 30 April 2011

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This article was published on 'The Times of India' on 30th April 2011.





The public enthusiasm for the anti-corruption campaign headed by Anna Hazare has been a shock to the system. Despite a year of ever-larger scandals, many in the establishment had been convinced that this was a storm that would blow over. One of the arguments for this view was that corruption was largely a middle-class issue and not something that significantly impacted political fortunes. Very few still think that.

India is potentially at a major inflection point in matters of public probity. But this is not just due to the Jantar Mantar protest: the tide has been turning for sometime now, and in fact with the support of large numbers of Indians who are distinctly below middle class. A crucial role is now being played by the middle class (more on that later), but the call for change has deeper roots.

Conventional wisdom in Indian politics had two long-cherished rules. First, that the quality of governance was almost irrelevant to electoral results. Instead, the identity politics of caste, religion and region had disproportionate weightage in the country’s political calculus. The second great belief was that the electorate voted against incumbents. The exceptions to anti-incumbency used to be those parties who got the first rule right, which is the vote-bank arithmetic, an example being the three elections in Bihar between 1990 and 2004.

The past decade has seen conventional wisdom being turned on its head several times by a few shrewd politicians who sensed an opportunity and aggressively championed good governance as a political strategy. The proponents of this approach have spanned the political spectrum, with the latest poster boy being the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar. Before him, the BJD’s Naveen Patnaik positioned himself similarly to win three straight elections. And the BJP’s Narendra Modi, whatever you may think of his politics overall, has acquired a reputation for governance. Even the Congress in Delhi under Sheila Dikshit, before being hit by the CWG scandal, won three elections by campaigning on a governance platform.

These campaigns represent significant turning points in recent Indian politics, and all were made possible not by the middle class, but by hundreds of millions of voters who bought into the promise of good governance.

Ironically, this shifting paradigm seems to have escaped the attention of many national leaders. What else can explain the absence of anyone, or any party, attempting a countrywide extrapolation of a strategy that has succeeded repeatedly in various regions? There are sceptics who argue that an overwhelmingly governance-focussed political strategy would flounder at the national level due to coalition politics. But that is far from obvious. A cursory look at the regional successes cited earlier, particularly the coalition examples in Bihar and Orissa, shows that many politically risky decisions were taken in pursuit of good governance. Although these had the potential to implode, in fact they led to a surge of public support, enabling those leaders to either keep their coalitions in check or to dispense with them altogether.

A similar opportunity to refashion national politics has largely been squandered by politicians of all hues. The opposition parties may gloat at the discomfort that the government is in today, but in fact should be concerned about the damage to the credibility of politics on the whole.

On its part, the governing coalition faces severe challenges. None of the credit for the arrests of and chargesheets against prominent politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats has gone to it. Instead, it is seen as having resisted action until coerced by the activists, the media and the Supreme Court. Apart from the damage to the UPA’s reputation, its very continuance must surely come under pressure as the process grinds on.

In all this, the role of the middle class will remain important. Long ignored by politicians for their electoral apathy and lack of numbers, something is now clearly changing. Their purchasing power attracts the national media to focus on the same things as them. And now perhaps their surging numbers through two decades of economic liberalisation, combined with their newfound activism, is reaching a tipping point. If that turns out to be true, Indian politics will be forever changed.

There are startling parallels between today’s India and the experience of the other large democracy, the US, over a century ago. The latter part of the 19th century, known as America’s Gilded Age, saw the rapid growth of its economy as well as unprecedented levels of corruption, exactly like present-day India. Enormous fortunes were made by new billionaires, the so-called robber barons, and massive corruption among elected officials became commonplace.


Nevertheless, sustained economic growth transformed a nation of farmers into an industrial superpower where the size of the middle class kept growing rapidly. Their sensibilities, and outrage, led to what is called the Progressive Era in American history, in the early 20th century. The progressive activists pushed through many political reforms that tackled corruption and underlined good governance, and even motivated the robber barons into turning great philanthropists.


The similarities with today’s India are unmistakable, but the story doesn’t end there. Besides the activism of the middle class, equally important was the emergence of a new breed of political leaders who made the cause their own. Many of them, both Democratic and Republican, went on to become presidents. What India needs now are political leaders who eschew point scoring on corruption in favour of non-partisan advocacy for reform.