Viewpoint: Why India’s middle class hates politicians
Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda
Posted on - 27 August 2012
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This article was published on 'BBC' on 27th August 2012.
The disgust that India’s middle class feels for the country’s politics and politicians today is in sharp contrast to the reverence enjoyed by the early leaders of the modern republic.
It was not just Mahatma Gandhi – the “father of the nation” who eschewed a political role when independence was achieved in 1947 – who was admired.
A host of others, like prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri and cabinet members Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Govind Ballabh Pant and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were hero worshipped even as they transitioned from being freedom fighters to politicians who ran the country for two decades.
Even opposition leaders, like the architect of the constitution BR Ambedkar and others, had many followers and were widely respected for their integrity.
Since the late 1960s, however, there has been a steady erosion of the image of politicians in the eyes of the middle class.
Power of populism
This downward trend has continued despite periods when some like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee enjoyed great popularity.
One reason for the middle class disenchantment with politics can be traced back more than four decades, when former prime minister Indira Gandhi discovered the power of populism.
With a series of populist moves like raising taxes and nationalising banks and industries, she aimed at identifying with the growing number of poor voters, reversing decades of Congress’s middle path strategy that embraced all sections of society.
Professor Atul Kohli of Princeton University has written that “numerous poor and illiterate citizens were becoming freshly available for political mobilisation… Indira Gandhi sought to rebuild Congress’s electoral fortunes” by shifting left.
It was a shrewd gamble that paid off electorally, but in the process, it also demonstrated the complete dispensability in politics of the much smaller middle class.
For the next quarter century, as India remained an economic laggard and corruption in government grew steadily, the middle class became resigned to its marginalisation in politics and became apathetic to it.
Those who could, voted with their feet and emigrated; those who remained, developed a simmering resentment and barely bothered to vote in elections.
Although Mrs Gandhi subsequently won back the middle class approval on occasion, most notably after the 1971 war with Pakistan that liberated Bangladesh, its relationship with politics has never been the same again.
The Congress party was not alone in alienating the middle class from politics.
When its government headed by Rajiv Gandhi was defeated in 1989 following defence corruption scandals, an issue that galvanised the middle class, it was replaced by the Janata Dal party and its initially popular prime minister VP Singh.
But in less than a year, Mr Singh saw his middle class appeal disappear when, buffeted by turbulent coalition allies, he decided to trump them by releasing a long-bottled political genie – enhancing the number of government jobs reserved for backward castes.
This populist move unleashed a decade of caste-dominated politics resented by the middle class.
Then, from 1991, economic reforms gradually improved India’s growth.
Sustained by the successive governments of every hue for a decade and a half, those reforms boosted middle class prospects most of all.
Salaries soared; previously hard-to-get luxuries like homes, vehicles and consumer goods became affordable for the now upwardly mobile middle class; new sectors like software and telecom provided world-class career options, even reversing the “brain drain” of earlier emigrants.
But none of this altered the by-now entrenched apathy of the middle class towards politics.
Even the Bharatiya Janata Party, the only major party that traces its roots to middle class support, did not succeed in engaging them for long.
In government for six years from 1998, the BJP even tailored its 2004 re-election campaign to the increasing size and aspirations of the middle class.
But to no avail – the ill-conceived India Shining campaign not only did not sit well with the more numerous voters who were not yet middle class, it did not even succeed in enthusing those that were.
Since then, middle class apathy has only been stirred by the ever more egregious instances of corruption and crony capitalism on display in Delhi.
The anti-corruption campaign, led by the septuagenarian activist Anna Hazare, unusually drew large middle class crowds last year.
But it collapsed this year, its supporters dispirited by the lack of progress in getting parliament to enact an independent ombudsman.
That, combined with the lack of transparency in political funding and the blatant nepotism within most parties, has sealed middle class cynicism towards politicians.
Yet, the middle class is much larger and more influential than ever before.
Its sharply increased spending powers influence the media to pay disproportionate attention to its preferences and concerns, and it is arguably a potent political swing vote.
Which is why it is surprising that only a few regional politicians have figured out how to carry the middle class without alienating other vote banks. A sea change awaits Indian politics when one of the larger parties manages to do this nationally.