Event ReportsPublished on Apr 11, 2013
During a discussion on "Urban Middle Classes and the Ascent of New Politics in India" at ORF, it was noted that success should not be measured in terms of the ability to ensure successful electoral outcomes but as an attempt to make better societies.
How do you measure new movements?

To understand the two major urban stirrings in recent years in India over corruption and the law and order situation in New Delhi as well as protests against despotic regimes in West Asia, Observer Research Foundation organised a conference on "Urban Middle Classes and the Ascent of New Politics in India" on April 11, 2012.

The speakers included Mr. Surendra Singh, former Cabinet Secretary and Honorary Advisor, ORF, Shiv Visvanathan, Professor and Executive Director, Centre for the Study of Science, Society and Sustainability; Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, Sonipat, Haryana, Mrs Shailaja Chandra. IAS (retd), former Chief Secretary, Government of NCT of Delhi and former Chairperson, Delhi Public Grievances Commission, Dr. Rajesh Shukla, India Country Head, First Europe India Networking Social Science Research Network Programme and Visiting Professor, Institute of Human Development, Vikas Aggarwal, Chief Technology Officer, Public Sector, Microsoft Corporation India and Shazia Imli, activist and member of the national executive of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The conference was moderated by Mr. Harsh Sethi, Consulting Editor, Seminar.

Mr. Surinder Singh flagged off the discussion by underlining the nature of the emerging middle class. In the past 5-6 years, there have been demonstrations on a variety of causes driven by the middle class, both in India and abroad. These include the Anna Hazare movement, Occupy Wall Street protests, Arab Spring movements and the uprising following the Delhi Gangrape incidents last December. Currently there are 180 million Indians belonging to the middle classes who are aspirational and far more aware of their surroundings via both the print media and the electronic media. By 2030, half the population of India is expected to live in urban areas. There is a growing impatience about the middle classes on issues of misgovernance (increasing criminality, poor governance) and they want to take matters in their own hands. There is a growing perception that political classes are alienated from people due to increasing influence of money power, muscle power and growing dynastic power. The debate on the urban middle class centres around whether urban middle classes and the demonstrations are a force for good (considering that the protests have been peaceful and not based on frivolous causes) and whether they are representative in terms of highlighting issues outside their constituency (poverty, urban slums) as well as the fact that they are not elected representatives. It is also necessary to remember Ambedkar’s warning regarding the grammar of anarchy and the need to focus on constitutional methods to achieve social and economic objectives.

Mr. Harsh Sethi, moderating the discussion, flagged off his observations by focussing on the nature of the urban middle classes (neo urban middle classes vs. traditional middle classes) as a pertinent question. Question of new politics revolves around what constitutes "new politics". Protests, satyagraha, gherao are forms of politics which have been used before or is it only raising new issues that constitute new politics. The Anti-dam movement in India is an example of a movement which uses multiple modes to register their point as well as involving people from all backgrounds (combination of grassroots activism, negotiations with experts, engaging NGOs to work on human rights and involving journalists from the middle class at the state level and the central level). Forums where legislations take place have gradually moved from institutions (legislature, technical committees) to media (T.V., social media). It is also dependent on who controls the information as well as has access to resources etc. He also cautioned to avoid falling into the trap of more expressive forums or being explosive in order to get heard.

Dr Shiv Vishvanathan, an eminent sociologist, pointed out the necessity to understand what the movements say about our society. Drawing from three movements (Naxal movements, anti-dam movements and the recent protests by Anna Hazare), he focussed on the aspect of the displacement of the body and the role of the state. Each of the movements focussed on the history of the recovery of the body and also how the body in linked to the body politic. The "new movements" focussed on the disappearance of the political following liberalization in the early 1990s. Consumerism came to dominate/define citizenship (i.e. yet again the needs and the desires of the body became more important than the requirements of a subsistence society). The challenge before the new movements is how to combine the oral, textual and digital in order to create a different idea of society. Each of the "new movements" (Arab Spring, African movements) is an attempt to create a new notion of social contract which combines three notions of society. The first is the "idea of the public" which attempts to answer what constitutes the public as well as the public debates, how public policy is achieved and the nature of a public good. The second notion is that of the digital i.e. what constitutes network, how is a network different from a public as well as how a networked society different from a society that talks about publics. The third notion which is more tacit in nature is the marginal idea of society which is highly technological as well as very subsistence oriented. It is the idea of commons which needs to be focussed upon i.e. subsistence of economy and digital commons as well as the interactions between the above. There is the emergence of a new democratization of democracy. The "new movements" are slowly taking away the middle class fear of disorder. There is also a need for a new connection between government, civil society and the marginals wherein there is a need for certain amount of disorder.

Mrs Shailja Chandra, an eminent former bureaucrat, focussed on the use of new social media and the role of the political class. For example, she pointed out that in the Obama’s 2nd election the real swing came about in Florida because of intense social media campaigning. Closer home, Modi has capitalised on the social media in a very street smart way which is appealing to the young voters who are fed up with the status quo as well as the nice platitudes. Social media also has the added advantage of keeping an issue in focus. She also stated that the political class is not serious about reforms e.g. in the case of criminalization of politics senior politicians passionately believe that in a democratic society like ours all politicians are innocent till proved guilty inspite of being accused of heinous crimes. Though the new movements are driven by the middle class and extensively rely on the social media, the importance of the rural voter also needs to be understood who doesn’t rely on private television networks or even the social media. The middle class has a voice of its own via the social media and is expected to vote in large numbers in the coming general elections.

Dr Rajesh Shukla, professor at the Institute of Human Development, started by quoting Aristotle who stated that the best political community consists of those citizens who are middle class. The best governed society is of those constituting the middle classes. Middle class is the class between the aristocrats and the peasants. According to a recent survey, the middle class constitutes 56% at an all India level. In the practical discourse, society constitutes of three categories i.e. Bottom of Pyramid (BOP), aspirers and middle class and the western elite rich. The size of the middle class is evolving from a conical shape with a large base to a large middle class (politics of middle class is eventually going to grow). They are now the cementing region between the poor and rich. Middle class consists of the aspirers, it is in reality a lifestyle. A large size does not guarantee democracy bit it guarantees better governance and stability. The rural population is a homogenous groups in terms of occupation in both urban and rural areas. Middle class is more heterogenous. They have more aspirations and diverse occupations (consumer/producer, employer/employee as well as decision maker/following decisions). They are more committed than elite and more open to the wider world. The middle class is more supportive of inclusive growth. Amongst the urban middle classes, 2/3rd of them live in urban areas and 1/3rd lives in the rural areas. The challenge is to get them together especially the middle classes in rural areas.

Vikas Aggarwal of Microsoft Corporation India focussed on the new social media. He brought forth his experience from the information technology sector. He said the middle class is now politically relevant - a marked change from the times when they were considered marginalised and politically irrelevant. This newness is the result of an innovation in technology which has given the middle class the tool to fight back at the empire. The new social media has enabled the middle classes to have an identity as well as anonymity. The power of networking is also a result of the new social media which has the ability to mobilize. Technology is also an exponential multiplier (the comments by people reach thousands of people who can share it with a large number of people and can be commented upon by a large number of people in a very short space of time). In a recent incident, the government shooting a citizen during protests and her death was captured on mobile phone (video technology) and was widely shared on the social media platforms. In the absence of new social media, this event would not have been reported, leave alone being shared and viewed by millions of people to protest against government apathy. It has the power to challenge traditional institutions and it also dissolves barriers. Control and scrutiny becomes far more difficult, though technology too can be monitored but monitoring is extremely cumbersome given its widespread use. Technology is now part of an urban social fabric.

Ms Shazia Ilmi brought forth her experience as an activist in the "new movements". She said it is necessary to recognize the importance of buzz and conversations over hard data. She held that the current structure of the government is kleptocracy masquerading as democracy which must be challenged. The entire state citizen equation must be redefined. Electoral franchise is meaningless for the voter when the choice is restrictive in nature and every political party represents the others in terms of corruption, lack of inner party democracy etc. It amounts to hoodwinking of the citizen. State is the guardian of the institutions and the citizens must respond to this. It is the apathy and the corruption of the state which is responsible for the anarchic response of the citizens, that is being widely derided. There is a disenchantment of the masses with the politics and lack of inner part democracy within a multi-party democracy. The political parties are centralised in nature and the existence of a master-slave relationship. The will of the people are not being represented. There is a slow erosion of democracy vis-à-vis the commons being sold and the natural resources being exploited for the sake of a small exclusive club. The debate is essentially between law and order in a democracy and voice to the people (citizens). The new politics which is emerging via these movements is one whose identity is defined in terms of citizenry (a civic duty) as opposed to driven by regional or caste identities. The process is one of deepening of democracy which is the ultimate goal.

During the question-answer session, it was observed that Kejriwal does speak a new language and of new politics. The power of the "new movements" is the ability to rethink the city. Technology is being harnessed to create a new form of politics. The "new movements" also create an understanding amongst the citizenry on issues that affect them. They are not only challenging the monopoly of the state but also questioning the category of bureaucracy.

It was also noted that success should not be measured in terms of the ability to ensure successful electoral outcomes but as an attempt to make better societies.

(The report was prepared by Samya Chatterjee, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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