Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2013-02-06 00:00:00 Published on Feb 06, 2013
Though it is too early to interpret possible impact of the new activism of India's burgeoning urban middle class on nature and character of politics and system of governance, if we take recent global events as a sort of barometer, the change has already begun.
Is new urban middle class forcing change in politics?
Notwithstanding its massive contribution to the economy (more than two-thirds of country's GDP), Indian cities or urban spaces continue to languish on the political margins. Any urban watcher would know, for all these decades the sole preoccupation of the ruling elites has been with rural India (Bharat) as that used to be the place where they get most votes from. A noted India observer aptly summed it up like this, "get the votes in the village and use that power to rule and plunder the cities". In other words, for all these decades, cities were treated as "colonies" of the states in India.

Now, however, this story seems to be changing. And in many ways it is changing dramatically, when one analyses the relative successes of the two recent stirrings -- one over "corruption" (Jan Lokpal agitation led by Anna Hazare) and another over "law and order" situation (recent anti-rape protests in Delhi and other cities). These stirrings with overwhelming participation of once "apathetic" and "non-voting" urban middle class are an open challenge to the present form of politics which is "deeply corrupt, unresponsive and create supplicant citizens." The "new urban middle class" is demanding better governance and accountability from the elected and appointed officials as it seeks to change the existing state-citizens relationships.

Many dismiss these protests as isolated events focused around two separate issues and they should not be construed as harbinger of any dramatic change in the manner in which politics is run and governance is delivered in the country. But for several others, the citizen-activism led by urban middle class would usher in a new kind of politics in the country as well as society. They believe that there is active agency roles (especially the massive proliferation of new 24/7 news media all the time looking for "new issues" and "new heroes", emerging civil society and ever expanding social media) that come as a great boon to a class which is tech-savvy, aware, extremely articulate and engaging (even if through social media) populations to bring required change in the democratic politics and governance.

Making sense of recent urban stirrings

What sense one makes out of these middle class stirrings? Has the urban India arrived already? Does the urban middle class (considered as non-voting class) have a critical mass to transform the politics and governance of the country? While the judgement may not be still out, it is safe to draw a few broad conclusions, based on the initial trends and available evidence.

First, a decade ago, India's urban population was too small to be able to effect any visible electoral outcomes. But as per the latest Census report (2011), India is one of the fastest urbanising country among the emerging economies. While more than 31 per cent of population (350 millions) now live in cities and towns, the new engines of growth and employment, hundreds of millions of more people are bound to move to urban spaces. In short, the time is not far when the urban population will outnumber its rural counterpart. Similar narrative can be found with regard to the story of middle class. While there might be differences over the numbers and definition of middle class, there is no denying the fact that the middle class has grown rapidly since the time of economic liberalisation. According to a recent NCEAR report, the middle class has swelled to 180 million and in another five years, may reach a mammoth 300 million. A recent McKinsey report predicts that the middle class may reach an astonishing 600 million by 2030. What is noteworthy to mention here is that a vast majority of the new middle class live in the growing urban spaces.

Second, numbers apart, the new middle class is much different from the previous generations. A product of neo-liberal economy, largely funneled by private sector growth, the new middle class is mostly urban, well aware, better educated, assertive and well networked with each other thanks to the explosion of information and communication technologies and social media. Unlike its rural counterpart, the new urban middle class is empowered by two critical tools: powerful new media and an assertive and ever expanding civil society. While the sums of urban middle class, when considered in terms of voting age, look still small and years away from producing any electoral outcomes, they are a force to reckon with. As demonstrated in the recent times, a small neat group, as seen in the case of the organization of India Against Corruption (IAC), can become a force multiplier and an active agent for change. The time has gone when people were scared of getting beaten up or killed while protesting. As a perceptive observer of Indian scene put it "when an 18-year-old college student in jeans climbs a pole on Rajpath carrying a placard, she gets millions more eyeballs than a dying patient abandoned in the compound of a Hazaribagh hospital - just as somebody on a 24-hour fast at Jantar Mantar would attract millions more eyeballs than Irom Sharmila in Imphal". The power of middle class citizen activism was vividly demonstrated in recent times in North Africa and Arab Peninsula besides on Delhi streets. In the era of information age and saturated media gaze, numbers look increasingly irrelevant. The recent anti-rape protests in Delhi demonstrated that a well networked and articulate band of citizen activists have powers to bring the Raisina Hill down to its knee.

Third, though the urban middle class is still electorally a light weight, it can still unleash serious damage to political parties, especially in states with substantial urban population. Take for instance the outcome of the recent Assembly elections in Gujarat and the role of urban voters. While Narendra Modi won a comfortable majority for the fourth time, his victory was heavily done by the enthusiastic support of urban middle classes, including a large percentage of women voters. As extensively reported, in all major cities of Gujarat - Ahmadabad, Vadodara, Surat, Bhavnagar and Rajkot - Narendra Modi won 40 of the 44 seats. Similarly, in the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav's victory was critically shaped by enthusiastic urban middle class voters. Though this scenario may still be restricted to a few states, this, however, does play a critical role at a time when coalition governments are the norm and each party try to cobble up as many seats as possible.

Finally, there are two different but inter-related factors that would facilitate the emergence of new politics. The present democratic process and the system of governance remain disconnected from the core issues of citizens, especially urban majority, increasing discontent among this section. The politics and governance system, which for all practical purposes remain hierarchal (absence of inner party democracy), feudal (a mammoth 156 MPs are princelings!), patronage based and deeply unresponsive and insular, is unprepared to accommodate the ambitions and aspirations of the urban middle class. Also, the new middle class, which is a product of post-liberalisation and globalisation eras (state taking backseat on many fronts), has mostly grown up hating its politicians and appointed officials. It is unforgiving and wants instant change. Importantly, the class that lived in 'irrelevance' for years has now tasted success. And, now it has its ambition on its sleeves. Hence, change, no matter in whichever shape, looks inevitable.

Unanswered questions

While there are genuine reasons to believe that the new urban middle class activism will create enabling conditions for change in the politics and governance system to make it more responsive, accountable, non-hierarchical and inclusive, there is still plenty of scepticism on whether the change will bring in inclusiveness, class character and sustained interests. Many question the class character of the protests, the elite capture of issues and so on. There is fear that these movements or protests are a result of upper class NGOs (called civil society) funded by foreign interests and are only concerned with routine service delivery issues rather than ushering in larger political change. Real transformation requires sustained long term engagement and commitment. Does the new middle class possess the required vision to build an inclusive society in which all the classes can co-exist (including urban poor, migrant population, slum dwellers)? Also, does it possess the necessary patience to bring in the transformation that need long haul? There is still a long way left to interpret the nature and character of the new activism and its consequences. However, if we take global events as a barometer, the change has already begun.

(Dr Niranjan Sahoo is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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