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Devils Inc.

The hard-working urban middle class sees politicians as the antithesis of its values

Devils Inc.
Photo- illustration by Jayachandran
Devils Inc.
outlookindia.com
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Straddling a narrow ledge between the vast abyss of poverty and the crests of wealth of the uber-folk, the Indian urban middle class feels cruelly shortchanged. It has faithfully paid its taxes, only to find itself entangled in a nightmarish web of corruption and deceit. It has played by the rules, only to find the rule-breakers getting ahead. The world, it feels, unfairly favours villains. And the architect of its miseries: the diabolical neta clad in crumpled white khadi.

In fact, when the middle class sees itself in juxtaposition with the politician, the result is a black-and-white montage. If the middle class is hard-working, educated, productive, conformist, tax-paying, law-abiding, patriotic and god-fearing, the politician is its photo-negative: a self-serving, venal, parasitical, power-hungry, morally and intellectually deficient upstart.

Indeed, politics itself has become little more than a spectator sport for the urban middle class, says author Khushwant Singh. "It’s a circus...politics is at best a source of shock and amusement. It’s possible to surmise that a distinctive middle- class identity has been culled out from a collective hostility and disconnect with politicians and political activity," he says.

And the middle class is not alone in its disillusionment with the political class. "The entire population is disgusted with politicians," says editor, Tughlak, and BJP-backed Rajya Sabha MP Cho Ramaswamy. "The lower middle classes and poor are the most vociferous in their criticism of politicians. In fact, it is the educated middle class which suffers silently."

At the root of this profound middle class-politician antagonism is the unrealistic expectation each has of the other. Observes Sunil Khilnani, professor at Johns Hopkins University: "If it’s the task of the middle classes to hate politicians, it’s the task of politicians (and intellectuals) to charge the middle class with large historical duties and despise them for failing to achieve these. The middle classes are supposed to lead society forward to give it stability; to be revolutionary as well as liberal and democratic; to be the motors of economic change and capitalist development—to be at once both prudent savers and spendthrift consumers. No wonder they feel overburdened and resentful."

And the middle class expects, adds Khilnani, "the creation of an Indian avatar of Singapore, ordered and unruffled by the hurly-burly of politics". His glaring inadequacy on this front has made the politician the butt of its ire. Says social scientist Yogendra Singh, "The Indian urban middle class is characteristically performance-oriented. Anxious about status maintenance and constantly striving for upward social mobility, its expectations are high and it’s unforgiving of non-performance."

The middle class thus tends to lampoon rather than empathise with the politician and that’s partly because it has failed to come to terms with the necessary evils of democracy, social scientists feel. Middle-class discomfort with the new breed of rustic politicians from lower castes recasts old animosities in a moral-aesthetic framework (‘the corrupt riff-raff’). "To actualise democracy, politicians are drawn from the lower socio-economic strata. With no access to inherited/corporate wealth or any institutionalised mechanism of fund-raising, they resort to money-making. So while Parliament’s representative character has been enhanced, the cost in ethical terms is high," says Yogendra Singh.

The celebration of educated, self-made achievers explains why politicians like Arun Jaitley are beloved of the middle class, while ‘coarse’ (albeit diamond-laden) upstarts like Mayawati are the butt of jokes. Equally jest-worthy are the arrivistes who are neither self-made like Jaitley, nor enjoy grassroots political support like Mayawati, but parade their ‘number two’ wealth in order to win social and political legitimacy.

The middle-class hatred of the politician verges on the pathological, says psephologist Yogendra Yadav. "It’s rooted in what a psychologist would term transpositional guilt. A large section of the urban middle class is party to institutionalised corruption. Hence the anxiety to distance themselves from a crime in which they are passive or active partners by pointing fingers at the politician," he says.

JNU professor Dipankar Gupta sees a complicity between the urban middle class and the politician. "There’s a patron-client relationship, so the middle class is thoroughly compromised." Thus, corruption is a real issue only for those sections of the middle class that are not dependent on political patronage.

The patron-client equation explains why the middle class loves to hate politicians, adds Gupta. "There’s an offensive degree of fawning when this middle class actually comes face to face with politicians. At a wedding or a mela, why is the politician rather than a social worker the chief guest?" Agrees Yadav: "There’s a sense of proximity and a sense of distance. A fascination and a repulsion. Politicians are the ‘intimate enemy’."

With their visibility, they’re also the softest target for the middle class, says Dr D.L. Sheth of Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "Statistically, the (faceless) judiciary and bureaucracy are probably more corrupt than politicians. Ordinary citizens, in fact, feel disempowered in the face of the politician-police-bureaucrat-corporate nexus. But only the politician is accountable, because he has to face elections," he says.

Have middle-class values degenerated quite as much as the politicians it reviles? Has the cult of consumerism unleashed by liberalisation indirectly encouraged the very evils it deplores? Yes, says professor emeritus C.T. Kurien, at the Madras Institute of Development Studies: "Since the middle class has come to have a much better time than before, it is today concerned only about its own affairs...it perceives government and politicians as enemies, not realising that they are necessary even in the context of liberalisation."

Sheth agrees that the middle class isn’t really outraged by corruption: "When they crib about corruption, it’s not a moral concern but a means of expressing prejudice (against the upstarts)." Asks Yadav, "Why is there no sense of indignation at the way Dhirubhai Ambani built his empire? Everyone in the country knows how it was done and yet, he’s touted as a hero figure."

While middle-class mores may be getting tossed about in a time of flux and its old ideals of decorum and stability may be getting diluted, social scientists agree that its grievances are justified. It may be true that those who complain most about corruption are least likely to pay taxes. But that’s not because they’re partners in corruption; it’s because they see no returns on investment. "If I don’t get my money’s worth in terms of protection or services, I will be tempted to dodge taxes," says Khushwant Singh. The ordinary urban citizen who grudges every single tax rupee paid into government coffers will dig deep down into his polyester trousers for the Kargil wounded.

The disconnect with the political process is perhaps why the middle class is notoriously reluctant to exercise its franchise. "Voting is one of the least effective acts of political participation; for the middle class a backdoor approach to a politician is a strategic act which ensures sure returns," says Yadav. "It’s not that the middle class rejects politics," says Khilnani. "They influence the political arena in other ways."

Most social scientists feel the middle-class dislike of politicians is rooted in its distrust of democracy, which has brought to the fore money- and power-hungry people from lower socio-economic strata. Says Sheth, "The middle class wants anti-democratic solutions to deal with this class, like restricting franchise to the educated. A democracy of the meritocracy, as it were." Empirical studies have consistently shown that the middle class strongly supports authoritarian options, points out Yadav.

But, for all its cynicism and grudging role, the middle class is vital to a vibrant, healthy democratic system. "Just look across the border. In Pakistan, the feudal class dominates the civil services, politics, business and the military, leaving very little room for social mobility," says Yogendra Singh.

According to him, the middle class must take an optimistic view: "A gradual convergence of interests between the middle class and the poor, as the latter begin to demand performance rather than populism, will put pressure on politicians. This will lead to institutional reforms which cut down on corruption and strengthen apolitical organs of civil society like serious ngos." Until this happens, the middle class is free to express its dissatisfaction with the system. But, in the long term, it may have no choice but to learn to live with it.


By Bhavdeep Kang and Anupreeta Das with Ashis K. Biswas, Darshan Desai, Priyanka Kakodkar, S. Anand, B.R. Srikanth, Chander Suta Dogra, John Mary and Subodh Mishra

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