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Agents of Change?

Agents of Change?
The middle class is going places. But what is its political destination?

Although Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare and celebrity yoga guru Ram Krishna Ramdev (better known as Baba Ramdev) are markedly different people, they are tied together, many analysts emphasize, by a common element: The popular anti-corruption campaigns each has staged recently are a manifestation of the growing middle class backlash against corruption and shoddy governance.  Some commentators (see here, here, and here) even portray the discontent channeled by Hazare and Ramdev as the Indian version of the Jasmine Revolution now sweeping the Middle East.  Indeed, Indian media reinforced this line by likening the Jantar Mantar site in central Delhi, where Hazare staged his agitation two months ago, to Tahrir Square.

Despite questions about the size and economic consequence of the middle class, there is no question that rising income levels across a large swath of the population is reshaping the country in rather profound ways.  India Calling, the new book by Anand Giridharadas, provides a good, albeit narrow, examination of the social shifts afoot.  And, of course, the economic transformations are simply seismic.  A new Asian Development Bank report finds that nearly 70 percent of the population could have middle class status within 15-years time, a development that would remake India into a heavily consumerist and urbanized place.  The rise of a young, urban-dwelling consumer class is credited, among other things, for the increasing number of contemporary music festivals similar to those in the United States and Europe, as well as making India more of a coffee-drinking nation and expanding its organized café market.

But is the middle class dynamic at the root of the political mobilizations championed by Hazare and Ramdev?  And is it the impulse behind the recent election results in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which have lead one observer to conclude that

the much-hyped middle class may finally be consolidating as a political force to be reckoned with, especially in the urban centers.  Educated and informed, it is starting to assert itself politically by exploiting the citizen’s levers in a free society, including the judiciary and a vigorously competitive electronic and print media.

Some caution might be in order, however.  Middle class participation in the electoral process continues to be limited and is in any case far outweighed by the hundreds of millions of rural Indians who have yet to enjoy much of the fruits of the country’s economic boom.  As evidenced by the long-delayed reform agenda and the persistent resort to economic populism, the political class continues to pay deference to poor rural voters.  Gurgaon, the world’s outsourcing capital that is located just outside of New Delhi, is a microcosm of the country’s middle class transformation.  Yet as a New York Times article last week makes clear, civic groups there trying to improve municipal life are easily ignored by politicians and government bureaucrats.  A comparable story occurred in the aftermath of the November 2008 terrorist strikes in Mumbai, when the bourgeoisie (I use the term in its social science meaning) rose in outrage at the government’s abject failure (see here and here) to respond effectively to – let alone prevent in the first place – the assaults.  Yet the clamor quickly petered out and had no effect on the mid-2009 parliamentary elections, when only 43 percent of Mumbai’s electorate bothered to turn out.  This outcome is consistent with a 2007 CNN-IBN survey that found that a majority of the middle class is simply not interested in politics. 

Data from the most recent (April-May) state elections likewise belie expectations that political change is a simple function of middle-class attainment.  Voter participation in prosperous urban areas in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu was markedly below state-wide averages.  A similar pattern held in Kerala, Assam and Puducherry.

So is there any connection at all between middle class expansion and increased political mobilization?  Noted American economist Nancy Birdsall suggests not.  She argues that India is actually missing a middle class, since most of the people usually viewed in that category are really among the most affluent in the country.  Nor does she believe that this population segment has much interest in bringing about political change, since virtually all urban households with apparent middle class status are comprised of workers who are in some way dependent on government for their income, whether as civil servants or employed by parastatals or other institutions (banks, extractive industries) highly dependent on public policies.

Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, at the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog, offers an alternative perspective.  She opines that Hazare’s followers and Ramdev’s supporters really comprise two different categories and may have divergent policy agendas, to boot.  In her view, the former are largely drawn from the Anglicized and urbanized upper middle class, while the latter come from the vernacular and rural lower middle class.  Ramdev’s swadeshi rhetoric advocating economic autarchy also is at odds with the liberalizations that have empowered Hazare’s support base.  Rather than presenting a united front, the two groups may come into tension with each other in the future.

As with so much about contemporary India, the political trajectory and ultimate impact of its expanding middle class is a moving target.  Change is indeed happening, though a healthy skepticism about its exact contours and meaning is not out of place.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.