Its amorphousness notwithstanding, the eponymous “middle-class” of India has most certainly asserted itself in the final frontier of India’s politics – elections. First in the form of influencing elections (Hissar bypoll) and now in the form of citizens’ fronts in the Pune municipal elections, it is well on the path of moving from being an indirect opinion-maker to being a direct player in the political arena. Little wonder that it must now also face the troubles that come with being a political player.
The media (especially English) have for long been blamed for pandering to the middle-class. Whether it’s by celebrating the (debatable) status of being the only tax-paying strata of society or in the form of echoing their sentiments about security/terrorism and the need for instant and ruthless deterrents, the media have given edits, both overt and implied, which find resonance with the opinions and choices of the middle-class. And on that count of partiality the media have also been held guilty. Perhaps in a bid to make up for the earlier leniency, the media of late have given generous space to criticism. Especially in the aftermath of the anti-corruption movement led by Team Anna, the critics have closed in thick and fast and are now seen lashing out at the group with criticism that range from scathing attacks to outright ridicule.
Here are some of the main areas of criticism:
“The middle-class is politically inept and is good only for discussions”
Even before one begins to answer this accusation one is amazed at the underlying assumption that Indian politics has some form of merit or calibre as a qualifying factor. Unless one accepts surnames, family wealth, and sycophancy as some measure of calibre, Indian politicians of even mediocre calibre are hard to come by. So where’s the question of ability being a pre-condition? Of course, there are notable exceptions far outdone by the degenerate. Also in a field as unruly and unprofessional as Indian electoral politics, can there be a specific set of criteria which we may standardise? On what basis can one call a party inept and another able?
Politics, as envisaged in India, was never meant to be the recourse of a few and is expressly open for all. So, telling any group off, middle-class or otherwise, is tantamount to a direct violation of the very ethos of our democracy.
“It’s a movement of the elite”
While one cannot ignore the elements of elitism that some members of this group espouse (notably the anti-lower-caste stand), one can equally ask of the critics if the current political powers can claim that they represent the depressed class. The current Legislative Assemblies and the two Houses of Parliament are home to some of India’s wealthiest. Can they claim to be representatives of the underclass? Chief Ministers who have their slippers flown down in chartered aircraft cannot be representatives of the marginalised. So, who are we fooling when we talk about the representative nature of our political class?
“It’s a mere media show”
Given the fact that a number of Indian Parliamentarians are far more regular in TV studios than in either House, one wonders what is so different about the middle-class activists? A few more pointed questions are: who are the ones that pay to be news? Who are the ones that dole out lavish front page advertisements at the expense of the exchequer for favourable press? Let the one who doesn’t strive for his fifteen minutes of prime time cast the first stone.
“They are anti-constitution and violate the sanctity of august institutions”
Agreed there are a few who rant and rave about how the very idea of India is flawed and everything from elections to courts to the Constitution are outdated and uninspiring. But one must quickly ask as to how many laws codified in the Constitution were broken by the anti-corruption activists as opposed to those in power? Did they protesters dig illegal mines or organise the CWG? Did they organise midnight beating of peaceful and democratic protesters in Ramlila Maidan? Are they the ones who eat away funds meant for soldiers’ coffins and policemen’s bullet-proof vests? How do we identify what is an insult to the Constitution and what is not?
Activists across the country disagree with certain sections of the Constitution. That disagreement forms the very basis of an evolving Constitution. Is that dissent not desirable if we are to be an inclusive democracy? Is that not the very antidote to becoming an unquestioning and timid society?
The government used the Delhi Police to crack down on protesters based on the premise of the possible intention of disruption by fascist Right wing forces. This theory was repeated ad nauseum by those who spoke in defence of the police action. There are two major flaws in this approach: 1.A responsible State in a democratic nation cannot resort to strong-arm methods based solely on the premise of “intention”. 2. While any form of extremism Right or Left (and also neo-liberal) is indeed a grave problem, the Indian Constitution allows its citizens the right to pursue different political beliefs until they take to sedition. There is no ban on thought –Left, Right, or Centre The hidden or open political affiliations of the protesters notwithstanding, the people protesting for anti-corruption legislation were Indian citizens who had the inalienable right to assemble and raise slogans peacefully. Does the violation of fundamental rights not amount to desecration of the Constitution?
“Parliament is supreme” is the immediate corollary of the preceding blame. Yes, Parliament has a great measure of sanctity in India and must be treated with respect. But the same doesn’t hold true for parliamentarians. Parliamentarian or not, every crook who swindles public money should be punished as mandated by the law.
“It’s a movement of idolatry and despots”
Idolatry and hero-worship have been a hallmark of our politics. While India is long known to be the land of a thousand deities, one may dare say the ones in temples are outnumbered by the ones in politics. The Centre and he Right have been known hero-worshippers.
The Centre, an embodiment of inane sycophancy, has spawned dynasties big and small, and “supremos” instead of functionaries.
The Right too has its share of idols. It too has its families which have created their own despotic fiefdoms.
Speaking of idols and despots one can hardly ignore the ones in Uttar Pradesh who belong to neither the Centre nor the Left or the Right.
In such an atmosphere it is not too surprising, even if regrettable, that the middle-class movements too will prop up their idols. They too will have to deal with their share of gaffes. But there are already signs of the movements becoming decentralised and stake-holders abandoning their hawkish lines and heading towards coalitions. If good sense prevails, the movement under discussion will, sooner than later, try to get itself out of the dangerous hold of despots and poster boys and move towards becoming a larger people’s movement. In any case, it’s far too early to dismiss it as a doomed mission.
Is this essay an apology for the failings of the middle-class movements? No. The people/groups who decide to enter the arena must be willing to endure the pressures that come with it. They must be willing to submit themselves to relentless public scrutiny and remember that every one of their lapses will be on record for ever and will have to be accounted for. The apolitical tag will soon wear off and cease to be of any defence. This essay is an attempt to set the debate right. It’s a recognition of the fact that while on one hand inflating a movement with celebration beyond its worth is a sure recipe for deformed growth, on the other, heaping unwarranted criticism is detrimental to the very prospect of ever finding a way out of the mess.
Now that Maharashtra’s local body elections are over and Anna Hazare has regained his health, the news reports are talking about Team Anna heading to Delhi. The rants and the debates are about to restart. One hopes that only the worst of each side will not be held up against the other for titillation and that balanced voices won’t be lost in
Siddharthya Swapan Roy writer is an activist and freelance writer based in Maharashtra and he contested the Pune Municipal Elections of 2012 as an independent candidate for an anti-corruption citizens initiative.