Monday, June 06, 2011

The Rage of the Middle Class

The current fasts and ultimatums by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev in India, and the subsequent responses by the government, are a phenomenon worthy of deeper analysis.

What is going on? What about "democracy" and why aren't these people resorting to "democratic" means? Why aren't they standing for elected offices? What is corruption, really?

In my opinion, this phenomenon can be seen as the rage of a disenfranchised middle class towards what it considers illegitimate power.

India is a mostly poor, illiterate, agrarian, religious nation. The political power in India lies with a certain elite who can manage to rally the ignorant and the poor behind them by promising short-term, caste or religion oriented, or populist gains. On the other hand, the corporate power lies with a different set of elites who are managing the economy very "resourcefully".

In short, political power is the fiefdom of the leaders of ignoranti, who are joined in their endeavor by the capitalist elite.

Middle classes, the salaried, tax-paying, fixed-depositing, diabetic, high-blood-pressure, worrying about television and pranayama classes have no representative in these times. Even in big cities, the vote banks lie with the poor, the illegal settlers, the religious fanatics, the ones who vote on strict pragmatic considerations of benefits offered, and so on.

The middle classes are aghast that both the filthy poor and the filthy rich are milking them dry. But they have no real recourse. The legal system is dysfunctional, the middle classes neither have the time nor the ability to enter politics or to fight court battles (except against each other), and they are wondering if democracy is really such a good thing for them. They are taxed, but they have no voice. Their money goes to the poor (think free power) and to the privileged rich (think CWG) alike.

Media seems to be their only friend, even if a hoary and shrill one. They are the target audience for most of what goes on on television. The only good reason for an intellectual to watch television these days (I think) is to gauge what the middle classes are interested in: gadgets, cooking oils, air conditioners, song and dance, infotainment, urban crime stories, etc.

Democracy is not coming to their aid because of a number of reasons:
  • They don't vote, already pessimistic that the other vote banks are far more powerful.
  • They are not organized, and hence have almost no lobbying power.
  • Due to the career progressions and the invasion of the knowledge economy, they are being scattered far and wide, and far too often, across the country.
  • They are living in a media-fed cocoon with no time for anything except their domestic concerns and rising bills.
  • Due to the way they bring up their kids, all moral, non-violent and risk-averse, their kids don't end up being political leaders or corporate plunderers.
But, and especially since the markets have opened up, their discontent is rising, their sense of entitlement is becoming more flagrant and insistent, and there is growing sense of helplessness, unease and rage.

In this environment, when they understand that the political leaders serve either the very rich or the very poor (the former because of their money, the latter because of their numbers), the middle classes are frustrated due to their lack of power. This frustration stems from the realization that at least for the foreseeable future, there is not going to be any real change. The poor will continue to vote corrupt leaders into power, and the rich will continue to exact their pound of flesh.

What are the middle classes to do?

They, not unsurprisingly, spit at the system, the democratic process, the institutions of the state and want a short-circuit path to glory where they lord over both the filthy rich and the filthy poor. They don't have any leaders, and people such as Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare are not really politically astute. Nor is there hope that they will have a great political leader anytime soon. Any political leader in today's system has to: a) appeal to the illiterate masses, b) have a nexus with the corporates. The middle classes are handicapped when it comes to both of these. They are educated enough not to mouth jingoistic platitudes to win ovations, and they are also not versed enough in the "ways of the world" (or insensitive enough) to hobnob with the rich and lord over umpteen servants regarding them as sub-human creatures.

They are mediocre, and they don't have much of a say.

Hence, they are saying (through Anna Hazare and through Baba Ramdev) that processes and voting be damned, just give us the power and the money back. The media being their daddy, is making it appear as if there is a nation-wide consensus over their demands, when in fact there isn't. The intellectuals are aghast at their shrillness and their painfully naive rhetoric tinged with religious undertones to short-circuit process and institutions, the rich are a little cautious and are watching the scene unfold, the poor are not in the picture at all.

The demands of the middle classes (despite impressions to the contrary) are not the same as those of the much more numerous poor, and are definitely not the same as those of the much more powerful rich. The poor want short-term remedies: reservations, free rice, free power, low-cost diesel, freedom from regulation (environmental, economic, educational, and so on). The rich want the status-quo: privilege, opacity, a crony police force, a subservient executive, a consumerist ethos...

Even amongst the middle class, there is a great majority which evades taxes, encroaches upon public land (just an extended porch or a driveway, usually, but still), and gloats whenever they are able to run through a red light.

Hence, their leader, if at all he comes up, will always lose when fighting against the establishment. They have no chance in hell of making a dent in the current system through democratic processes. And they know it.

The middle classes, being a minority, want their values imposed on the majority. They are certainly becoming a more sizable minority, and may even outstrip major caste-based vote banks. But there is another curious reason why they will never have faith in democracy: they are narcissistic. They have some ego, these days. And an unfulfilled one. They are neither too poor not to have an ego, nor too rich to have it constantly gratified.

And their pattern of thinking is: Just because I want something, it should be done. Telly tells me so, no? To have their vote and protest and online petition go waste because the opposing block of votes was bigger is a big blow to their world-view. They don't want to participate in the system, ever. What a fucked-up system, they say to themselves.

And want Ramdev to go on a fast to bring them quick justice.

100% justice in two years, as he says.


sreespace said...

Very sternly written piece this. But actually i would remark that middle class are not a minority. Their clout and influence over political interests is diminishing.
Over the last few years, if you analyze the voting patterns and statistics, most of the middle class have come out to cast their votes.
But politicians know that their votes will not be biased and they will vote on merit.
It is hence the caste based politics and 'carrots for the poor' approach that they focus on.

The recent results of victories in Bihar and West Bengal can be the agents of change our society is looking for, if their current govt stand up and cleanup all the social and capitalistic ills that plagued their states in the past regimes. In that way they can inspire confidence that they have won not just out of anti-incumbency factor and can prove their worth too.
And further this will have to spread across states and hence only good governance can bring about a change in our cynical society


Anonymous said...

1.Manmohan must go on fast to stop this fasting mania that is gripping the middle class led by the Hazares and the Ramdevs.
2.The middle class has limited knowledge of how a corrupt system works. If they had complete knowledge of it they would also participate fully in the corrupt system.Currently the extent of participation of the middle class in the system is directed proportional to their knowledge of how it works. Which is "limited". That is what the frustration is really about.
3.The fundamental change that has to occur to change corruption in India is about changing the Values at a personal level. Ever since Western education and moralistic Values reached India(thanks to Brits) there has been this confusion in Indian minds between their personal Values and Western Moralistic values which denounce corruption explicitly. No religion founded in India has ever spoken a word against corruption. The religious tales and epics of India bound in tales of manipulation for personal gain(i.e corruption). It will take a lot more than a fast to be rid of a mindset that has been ingrained in the Indian psyche for thousands of years.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@anonymous: Very astute observations.

Anonymous said...


4.Ramdevs and Sri sris who own personal jets, multi million crore rupee empires and live in air conditioned comfort cannot pretend to be champions of the middle class or the poor or be crusaders against corruption. If anything they know the system too well otherwise they would not be where they are now. The only difference between them and Ramalinga Raju is that they grew a beard which poor Raju did not, until he got to jail.By the time he realized a beard would have saved him from going to jail it was too late.Otherwise he would have been Sri Sri Ramalinga Raju!!
5.For a country where "Coaching class or Training sessions" or "condensed courses or study guides" are the norm to success academic or otherwise, a very successful business idea would be "Coaching Class or training session for learning the science of Corruption" or "The Art of Corrupt living" or the "The Bhrashtaasana, Bhrashtayog shivir" or the "Bhrasthaushad" pharmacuetical. All these would be lapped up by the middle class which strives for success and knowledge on how to succeed in life.

Sridhar said...

Great insights. Your comment about the middle class's narcissism made a lot of sense. Apart from the frustration that the middle class has with the 'system', which you greatly articulated, I think there's something at play here as well - Ignorance.

Most in the middle-class seem to assume that they're smarter than they are. The reason being, they think that since they're well educated, got jobs through hard-work, etc they are automatically more wise than the ruling elite, and the poor. But I am amazed at how ignorant software engineers, the BPO crowd, and the English speaking middle classes in general can be about political theory, the basic premises of Democracy, consitutional government etc, inspite of their assumption that they know it all.

Hence the herdish, group thinkish rush to support the Baba Ramdevs and Anna Hazares of the world, by "Liking" Facebook pages, hanging out at candlelight vigils, without even the slightest analysis of what said individuals believe in,is this constitutional?, are Hunger Strikes a legitimate form of protest in a free constitutional Republic, how would the Lokpal actually function, is it feasible? etc etc. None of these questions seem to matter to many.

Indian Reagan said...

Interesting post.

Where you are wrong is on is making a distinction between the rich and the middle class on the problems with corruption.

The rich hate corruption as much as the middle class because it is constant friction. Nothing gets done. The political class extracts too much commissions through bribes. And worse of all there is no political stability, so bribing one is never enough. You have to bribe the rival too.

Take Mr AA . Because of the current political climate he is stuck. He is not able to expand onhis business.His brother is in favor politically and that helps him get a few choice contracts. If there is another regime change, the tables turn again. There is only constant headache and its much easier to survive in foreign countries which is why Tata acquired Jaguar and some industrialists are bidding in Indonesia.

Most rich business men would prefer a more transparent system and will settle for a one powerful party rule (like China). India has neither and a government which hates the rich. They have to resort to bribing the political class for survival. Not that they like it... they have to

The only one which benefits from this system is - you guessed it the government class. This includes politicians AND BUREAUCRATS ... Politicians like Marans have become businessmen, cutting out "the rich" class you talk about ...

For some great analysis, read this one :

"The importance of moral outrage against corruption shouldn't be underestimated. For long, the political class smugly believed that the exasperation of voters with sarkari venality and ineptitude could be subsumed by the politics of identity (caste or religion) and patronage (keeping local notables happy). This assumption was valid as long as India was information-deficient and economic aspirations were tempered by a socialism built on shoddiness and shortages. The media explosion has produced an information overload and the growth in prosperity (plus the rise in education) has redefined aspirations dramatically. There is a growing sense of right and wrong which manifests itself more virulently - and without the need for sustained mobilisation and public education - than was the case earlier. India has become less inclined to passive fatalism. Indians believe they have the right to a better India."

The "rich" and the "middle class" hate this system but have no way to influence political outcome... hence the outrage

Ram said...

I agree with what you say. The middle class is a minority without any real power to inflict any change in the system. But I believe that the solution to such a state of the system would come in the form of technology.

Team Anna is now asking for an open debate. Perhaps, if the technology was available 60 years before, Ambedkar would have logged all pertinent information before finalizing any legislation. The Govt is being quite tight lipped about this now. They can't shy away from answering. And in an open debate, every word will have to be carefully uttered. If Sibal says PM must not come under the ambit of Lokpal, he will be asked to explain his rationality for the entire nation to see.
Take the case of whistle blower site Wikileaks. What if there could be tens of such whistle blowers? The politicians will be caught too soon by the wave of technology.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@Indian Reagen:

"Most rich business men would prefer a more transparent system and will settle for a one powerful party rule (like China)."

I am not too sure. I think the new entrants will want that. The established businesses will, for obvious reasons, want an entry barrier (in the form of a closeted group of privileged elite who control the various arms of the government).

Vinz said...

@ the Anonymous who said the below lines..

"No religion founded in India has ever spoken a word against corruption. The religious tales and epics of India bound in tales of manipulation for personal gain(i.e corruption"

Please name one 'religion' that has lashed out at corruption which according to you is abundant in 'religion founded in India'.

And please mention the name of that 'religion founded in India' that has stuffed Indian phyche with ideas of corruption.

You stand exposed Mr. Anonymous :)

Anonymous said...

good observations on middle class people.

Anonymous said...

“Bribery is the practice of offering a professional money or other favours in order to circumvent ethics in a variety of professions. It is a form of corruption and is generally illegal, or at least cause for penalties from professional organizations.”
(Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia)Munir Quddus, Prairie View A&M University
Henri Bailey, III, Prairie View A&M University
Larry White, Prairie View A&M University

The Jewish Perspective

According to the Jewish perspective, bribery makes sinners: From the Book of Psalms 26:9-11 we have,

9 Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with men of blood;
10 In whose hands is craftiness, and their right hand is full of bribes.
11 But as for me, I will walk in mine integrity; redeem me, and be gracious unto me.

Bribery also corrupts conscience. From the Book of Exodus 23:8,

8 And thou shalt take no gift; for a gift blindeth them that have sight, and perverteth the words of the righteous.

Bribery perverts justice. From the Book of Isaiah 1:21-23, etc etc
The Christian perspective,

being based upon the foundation of the Jewish Old Testament, includes all of the above citations. In addition, the following citations are added from the Christian New Testament:

Simon the Sorcerer tried to buy the power that he perceived in the laying on of hands by the Apostles and Simon Peter chastised him in Acts 8:17-22. The essence of the offense was addressed by Peter in verse 20,

20 But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

Felix, the governor of Judea, had Paul (Saul) of Tarsus in prison and realized that he was not guilty of any charges but he wanted Paul to pay him a bribe to gain his freedom. It is described in Acts 24:24-26. The desire for a bribe is contained in verse 26,
Both Peter and Paul declined to honor the request to participate in bribery. Peter declined to accept the bribe and Paul declined to pay the bribe.

The Islamic Perspective

According to the Islamic perspective, bribery is considered to be a form of corruption and is strongly discouraged. The onus is not only on the bureaucrat for demanding or accepting the bribe, but also on the corporation or business that offers the bribe.

“..the person who gives a bribe and the person who takes a bribe, both will burn in hell.” (Saying of Prophet)

The Quran deals with bribery indirectly in the following verse (Chapter 2; v: 188),
“And do not eat up your property among yourselves for vanities, not nor use it as bait for the judges, with intent that ye may eat up wrongfully and knowingly a little of (other) people’s property.”

In contrast there is only a reference to asteya in Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism which defines asteya as taking something that is not given willingly. Now this has left a lot of room for people to interpret what is "giving willingly" or what bribery is supposed to mean.
Did Karna give his kavach kunadala willingly or was he tricked into giving it? Were Krishna and Kunti bribing Karna with promises of boundless wealth, share in the kingdom and allowing even sleeping with Draupadi luring him to switch sides or were they just testing his idealism?No clear cut answers or consequences to such actions or words.....

So today we have people who say "Jab woh hamein apni khushi se de rahe hain to lene mein kya harj hai?"or others who say "Kuch na dene se kam kaise hoga? paane ke liye dena to hai hi".

Siddhartha said...

Most of the communities in India (such as Bengali), are succumbed in 'Culture of Poverty'(a theory introduced by an American anthropologist Oscar Lewis), irrespective of cl-ass or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is at all ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous absorption of common space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold. Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour (values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting of those children those are born out of ignorance, real poverty. All of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of 'poverty') in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in 'Production of Space' (Henri Lefebvre), at least initiate a movement by heart, decent & dedicated Politics will definitely come up. - Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101, India.