Indian middle class; invisible and indifferent

By Rajdeep Sardesai
12 July 2010 23:20 IST

Long before Mamata Banerjee, there was Mrinal Gore. In crumpled sari, rolling pin in hand and fists clenched, the socialist leader was the original political streetfighter who built a formidable reputation as a middle class heroine of Mumbai in the 1970s. Her agitation for providing clean drinking water to a Mumbai suburb earned her the sobriquet 'Paniwali bai'. Her causes were distinctly middle-class: clean water, affordable housing, lower prices. When she organized a rally, the neighbourhood would come out in spontaneous support. 2010 is not the India of the 1970s: which is why when the opposition organized a Bharat Bandh this week, we didn't see either a Mrinal Gore-like figure leading the charge nor did the urban middle class join the protests.

The opposition claims the bandh called against rising prices was a 'success'. If economic dislocation is a sign of a successful bandh, then perhaps the opposition has got it right. If demonstrating unity of opposition forces was the goal, then the bandh was a success. But if getting ready support from the Indian middle class was the objective, then the bandh did not achieve its target. The vast majority of those who had gathered on the streets were party activists. In some instances, especially with the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, they were lumpen elements who saw in the bandh an opportunity to engage in street vandalism. For ordinary citizens, on the other hand, it was an extended weekend, always useful to catch up with the latest tele-serial or a replay of the late night world cup match.

Which raises an important question: why is the Indian middle class relatively apathetic to participating in a bandh on an issue like price rise which is directly connected to their daily lives? Why don't the Mumbaikars who readily expressed their anger on the streets after 26/11 join a Bharat Bandh on prices? Why don't the Delhiites who willingly participate in candelight vigils against the failings of the criminal justice system join a march against inflation? The answer is simple: rising food prices anger us, but politically choreographed bandhs only add to a mood of collective cynicism (the freeze frame picture of an auto-rickshaw driver's vehicle being broken by political goondas could be enough to keep us away from bandhs forever).

At one level, this might reflect a deeper disconnect between the middle classes and the political leadership. In the 1970s, there was an instant chord that leaders like Mrs Gore would strike with the masses by their complete involvement in 'peoples' issues. These were not leaders who whizzed around through the year in air-conditioned Pajeros and then suddenly descended on the street for their one day in the sun. For leaders like Mrs Gore, politics was an extension of their lifelong commitment to public service, not 15 seconds of fame earned by courting arrest once every few years. The middle classes could identify with such politicians and the causes they represented in a manner that today's aam admi cannot with leaders whose lifestyles are so far removed from his daily concerns.

But it's not just the netas who have changed: the middle class, especially the more affluent sections, have dramatically shifted their priorities and become more self-centred than ever before. A credit card induced, acquisitive culture has meant that tomorrow is dispensable, what matters is the here and now. As long as an endless cycle of consumption is not significantly altered, there seems little empathy for the daily wage labourer who is struggling to survive. Double digit inflation is just a statistic, not a overwhelming concern. It's a reality which might explain why a middle class neta like Mrs Gore has disappeared of the political map.

Sharad Pawar, the union agriculture minister, has an interesting take in this context. At a recent press meet, when asked why there hadn't been a more widespread agitation against spiralling inflation, he suggested that the crucial difference between the 1970s and today lies in the fact that while prices may be climbing, there is no scarcity in the marketplace. Food shortages thirty years ago, he felt, made people angry enough to pour into the streets; today, price rise was something the Indian consumer was willing to adjust to provided the shop shelves were well stocked.

The last election that a political party lost because of rising prices was probably the Delhi election of 1998. It was the 'onion election', where Sushma Swaraj found that charisma cannot defeat a humble vegetable at election time. Since then, political party fortunes have been remarkably immune to the vagaries of price rise, and there has been no evidence of an electoral loss on account of mismanaging food prices.

Which is perhaps why the price rise debate often veers between governmental complacency and opposition tokenism. How often has the prime minister taken the nation into confidence on inflationary pressures on the economy? Why haven't we heard a squeak from Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi on an issue that is integral to their claims to represent the aam admi? On the other hand, how often has the opposition tried to seriously debate issues like petrol price deregulation in parliament? Its almost as if both sides are only shadow-boxing on an issue which is unlikely to directly impact their immediate electoral fortunes. A charade it seems is being played out before a worryingly indifferent Indian citizenry.

Post-script: it is ironical that on the day of the Bharat bandh, the politician who was the pioneer of the idea of an all-India strike - including the historic all-India railway strike of 1974 - was being wheeled into a courtroom while suffering from Alzheimers. George Fernandes belonged to an era of politicians for whom street agitational politics came naturally. That era is sadly coming to an end.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

Drop a comment

Enter The Code Displayed hereRefresh Image

Previous Comments

The main difference between 1974 and 2010 is, I think, the presence or absence of e-media. Today we have the same George Fernandes named in Kargil war insinuations like coffin scandal, his constant partner Jaya Jetley being drawn in Tehelka scandal and her sad fight over furniture with George’s wife. The TV news watcher is educating himself beyond the sloganism of political leadership. I wonder while thinking if TV news telecast was at this level in seventies, how Indian political scenario would have shaped?

Also, the same political party which drummed up that it was a party with difference, a catchy slogan at that, hardly discusses any topic, even budgetary sessions, but takes shouting, and screaming approaches in full view of national telecasts of the Parliament. That the number of working hours and thereby the taxpayers money is wasted is crystal clear to any Indian. MPs and MLAs who would get a lifelong pension besides other perks are getting it free by absenting themselves from their duties. Is there any other job like that of an elected representative?

In the end, new voters of India and those who would vote next time around are sick of drumming of caste and religious tunes, language tunes, parochial tunes, in short all the tunes that spell hypocrisy.

- Kalidas, Panaji | 15 th July 2010 17:01


The middle class in India has become a confused and frustrated lot ! For them it hardly matters as to which party rules- the Congress alliance or the BJP alliance! Because the experience has taught them that there is no appreciable difference, whichever party is in power, because the tall promises made before elections are never pursued to their logical ends ! The basic issues of corruption at every level, true autonomy to the Judiciary-Election Commission / Investigating agencies like CBI, unearthing of black money-, reforms for speedy justice delivery , stopping the criminals from entering politics- ever rising inflation,unemployment, wasteful expenditure by Babus and Ministers, Efficient functioning of public sector companies etc which are vital to the middle class are never addressed- no matter which party or coalition is ruling!

More over what do you achieve by Bandh? Does it affect the culprits responsible for taking anti-people decisions --No never!

Even if the Petroleum prices are increased ten folds, Mr. Murli Deora/ or for that matter, any of the other Ministers or the senior Babu of the Central or State Govt-- will never get affected! The Bandhs always cause trouble to the middle class and serves no useful purpose to teach any lesson to the culprits responsible for anti-common man decisions!

- vishwas prabhudesai, loliem | 13 th July 2010 17:19


Related Blogs