As 2012 draws to a close, it is clear that the world’s largest democracy is in ferment. People all over the country have been taking to the streets to express their anger over the kind of governance they have to put up with and, in doing so, they have been bypassing traditional political parties. They are organising themselves the best way they can, thus sending a clear message that they don’t trust the existing parties.
But why don’t they? What has happened in the last few years to make people feel enraged?
The most tempting – and common – answer is that governance is becoming worse, and that the popular anger is the result of that. But this diagnosis doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On every measurable parameter, things have been improving rather than deteriorating in the last decade or two. Our economy is growing – and our poverty rate falling – at a faster rate than ever. During the 11th Five-Year Plan that ended this March, the economy grew at 7.9 per cent a year, while poverty came down by two per cent every year, and both were record achievements.
What about law and order then? Is violence increasing across the board? Not really. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, between 1991 and 2011, the number of violent crimes went up by four per cent, from 246,000 to 256,000, while our population went up by over 40 per cent. In other words, the incidence of crime per 100,000 people is decreasing rather than increasing.
What about corruption then? Is that getting out of control? We do not have data that are comparable across years to answer that conclusively. At one level, it is clear that our fast-growing economy is providing bigger opportunities for making money illegally and, therefore, the sums involved are bigger than what they used to be. But at the same time, anyone who remembers the seventies or eighties would find it difficult to make the case that corruption is more pervasive today than it was during the heyday of the licence raj, when no one could move a little finger without paying off a few politicians and bureaucrats.
So a rational review of the situation suggests that the most dramatic change that is occurring today is not in the quality of our governance – which remains shamefully poor, even while getting better – but in the ability of citizens to feel enraged and their readiness to act upon that anger. It’s as if a mass of people have suddenly woken up from deep slumber, found that they don’t like the situation they are in, and have decided to take matters into their own hands. But who are these people and why have they woken up now?
The short answer is that, collectively, they are a new force on the Indian political landscape: the middle class. They have been asleep because they knew all action would be futile: forming just over five per cent of the population even as recently as in 2001, they knew they couldn’t influence electoral outcomes.
But all that is history now. The middle class has sensed that its period of political irrelevance is over, with its numbers growing at a phenomenal pace. They make up about 15 per cent of the population today, up from 5.7 per cent in 2001-02, according to the National Council for Applied Economic Research. The projections are even more stunning: 20.3 per cent by 2015-16, and 37.2 per cent by 2025-26. No wonder, the middle class has begun to behave as if it has wind at its back, and it wants to take the nation’s future in its hands and shape it.
But what exactly does the middle class want? You only have to look at what kind of issues bring them out onto the streets to get the answer: first and foremost, they want law and order and crime-free streets; they want rule of law, and accountability from politicians, bureaucrats and policemen; they want the corrupt to be punished; they want well-functioning public services; they want high-quality education … the list keeps getting longer.
Notice the discrepancy between that list and the kind of things that politicians usually campaign on: free booze and free handouts, from bicycles to television sets, and reservations for various castes and communities. Political parties are still focused on winning over the poor with freebies, while a new political constituency is taking shape right under their nose that is concerned more about governance than handouts. The Aam Aadmi Party could have ridden this wave, but its socialist rhetoric and love for self-sufficient village republics are putting it out of step with the new urban middle class that looks forward, not backward.
Indian politics is at the cusp of great change. The New Middle Class has woken up to its potential, though it is yet to find its own articulate voice. But the search is on, and it will get there. And that is great news. Experience the world over shows that democracy strengthens and governance improves when the middle class gets into the game.