Ram-Prasad is right to point out the Indian middle-class apathy towards politics and the poor. But what about the politicians?
Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s insightful piece flags two major failings of the Indian middle class—apathy towards politics, and towards the poor. I wish to add an analysis of India’s political class, which plays a critical role in promoting these twin apathies.
Politicians in India are not known for setting the bar high when it comes to competence. However, the farcical election for the Indian presidential election this July provides an ideal example of all that is wrong with the political class. India’s president is elected by an electoral college of federal and provincial legislators. The ruling alliance, led by the Indian National Congress, was unable to decide on its nominee, and the sparring spilled out into the public domain. The communist parties, on whose support the ruling alliance depends, rejected the first and second choices of Congress because of their apparent “Hindu spiritual” leanings. Ultimately, the left parties endorsed Congress’s third nominee, Pratibha Patil, who had a shady past, unknown to Congress, involving alleged financial irregularities and support for the Indian government’s programme of forced sterilisation in the 1970s. Her only qualification was a slavish loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family of the Congress party.
The main opposition party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), fared little better. Their candidate, the sitting vice-president, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, was repeatedly accused of using his constitutionally neutral post to further the interests of the ultra-right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In a youthful India, the politicians are geriatric. Needless to say, the relatively youthful Patil, at 72, beat her 84-year-old rival, and is now head of state after the most controversial presidential poll ever.
The process confirmed that the political class is feudal, disdainful of merit, incompetent, corrupt and machinating. No wonder the middle class wants to keep its distance. However, the middle class can afford to be apathetic to politics, because their concerns still dominate the political agenda. Here lies one of the great ironies of contemporary Indian politics: as Ram-Prasad says, the poor elects the government, but, as he fails to mention, the government adopts the agenda of the middle class: nuclear politics, engagement with America, economic liberalisation. In this, the middle class is helped by the English-language media, the most powerful instrument it has over the politicians.
This brings us to Ram-Prasad’s second issue: apathy towards the poor. While it is fair to say that the Indian middle class is not concerned with the lot of the poor, what is more worrying is the apathy of the political class—which may itself be related to the fact that most of the political class itself is middle class.
What about the rise, in the 1990s, of a new political class of the formerly deprived lower castes? People like Mayawati, the leader of a party of and for formerly untouchable Dalits and now the chief minister of India’s largest state. Or Lalu Prasad Yadav, federal minister for railways, formerly chief minister of India’s second largest state, Bihar, and also a leader of deprived “other backward castes.” Given their individual rises from relative poverty, and the constituencies they represent, one would expect them to be more responsive to the poor. Yet once in power, their concern for the poor evaporates. Politics becomes about acquiring power, money and influence. The voters are just a prop for the political entrepreneurship of this new political class. In some of India’s more backward states, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politics is the only industry which provides opportunity for upward mobility.
Things aren’t likely to change much within India’s political class. Barriers to entry are high: unless one has “money power,” often acquired illegitimately, or muscle power (criminal gangs), or a captive vote bank often based on caste, or a relative in politics—one is unlikely to find a way in.
India’s political class endears itself to few of its people. It’s just that some can afford to be more apathetic than others. The middle class, at least, has the satisfaction of setting the agenda even if implementation is shambolic. The poor will continue to exercise their powerful vote and boot out incumbent governments on a regular basis. They have the right to hope for better times.
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