2014: The great middle bulge is back to business

The upper middle classes and corporate India are clamouring to get the Indian state out of their way. With Modi’s ascent to power, they might just succeed

Harish Khare Delhi 

If we are permitted the luxury of an old journalistic cliché, then let us proclaim that Two Thousand Fourteen is poised to become a turning point. Almost like 1991, when we were forced to revise some of our basic assumptions and arrangements. As a confused and bewildered India approaches 2014, it is becoming glaringly obvious that the mismatch between politics, on the one hand, and the society and economy, on the other, is as pronounced as it was in 1991. And, this mismatch cannot be left un-straightened any longer. An unexpected and perhaps unpalatable denouement awaits in the political arena.

Saturated though we are with our own prejudices and fears, it will still be helpful to keep in mind a few ‘fundamentals’. Let us remind ourselves that the primary task of ‘politics’ is to enable the State to satisfy and promote its best interests as also to help the society cope with its anxieties and aspirations. A new political model has become imperative as the UPA experiment has run its course. It was inevitable that the UPA should have facilitated its own nemesis. The UPA arrangement has spawned political and behavioural incongruities, which are now adding up to only institutional delinquencies and policy deformities.

For better or worse, over the last decade, the United Progressive Alliance put in place policies and practices that were meant to ameliorate the damage the National Democratic Alliance had inflicted on the nation’s institutions and social health. During its six years in office, the NDA thrived on creating anxieties and fears; it was this cultivated itch to trade in provocations and pretensions that explains the failure of the Vajpayee government to send the Narendra Modi regime packing after the horrible Gujarat riots in 2002; it was this failure that rendered the NDA regime inherently at odds with the Indian State. At the first opportunity, voters sorted out the anomaly. Now, after 10 years of its rule, the UPA has created its own set of social anxieties and economic uncertainties. Unless it is able to convince the nation that it still has the will or even the desire to undertake any kind of course correction, the voters are bound to punish the Congress in 2014.

The primary task of “politics” in 2014 will be to navigate through these economic dislocations and social turbulences in order to produce a new working and efficacious governmental arrangement. But because of its actions (and inactions) the UPA has incurred a political cost. The name of the game in 2014 is for its rivals to extract this cost from the UPA and for the Congress to minimize the indemnity.

The signs of economic turbulence have been all too evident in the last few years; however, this time the most vocal and most assertively selfish voice belongs to the upper middle classes who are unforgiving in their denunciation of the UPA regime and its social democratic programmes. It is this class that has provided the cadres, funds and energy for the anti-corruption movements of assorted varieties. And, it is this class, the original Manmohan Singh constituency, that has now turned its back firmly on the Congress-led UPA.

The primary task of ‘politics’ is to enable the State to satisfy and promote its best interests as also to help the society cope with its anxieties and aspirations

At the same time, the middle classes are also troubled by the unrestrained street power. Centuries ago, the great political philosopher, Cicero, had warned of “the mad and irresponsible caprice of the mob”. After two years of being high on civil society activism, the middle classes are beginning to be a bit apprehensive of too much anarchy in the streets. Hence, the temptation to put some of their eggs in a purported strongman’s basket.

The middle classes were instigated in their rebellion by another very powerful force: Corporate India. Various industrial houses and their owners had, for different reasons, found themselves frustrated in their expectation that the UPA-II would be only too happy to give them all the policy breaks they wanted; but that was not to be, and the corporate leaders found themselves exasperated by the so-called ‘policy paralysis’. Towards the end of the UPA-II innings, this exasperation turned almost into a nightmare when the ‘law’ began closing in on business tycoons. Corporate India is now in search of a new mascot who will assure them protection and profits.

More than the economic slowdown and its discontents, the citizen finds himself totally baffled by the meltdown in society. As communications explode and information travels at hitherto unimaginable speeds, all social institutions have been found wanting in making sense of change and chaos. Indeed, all the valued and comforting social relationships—between the guru and devotee, editor and reader, or between the judge and the petitioner in the hallowed judicial portals—are seen to be crumbling. A cumulative failure of individuals and institutions has induced conditions of social breakdown. None of the iconic ‘social’ leaders are able to provide any assurance to this deeply troubled land in this time of transition. While the citizens are instinctively prone to blame the ‘politician’ for this breakdown, they also look to the political elites to rescue them and restore some normative order.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013