The answer lies in a fundamental shift in the middle class, starting with economic liberalisation in the early 1990s. The pre-liberalisation middle class was typically from professions that grew around the state — such as lawyering, accountancy, medicine, and of course, government service. This relationship mattered: it meant that the earlier middle class understood the Indian state; they were less ignorant of the processes of democracy that characterise parts of the Anna Hazare movement.
The opening of the Indian economy in the ’80s and early ’90s dramatically changed this. A 2005-6 study found that of India’s current middle-class, 56-62 per cent is privately employed. This is significant. It indicates the growing ability of Indians to imagine social mobility in private ways, outside of the state. The most successful of this middle class are those who have succeeded in the private enclaves of India Inc — the rapidly expanding corporate sector. In a recent article in the Economic & Political Weekly, I term this new corporate middle class “India Shining”.
India Shining is confronted with an obvious paradox — while India Inc is providing cutting edge services and products to the rest of the world, the roads that lead up to it are potholed, electricity is patchy, and water supply erratic. In short, while corporate India is a model of efficiency, the Indian state is a model of chaos. It is this dissonance that colours its views of the Indian state, and connects it to the Jan Lokpal Bill. As the director-general of industry lobby FICCI, Rajiv Kumar, put it: “We completely support Hazare in his fight against corruption, which has been denting India.”
The new corporate middle class has little patience with the politics of dignity and identity that are — for better or worse — central to Indian politics. For them, the state is about providing services for which they pay with their tax money. Representation and social justice have little meaning. Consequently, they have contempt for electoral politics and politicians and are deaf to the two biggest criticisms of the Jan Lokpal Bill: that the movement is unrepresentative, and that an all-powerful Lokpal might endanger democratic rights. This troubling mix of disdain for Parliament coupled with an authoritarian streak harks back to what some critics felt was middle class support for the 1975-77 Emergency.
These are some concerns over the new corporate middle class shaping the Anna Hazare movement. But three caveats are necessary. First: corporate involvement in the anti-corruption movement has politicised a number of well-off Indians whose words carry weight. Early this year, even before Hazare’s April fast, prominent industrialists Keshub Mahindra, Jamshyd Godrej, Anu Aga, and Azim Premji wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, pressing for an anti-corruption ombudsman. Second, India Shining is only one component of the Anna Hazare movement. Others include lawyers who, since the 1980s, have allied with an activist Supreme Court in influencing policy. It is telling that three of the five “civil society” representatives on Lokpal drafting committee were lawyers. Finally, Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of more than just the urban middle class; it would be unfair to reduce the entire movement to the interests of a single group. Yet, the peculiar demands and methods of the Jan Lokpal movement owe much to the vision of the new corporate middle class.
In the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, the corporate middle class swarmed Gateway of India, cursing politicians and vowing revenge. That protest ended as swiftly as it began. In the Lok Sabha elections held just five months after, voter turnout in south Mumbai was a measly 40 per cent. The more sustained activism over the Lokpal Bill is heartening. India’s new corporate middle, loud and self-righteous, is also learning and growing. These are qualities that make for robust civil society. But it remains to be seen if their Singapore-style vision of efficient government can make space for the complexities that social change in India requires.
The writer is at the department of politics, Princeton University