Elections 2014

Out to Bait the Middle Class

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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In addressing their party workers, both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi have made a bold pitch for the votes of this rapidly expanding section of the electorate. This is now an electoral compulsion, not coincidence
It was 2007. Ankit Verma was making lakhs of rupees in profit every month feeding employees of an MNC in Gurgaon—he supplied everything from salt to soft drinks to its office canteen. He also bought himself an apartment in this suburb of Delhi, and rented another for his cooks and other help. His newlywed wife thought he had a Midas touch, turning everything he chanced upon into gold. He had struck gold, almost. But by 2011, he was beset with troubles. He lost his MNC contract. Two months ago, after struggling to pay monthly bills for almost a year, he sold his apartment to shift to a smaller flat he took on rent. “They say opportunities are still there,” he says, “Where?” He is angry that his dream has turned into a nightmare.

Like Verma, Pankaj Giroti too had a dream: to strike it rich so that his children don’t end up struggling the way he did, financially, through college and then to make a living. Giroti, who shifted from Lucknow to Noida in 2005 and became a successful auto parts dealer, saw his fortunes tumble by 2009, losing out to bigger competitors. He is planning to start from scratch again, this time in a business of artificial jewellery. He has yet to recover from huge setbacks in his business. Much to his anguish, doctors have advised him to go slow—all that stress has taken a toll on his health, he says.

These two men belong to a burgeoning demographic segment—India’s middle-class—that is angry at their plight and increasingly so at an anaemic economy. The irony is that they are part of an elite that has over the decades since India’s Independence reaped most of the benefits of public office, gained from a system that helps entrenched interests and their crooked cronies, and been a vocal part of a political discourse that at times seems unconcerned about their anxieties.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN

A closer look reveals changing collective traits of this humongous group: gone are the days when they did not have the shape or clout of a homogenous social class. Yet, strangely, middle-class issues are no longer the stuff of out-of-touch elitists. This may be an error they live to regret. “The middle-class in India, both urban and rural, is an ever-expanding category and forms around 40 per cent of the population,” says senior BJP leader and former Union minister Yashwant Sinha, “No political party can ignore the middle-class and hope to do well in an election. If this aspirational section feels that its condition will improve [under] another kind of regime, it will be inclined to support a new government.”

Encouraged by a belief in their influence, they are now barging into the political frame and punishing those who are seen to hobble their growth and prosperity. They are sick of being taxed so that subsidies can be doled out to others. They are no longer okay being taken for granted by the political class. This ‘new’ middle-class feels it has had to bear the brunt of the current economic slump, no matter what the truth is.

Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan has given a lot of thought to this shift in perception and perspective among this section of India’s population. “The new middle-class seeks more than mere entitlements as propounded by Amartya Sen,” he says, “They are seeking rights as a matter of right, with equity and dignity. And they want it to happen with greater speed.”

Which is why it surprised none that when India’s two principal contenders for power at the Centre, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, came out to take on each other at two separate conclaves in the national capital last week, they made a direct appeal to middle-class voters.

It came naturally to the BJP candidate Modi, who has been celebrating the upward mobility of the middle-class and the emergence of a neo-middle-class. He sharpened his economic argument to ram home his point that he has an economic solution to India’s woes: he promised to generate jobs, offer better infrastructure and opportunities, and tried to endear himself to the middle-class by dwelling at length on what appears to be a ‘pull-up’ strategy—as suggested by the renowned economist Jagdish Bhagwati—to focus on economic growth as a means to pull people out of poverty.

Modi also attacked the Congress, which has ruled the country for almost a decade, for losing sight of those aims. He asked India’s middle-class not to put up with a Congress that has failed to deliver prosperity. “The country needs 100 new cities, faster urbanisation, creation of infrastructure, world class educational as well as health institutions. There will be a major spurt in investment and jobs will happen,” he told his audience at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan amid loud applause.

If Modi’s speech held resonance among middle-class listeners, Sinha explains why. “The problems that have been created by the Congress Government controlled by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have hurt the middle-class the most,” he says, “More than any other section, they are looking for relief. And they are now convinced that a government led by Narendra Modi can provide this relief.”

REALITY BITES, AND THEN DAWNS

Two days earlier, there were signs of a rhetorical shift in the approach of the Congress, whose last hope, Rahul Gandhi, moved beyond his fascination with the ‘other India’ that his party believes can be swayed by a rights-based agenda (‘adhikaar ki sarkaar’), to spell out his plans for India’s middle-class. He said that the UPA’s third avataar, if elected to power, would ensure a growth story that would hasten the country’s demographic transition as people move from agricultural to industrial and service sector jobs. And, capitulating to this section’s pressure, Gandhi asked the Prime Minister to raise the quota of subsidised gas from nine to 12 cylinders a year.

It is another matter that his speech invited comments like “Those came looking for a Congress prime ministerial candidate went back with three additional cylinders of gas”, or a rebuke from fiscal conservatives for treating the Centre’s treasury as a candy dispenser.

Gandhi’s inclusion of issues that have so far been whitewashed off Rahul Gandhi’s campaign folklore signals a clear reassessment of the electoral power of the middle-class by the Congress. The party had considered these voters as its own in the belief that a section influenced by ideas of secularism, liberal values and religious tolerance will not elect a party it has long portrayed as a disruptive influence. “The middle-class now has its own code of conduct,” says Visvanathan, “This middle-class wants development to reach faster. Patience is not a virtue.”

While Gandhi has made a mention of it, the promise to ensure a faster transition of the underprivileged to the middle-income bracket has been a key theme of Modi for the past two years. In Gujarat, the state of which he is Chief Minister, he has assiduously been cultivating a section that has been newly empowered in economic terms—a group of people more interested in earning their own money than in getting government hand-outs.

Political observers and social scientists admit that the first generation beneficiaries of India’s liberalisation—a section that has just moved above the poverty line—have begun to mimic the behaviour of the middle-class. Incidentally, Modi had identified them in his last Assembly election manifesto as the ‘neo-middle-class’.

Even as Modi tries to hold India’s neo and old middle-classes under his sway, Gandhi is making an attempt to move beyond his by-now-famous ‘Bharat and family fables’ line to woo voters who the party has alienated with its constant harking back to the Nehru-Gandhis and its dole-driven governance.

THE NEW MIDDLE CLASS

Academics such as Ashis Nandy have noted that this new class has emerged as a formidable force in the country.  According to the sociologist, they constitute more than one-fourth of the population. He maintains that parties will vie with one another far more vigorously than ever to placate this vote base.

India’s two major national players are not the only ones displaying an anxiety to appease the middle-class. Some years ago, regional leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav poured scorn over the upwardly mobile in the confidence that other interest groups can pull off an electoral victory. That things have changed was evident when he leaned on his young son Akhilesh Yadav to cash in on the anti-BSP sentiment in Uttar Pradesh for the state’s Assembly polls in 2012. In neighbouring Bihar, not many will contest the argument that the middle-class played a critical role in the ‘status upgradation’ of Nitish Kumar as a development-oriented leader a few years ago. Since then, however, he appears vulnerable on this point of appeal.

The changed approach of political parties to the middle-class is seen by observers as a welcome development. The bulk of the benefits of runaway economic growth in the first decade of the new Millennium accrued to this class, especially in urban areas. This is most visible in shifting consumer behaviour and an overt spurt in consumerism, captured so vividly by the rapid spread of shopping malls, low-cost airlines and multiple choices. Effectively, in less than a decade, the Indian consumer has begun to dictate choices in multiple fields of activity.

This change has not come about overnight. It has been in the making for the past three decades, ever since the country inked its first loan programme with the International Monetary Fund in 1981. This process accelerated in 1991 and provided the basis for the rapid spread of consumerism and expansion of the country’s middle-class.

NUMBERS TELL THE STORY

The 2011 Census reveals that urban areas, including census towns, now account for 31 per cent of the country’s population, while it was 23 per cent in 1981. The growth in the number of towns in the past decade rose by a sharp 50 per cent. In some states such as Kerala, the pace of urbanisation rose from 26 per cent in the decade ended 2001 to 47.7 per cent over the phase that ended in 2011. As India’s middle-class grows, some place this demographic segment at 300 million: roughly a fourth of the overall population.

Interestingly, what is also emerging is a spurt in their aspirations, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas. Consumption habits are actually displaying a convergence that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Data put out by the National Sample Survey Office recently showed that for the first time more than half of all rural consumer spending is on non-food products like consumer durables, clothing, footwear and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs). Similarly, surveys on the state of education in rural areas by Pratham, an organisation that tracks this factor, reveal that even the poor are paying for private inputs in educating their children. Everybody with exposure to the larger economy, it seems, has sensed education as a ticket to upward mobility.

This dramatic upward shift in aspirations—yes, the likes of Verma and Giroti are likely to put their foot down on it—can prove a game-changer in the upcoming General Election.

A restive middle-class may have helped the emergence of an upstart Aam Aadmi Party in constituencies that form part of the Delhi Municipal area, and some observers see it as an answer to their woes. But the events of the past week in Delhi nearly proved that AAP, which was born out of a middle-class resentment against corruption, is rearing its working class bias, rapidly degenerating into a roguish protest movement. In most other parts of the country, the re-engagement of the middle-class with the political process is certain to help established players who are seen as better equipped to handle their aspirations.

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