Whatever may become of Anna Hazare’s movement, Gurcharan Das feels it has awakened the middle class.
I met Shashi Kumar ten years ago. I could not have imagined how much he would teach me about our new middle class. He was 22 and had recently joined an outsourcing call centre in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi. He had come from a destitute village in Bihar but his friends didn’t know that on some nights he did not get anything to eat. His father somehow found a job in a transport company in nearby Darbhanga and managed to escape from the village with his family. Since they could not manage on his father’s salary, his mother began to teach in an “informal school”. Each morning Shashi held his mother’s finger tightly as they walked to school where he was educated under her watchful eyes. Determined that he should get away from the indignities of Bihar, she tutored him at night, got him into a local college, and when he finished she presented him with a train ticket to Delhi.
Ten years later Shashi Kumar was a success. Affable and hard working, he had risen to a middle manager’s position. He exuded the self-confidence of a young man with a future and tried to instil in his company’s employees the same sense of assurance and purpose. His family lived in a comfortable flat which he had bought with a mortgage from a private bank. He drove a car and his daughter went to a good private school. What made his life different was a sense of life’s possibilities. Had his father dared to dream of such things in rural Bihar he would have probably been beaten by the landlord.
“It’s a good time to be alive,” said his mother, who lived with him ever since her husband died. “I don’t know how he managed it. I just saved a few paise each day and gave him a railway ticket. He did the rest.”
Kumar’s tale of success had its origins in the 1991 reforms when India opened its economy which made it possible for a company in America to “outsource” its back-office jobs to India. Engineers in information technology showed the way — they could write software at a fraction of the cost while America slept; in the morning, American companies had the IT solutions waiting for them. Gradually, outsourcing moved up the knowledge chain as accountants, lawyers, scientists, and advertising professionals began to do the same, and thus several million youngsters found jobs in glass-enclosed towers in places like Gurgaon across the country.
I ran into Shashi Kumar again last year on the brand new platform of the Guru Dronacharya station of the Delhi Metro. He was surrounded by his friends. All of them belonged to the new middle class. They voted daily in the bazaar but hardly ever at election time. They felt that elections were determined by the majority in the countryside. All winners in India’s economic rise, they were waving flags and were headed for Ramlila grounds where Anna Hazare was holding an anti-corruption rally. An unlikely band of revolutionaries, I thought.
The train came and we squeezed in. A young man got up and made a place for me. I smiled, pleased with the thought that some of the old courtesies of the road persisted in the razzmatazz of a rising India. The young men found places near me.
“I hate politics and politicians,” said Shashi Kumar. “They remind me of everything ugly in Bihar.”
“But Anna’s dharma has roused us,” added his friend. To make a political revolution you have to begin with a moral revolution. As my station approached, I got up but we agreed to meet the following Saturday afternoon at Cafe Coffee Day near Scindia House.
Anna Hazare had also woken up India’s political establishment. No one could remember a time when so many powerful political figures had gone to to jail, even if it was to await trial. Some of the credit belonged to Anna’s crusade, which had forced the government to bring the Lokpal, an anti-corruption agency, on the parliament’s agenda. In recent months the movement had been in confusion until one of his protégés, Arvind Kejriwal, had picked up the baton and infused it with energy once again.
Economists place India’s middle class at between a quarter and a third of the population, which is more or less consistent with the way the Economist defined the class in February 2009 — beginning at a point where people have a third of their income left for discretionary spending after paying for basic food and shelter, which allows something for children’s education, health care and few consumer goods. It is a scooter-owning middle class, not a car-owning one — although its attitudes are probably similar. What this means is that a significant number of Indians have experienced a palpable betterment in their lives in the past two decades.
I arrived early the following Saturday and sipped coffee as I waited for Shashi Kumar and his friends. I looked around and saw tables filling with romantic, college-going couples. This is where the upwardly mobile middle class met these days. India never had the traditional culture of public squares and sidewalk cafés of Europe, and social life was confined mostly to private homes and the bazaar. When I was young it was to the bazaar one went to “take the air” with a desperate hope of meeting the girl next door.
I felt that dignity was being bestowed on middle class dreams for the first time. Its commitment for a cleaner, just society that we are witnessing was also new. Before I allowed myself to be carried away by that idealistic thought, I reminded myself of the sobering example of the Weimar Republic in Germany, a stellar “middle class” polity in the 1920s and 1930s which gave birth to Hitler. When that class found life savings destroyed by inflation, it turned to fascism. A tough thought.
Shashi Kumar and his friends soon burst in. I heard them order lattes and cappuccinos, and I marvelled at the ease with which habits changed when one entered the middle class. Some of them would not have seen coffee in a tea drinking country. They had grown up after 1991 without having to bribe to get a telephone or a gas connection, which also explained their impatience with corruption.
The mood of the group was sober today. The campaign against corruption was not going well. One of the group announced that they had made a personal pledge not to bribe again.
“What should we do?” asked Shashi Kumar. They looked at me expectantly.
“You must engage with politics,” I said baldly.
“But we have jobs and families,” wailed Kumar.
“Start working each week for an hour in your neighbourhood and you may discover what Tocqueville called ‘habits of the heart’.” I told them how Alexis de Tocqueville had uncovered this truth about America’s democracy almost two hundred years ago.
There was silence.
“So, will you at least vote the next time?” I asked.
Slowly one of them nodded. Whatever may become of Anna Hazare’s movement, I felt it had awakened the middle class. I also felt that the fight against corruption would continue, thanks to persons like Shashi Kumar and his friends, who disproved the commonly held view that their class was only self-absorbed, consumerist and callous. Because they could see life’s possibilities, they had given their class dignity.
*This article is based on a chapter in Gurcharan Das' new book India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong Stage published by Penguin India.