Those who do not subscribe to the elite narrative on corruption are considered politically backward and their democratic choices unworthy of respect
The recent Karnataka Assembly vote has apparently disappointed the self-styled ideologues of the Indian middle class. These baffled theologians are wondering aloud how voters in Karnataka could opt for the very political party against whom the entire middle class had risen to its last MBA. How could the electorate not be influenced by the two-year-old high-pitched campaign against the “corrupt Congress,” launched by the upper middle-class dominated media, both electronic and print? Was not Bangalore one of the epicentres of the anti-corruption dharmayudha, led by the very venerable Santosh Hegde? How could the voters be so indifferent to the corporate-endorsed “good” candidates? There must be something terribly wrong with the poor if they are not buying into the upper middle class quest for the nobility of an honest society.
Perhaps the Karnataka vote has come just in time. For one thing, the vote punctures the self-serving assumption that the entire country subscribes to the Khan Market-centric narrative on corruption and governance. The disappointment among upper middle class theologians is perhaps sharper because it was only four months ago that the great oracle, Thomas Friedman, visited India and announced and hailed the birth of a “virtual middle class” as “one of the most exciting things happening on the planet.” The ayatollah from the land of platitudes and pretensions had predicted that the new “virtual middle class” would dominate and determine the destiny of India! And, now, an unenlightened electorate in Karnataka has proved such a spoilsport. The voters are dismissed by the new arbiters of civic virtues as ethically deficient and politically backward for voting the Congress.
These theologians of the upper middle class supremacy are entitled to their disappointment. But what should be a matter of concern to all who value social fairness and democratic equity is the elite conceit — that those who pride themselves on their new prosperity have achieved their current superior status entirely on their merit, based on individual talent and personally acquired skills, and that these meritorious achievements ipso facto elevate the class to a higher level of nobility, a superior morality, ethics and good taste. These upper middle class ideologues would not want to be reminded that they themselves are a product of an unfair system in an unequal society. But having made it good in this tainted and corrupt system, and having gained access to the global job market, these upper middle class fundamentalists now want the state and its institutions to turn their back on the poor and the have-nots. Any attempt at inclusive politics and economics is suspect in the eyes of these promoters of the elite virtues and values.
For now the middle class ideologues assert that they are entitled to a corruption free political order. Fine. To worry about corruption is in itself a desirable social good. It is even a noble quest. The trouble is that this overweening preoccupation with a corruption-free polity is not so innocent a pose.
The proposition is that so debilitating and so pervasive has corruption become that the nation can and must suspend all its beliefs and, instead, any leader or political party, presumably unstained by corruption, can be safely trusted to take the correct position on grand issues like the nature of economic growth, social order, foreign policy issues, the terms of our relationship with Pakistan or China, the place of the minorities and other weaker sections of society in the scheme of things, nature of federal polity, etc. According to the middle class ideologues, all these contestations — the very core of our political divide — can be relegated to the back burner, and our collective energies should be devoted to a single point agenda of a corruption-free society.
Politicians as only villains
In their over-insistence on corruption, the upper middle class ideologues introduce another distortion: an exclusive focus on political leaders as the sole villains in the corrupt drama. This demonisation of the politician diverts critical attention away from the connivance, criminality and corruption of the business classes in each of the recent scams. If there has been a loot of natural resources, the most obvious instigator and beneficiaries of this unholy scramble are the corporate houses, some dubious and some not so dubious. Yet the middle classes-led narrative would like us to believe that it is only the bent politician who suborns the honest businessman’s ethics. All these innocent gentlemen need to be forced to serve a sentence of hard political education of at least three months in Jharkhand to understand the dynamics of this jugal bandi between the crooked entrepreneur and the corrupt politician.
The disappointment with the Karnataka vote reveals another charming vanity: the media is an honest conveyer of society’s anxieties and anger. Increasingly this claim no longer stands a close scrutiny. Sensitive and vigilant observers of the Indian media are worried about the emerging pattern of media ownership. It is a matter of deep democratic disappointment that none of the self-appointed mullahs of the anti-corruption jihad has ever gathered the personal courage or summoned the intellectual honesty to talk about the unhealthy convergence of media ownership and corporate houses. Nor, for that matter, has anyone dared to point out how judicial indulgence has become readily available to almost every crooked fund collector.
Perhaps the most troublesome arrogance is that these theologians of upper-class and upper-caste superiority have arrogated to themselves the right to speak for the entire range of middle classes. In sociological terms, such claims are totally untenable.
The most numerical component of the “virtual middle class” is a new and different sociological category. For want of a better word, let us call this group the post-slum middle class: this category should include those vast numbers who have just escaped the indignities and ugliness of the slums — shared toilets, open bathing space, and fights over erratic water supply — and have moved into tenements of their own, who now have the financial leeway to send a daughter to high school and a son to a computer centre. It is this group of new citizens who are experiencing for the first time a kind of comfort with some degree of economic sufficiency; and, they may be products of the new market but they still need and depend upon a caring state, a functional police force, an affordable education system, a working health care arrangement.
Certainly the dreams of the post-slum classes are not the same as those dreamt in the cosmopolitan cities’ gated communities, who organise their private security and where the “struggle” is over whether or not to buy admission for the mediocre son in a mediocre Australian university.
Middle class fundamentalists
It is obvious that our desi middle class fundamentalists look upon the American system as the ideal model of rectitude and efficiency, and good governance. They dare us to aspire to these global (read American) standards of good politics. They feel doubly empowered when a visiting American columnist pats our “civil society” for performing all those rites of anger and protest at India Gate. In this narrative, the American political arrangement and the processes are wonderfully free of corruption. What touching innocence. As if the American politicians, despite having spent more than $ 15 billion in the last presidential election, somehow remain immune to the demands of the fund-raisers; or as if successive British Prime Ministers have not reduced themselves to being salesmen for this or that London-based economic interest.
This is not the first time that democratic India has been sought to be imposed upon by an elitist mindset. Behind the breath-taking arrogance of the new anti-corruption jihadists there is a deeply disturbing conceit: if a free and fair electoral exercise does not produce a result to the liking of the upper middle class mullahs, then that very democratic process is not worthy of their respect and is of doubtful legitimacy. This elitist presumptuousness is the very anti-thesis of democratic ethos and deserves to be rejected.
(Harish Khare is a senior journalist and political analyst and a former Media Adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is currently a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow)