Affairs of State Karnataka

The ruling class and the Club class

An outer view of the Bangalore Club. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

We have a poverty line. But is there a line that can define being among the rich or the elite section of society? This is an old question, but it would greatly help to understand urban environs where those among the affluent are a growing category. One way to define the category could be the membership of an elite club in city like Bengaluru and could be used to demarcate the line.

How else can we reason the desperate quest for those memberships? Some clubs have waiting periods of more than a decade. Clearly memberships are seen as important, even if the overwhelming majority of people in our country have no idea about the meaning and need for these memberships and most do not even know the existence of these clubs.

The quest for getting within “elite circles” has become so desperate in Bengaluru that the State government has proposed a law, Karnataka Entry into Public Places (Removal of Restriction on Dress and Regulation of Membership and Fee) Bill, 2015, to ensure that Members of Parliament and legislature are guaranteed club memberships. The law says, among other things, that if membership is denied for the legislators, club management officials could be jailed.

This could be dismissed as an obnoxious idea, but what it brings to the fore is the stark difference between traits that make one socially acceptable in the urban upper class and others that make them relate to the “masses” helping them progress in the democratic system which ultimately decides who governs a city, a State or the country.

The stereotypical Indian politician is repulsive to the urban upper class, henceforth referred to as club class. The club class includes those from the upper classes, and others from the middle classes aspiring to reach upper class statuses. Software engineers, businessmen, corporate honchos, even bureaucrats are fine, but politicians aren’t (the reference here is to the local civic body councillor or the MLA, not a second generation politician or a professional lateral entrant into politics who usually comes with club memberships).

Cocktail dinners can debate endlessly over the need to change politics and politicians, but entering grass root politics isn’t exactly a talked about career option for students in expensive private schools or colleges.

One point that elite club managements readily conceded, soon after the Karnataka government proposed a bill, was to relax dress code restrictions. Finally, the dhoti won. It won in Tamil Nadu as well after a bill was passed in the assembly, but a threat did the trick in Karnataka.

Most clubs vehemently remind us of a colonial past by demanding collared shirts and shoes. Imagine how the dhoti would fit in between the shirt and shoe. That the traditional Indian dress is not a naturally acceptable idea in a club is telling. To be English-speaking, preferably with an international accent, would make one more at ease in this group. The way they dress, their aspirations and the way they speak would fit well in a mall, a club or an average corner in Europe or the U.S, but may seem alien in an Indian village or an urban slum.

But, the dhoti, local language and constant engagement with the masses is what wins elections, not collared shirts, shoes and English. The point is not about the dress, but that the way the one who represents the club class thinks, acts and speaks would make him or her unfit to relate to the masses and hence emerge as part of the 'ruling class' through a democratic process.

The trouble is with the idea of ascendancy being one of escape into a group that is insulated from the realities that a vast majority faces. Protests on Twitter and Facebook are seen to be fine, but filing an FIR or PIL is not a natural instinct. But then dealing with the police and street level campaigns is what grass root politics demands.

This is why the ‘corrupt’ politician wins without a challenge from the club class. And since he or she has won they can club it with a law. They can be mocked or scorned at, but they rule. The disconnect manifests itself as low voter turn outs in affluent urban areas. But how long before the club gates are pushed in from the outside?

Bengaluru, by virtue of its dollar income and the IT industry, is a classic example of this deep disconnect. A new generation of millionaires / billionaires have emerged from middle class backgrounds. They are exposed to the world and are constantly logged on. Most can neither understand the local language nor comprehend its politics. In effect, they have no political stakes. Every Indian city suffers from this disconnect in different degrees. The changes in demography outside have had an impact inside clubs. Old members often rue the influx of the new. But while more Indians became rich and began breaching the Club elite barrier, they largely imitated the idea, behaviour and appearance that defined social acceptance and elite, without challenging it.

Ultimately, as the clubs protest against an obnoxious law, it is important to see what this battle represents and why the law is just a symptom and not the disease. The only solution - understand and address the stark difference between what represents 'clubbable' in urban India and 'winnable' in an election.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 2:59:02 PM |

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