The middle kingdom

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Apr 27 2014, 07:41am hrs
In the strategy sessions of the major players in this election, theres a new target emerging: the Indian middle class. Its not quite the elephant in the room, but it is certainly acquiring fairly substantial shape and form. Till the 2014 election, the middle class has been of little consequence in terms of voter appeal or policy statements in party manifestos, sidelined in favour of identity politicscommunity, caste, religion, farmers, the rural vote and local factors. Part of the reason, however, was that most members of this class have been singularly disinterested in electoral politics. Their vote was sporadic, unfocused and the inked finger was flaunted more as a badge of honour (See how brave and politically-conscious I am) than a genuine desire to participate in the democratic process. For most, their major concerns were to do with the state of the parks in their colony, school admissions, the price of gasoline and onions, the water supply and other municipal concerns. They were neither a consolidated bloc, nor significantly large in terms of size. The first signs that this was changing came in 2012-13 when the Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party factor came into serious play. His anti-corruption plank was something that appealed not just to middle-class hearts, but their wallets as well. Indeed, the reason for the middle-class awakening could well be far more complex and deeper than a spontaneous anti-corruption outburst. Since their initial appearance at venues in support of Kejriwals party, they have hit the streets in support of a range of issues, from crimes against women to gay rights and minorities, the environment, price rise and to protest abuse of citizens rights. In essence, the awakening was based on four basic issues: governance, which includes less corruption and more transparency and accountability; better infrastructure and civic services; rising prices which had started to hurt; and the misgovernance of UPA II where focus shifted from economic liberalisation to populist handouts to the poor.

There is another factor that has changed their electoral attitude and made them a vote bank worth targeting. Historically, the Congress was the party they most identified with, from Nehru to Indira, Rajiv to Sonia and Rahul and then, their patron and saviour, Manmohan Singh. Under the good doctor, while he was finance minister and then, presiding over UPA I, they benefited greatly in terms of reaching a level of affluence within a relatively short span of time, a dream run that lasted till around 2010. When the global economic crisis started to impact India majorly, it coincided with the change of policy at the Centre. Economic liberalisation was abandoned in favour of populism, and the biggest losers were the middle class. For them, from being the favoured ones, life suddenly became very insecure, from professionals to entrepreneurs and the others who make up the middle class.

The economic slowdown hit them where it hurts: their pockets. Incomes have barely risen for most salaried professionals, and so too for entrepreneurs in key sectors of the economy, and with the global recession continuing its slide, and the rupee doing the same, the future looks decidedly scary. For the middle class, its a dramatic change from the boom years when the sky seemed the only limit. With inflation and rising food prices eating into their income and savings, they are an angry lot. Election 2014 has given them the opportunity to express their disapproval with politicians for raising their aspirations and ambitions, only to bring them crashing down. They may not find the alternative appealing either, but they need to find expression for their anger and the ballot box is now their only outlet. That is something that has registered in the war rooms of the main contestants in the 2014 battle.

The other reason why they matter in this election is the numbers. Going by strictly economic criterion of defining a middle class person, anybody who belongs to a household which has a monthly income of between R20,000 and R1,00,000 a month qualifies. This means their numbers start to look very substantial. The National Council for Applied Research projects that Indias middle class will reach 267 million by 2016 and account for almost 40% of the countrys population in 15 years. This is a very significant critical mass. There are other reasons why it makes for an attractive voting bloc. It is pan-Indian in scale. It has a distinct homogeneity based on commonality of interest and aspiration. It is educated. It includes a large portion of the youth who are starting to dominate Indian demographics.

There is a clear connection between the slowdown of economic growth, rising prices and dip in earnings, and taking to the streets to express their anger at the threat to the Great Middle Class Dream. In a sense, their presence at centres of protest across India was a subliminal act of rebellion, rare for this class, but in terms of timing, extremely significant. When functional turned dysfunctional in UPA II, and the middle class dream died, electoral indifference died with it. They are now poised to be agents of change. Across the world, its the middle class that is the driving force behind growth and prosperity. It should be no surprise that the Indian bourgeois now want a bigger say in the future of their country now that their own future is coming under threat.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express