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Oh, this poor, befuddled Indian middle class!

August 24, 2011 12:50 IST
The desperation of the middle class in heralding Anna Hazare as the Second Gandhi is symptomatic of a typical Indian mindset, says Navneet Anand

While it may be flaunted by many as an historic August Uprising, the Anna Hazare movement will be remembered in the history of modern India as one of the most aimless expressions of exasperation by an equally adrift urban Indian middle class.

The surge of enthusiastic support for the Jan Lokpal messiah notwithstanding, the mass exuberance clearly reflects the compelling desire of Indians to create, and worship real-life heroes. Devoid of one -- thanks to the unprecedented degeneration of Indian politics and decline in the level of quality of the political class -- the anxious middle class has desperately clung on to Hazare, a regional social worker sans a pan-India vision, and turned him into a national hero.

What is perplexing, unlike two of the most notable uprisings of modern times -- most notably the Mandal Agitation and the JP movement which had clear targets and demands -- the Anna revolt lacks a clear definition of what the agitators are aiming at. While it is understandable the sentiments are largely directed against rising cases of corruption and lack of firmness of the government in dealing with these, the exhortation of the Jan Lokpal Bill as the panacea of the ills is perplexing.

Corruption in the Indian context is systemic and endemic, and uprooting it requires much more than another piece of legislation -- already there are a dime and a dozen -- and a much sharper debate and collective action by communities. Clinging on to the Bill, and in turn to Anna, does little than expose the Indian middle class's lack of conviction in dealing with corruption. 

In fact, the desperation of the middle class in heralding Anna as the Second Gandhi is symptomatic of a typical Indian mindset, which has often been in the habit of looking up to their real-life heroes who have been drawn from politics, religious and social reformers, since time immemorial.

In ancient times, while the Buddha's philosophy provided a new trigger to social and religious awakening of Indian society, Chanakya's magical political powers and supreme wisdom gave Indian society a new vision whereby it embraced the ideals and ideas of nationhood and political solidarity. In medieval period, Akbar's overarching philosophy on governance and diplomacy added a new dimension to social cohesion of Indian society. He was revered for his immense political acumen -- his reforms of land revenue were especially lauded by people. The likes of Chhatrapati Shivaji encouraged the spirit of patriotism and Dara Shikoh's intense intellect -- he translated 50 Upanishads into Persian -- laid the foundation for religious pluralism and dynamism to Indian society.

Modern India is replete with social, religious and political leaders who were all imbued with an unparalleled pan-India vision of reform and welfare of the people, who spent their lives fighting for the right causes and were revered by the masses.

While Raja Rammohan Roy launched a meaningful discourse on purging the ailing Indian society of archaic customs like Sati and discrimination against widows, Vivekananda gave a new meaning to Indian religious plurality. Gandhi's relentless fight helped unite Indians against a visible enemy while Nehru's progressive liberalism and passion for democracy helped define for them a new vision of a modern nation. Jayaprakash Narayan took on the might of the State and waged a fearless, and systematic, campaign against it. Indira Gandhi was known for her sharp political acumen even as Bhimrao Ambedkar's crusade against untouchability earned him the respect of people of all castes and classes. All these real-life heroes were venerated across the country and they made their mark by their relentless pursuit of causes and ideals.

All these leaders were real-life heroes at a time when the mass media massively lacked mass appeal, unlike the present-day 24x7 television which often perpetuates misplaced ideas. All these leaders were also erudite scholars and built their credibility by combining political activism with scholarship. By stretching their imagination and likening Anna with Gandhi and others, the middle class has shown its sheer disconnect with history. It has also exposed itse anxiety to embrace short-cuts to change.

The angst of the middle class is nothing new, much like the prevalence of corruption. It has been a bane of Independent India. But rarely has this class shown any collective penchant to get rid of it -- we have seen them elect the same set of people (read politicians) to our assemblies and Parliament all over again. Tiny experiments such as Bharat Punarnirman Dal -- a political outfit floated by a group of former IITians – was met with scorn and apathy by the middle class. A number of elected independents -- many of whom represent a desire to bring about systemic reforms -- have remained abysmally low over the years.

In the 15th Lok Sabha there were a mere eight out of a total of over 2300 who contested! Many of those contesting elections as independents do represent a desire to change. Not only this, the middle class has always been shy of even voting. It is no secret that urban areas comprising middle classes have consistently reported a lower voter turnout than the rural areas. We do not hear anything on the Right to Recall -- there are some experiments that need to spoken about and discussed, but why doesn't the Middle Class take a lead in it?

A powerful tool like the RTI has been reduced to irrelevance by the middle class -- it has remained confined to the hands of a few select activists who make good use of it though. When it was conceived, it was aimed at empowering the middle class and creating an enabling environment for fighting systemic corruption. The preamble to the Act makes it amply clear: 'An Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority...' However, it has failed to live up to expectations.

To rinse deep-rooted corruption we require much more than camera-trigger screaming. The vocal Indian middle class has been the forerunners of change in society -- they were the first to embrace technology, exulted at economic liberalisation, propelled the process of globalisation, and fuelled the ideas embedded in the notions of modernisation. But they are poor when it comes to systemic reforms -- they surrender rather than question. They pay bribes rather than challenge those who ask for it. A website, ipaidabribe.com, which captures first-hand accounts of bribe-givers has estimated that since it started about a year ago it has recorded a whopping Rs 321 million payments in bribery.

The Anna embrace is a reflection of the middle class's desperation to clutch at a straw of hope, not knowing that even a small blow can smear it. They don't realise there are more powerful anti-corruption legislations that are relegated to the confines of nothingness and can be made good use of, along with the RTI.

India has built democratic institutions with great diligence and deliberation. While it is absolutely democratic to protest and raise questions on accountability, its momentary exuberance, as reflected now, is antithetical to that spirit. To rinse our country of corruption requires a more structured, sustained and solemn design. Latching on to a social worker, surrounded by power-seeking bureaucrats and lawyers, may not be a great idea.

The momentary exuberance and its tamasha only weaken the social fabric of India and make a mockery of the country in front of the world. The middle class will have to take the blame.

Navneet Anand is a freelance journalist and blogger

Navneet Anand