Fear the middle class
I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the Mandal movement. If you are, then forgive me because you probably know most of this already. But for those of you who were kids in 1990/91 when the movement was at its peak, here is a brief recap.
In 1989, VP Singh was swept to power on a tide of middle-class support. VP Singh’s party got nothing like a majority. In fact, the defeated Congress won twice the number of seats that he had. But because the Congress had lost its overall majority and because it was generally felt that VP Singh had captured the imagination of the urban middle-class, his party took office anyway, its minority status notwithstanding. Both the Left and the BJP agreed to support VP Singh’s government from outside thereby giving him the majority he needed.
This was an inherently unstable government. You can’t really survive in office for very long when each action has to win the approval of both the BJP and the Left, parties that are historically (if not hysterically) at odds with each other. Moreover, VP Singh’s own party was not united behind him. His own deputy Prime Minister, Devi Lal, wanted to topple him and there were powerful dissidents like Chandra Shekhar outside the Cabinet.
Recognising that his support within the middle class would not see him through his term because of the unstable nature of his government, VP Singh suddenly changed gears. He announced that his government would implement the long-pending report of the Mandal Commission, which extended the principle of reservation (in jobs, in educational institutions and elsewhere) beyond tribals and Dalits to encompass so-called Backward Castes.
The middle class regarded this is as a betrayal. The government responded by saying that only 40,000 government jobs would be affected by the move. Many of us disagreed. I remember writing many articles on the subject at that time. My point was that the number of jobs was irrelevant. It was the principle that mattered.
All of us generally agreed – to varying degrees – that there was a case for time-bound reservation for tribals and Dalits. But VP Singh’s proposals went beyond tribals and Dalits – who had certainly suffered at the hands of upper castes – and included a variety of other castes, many of whom did not seem to have suffered at all.
The point, I wrote at the time, had to do with our vision of India. Did we want an India where merit would be paramount? Or did we want one where merit was frequently elbowed aside in favour of reservation? More importantly, I wrote, the vision of our founding fathers was that caste would become irrelevant over time. By making so much dependent on caste, VP Singh had reversed the forces of history. Now, everybody would need to know his or her caste. It wasn’t the 40,000 jobs that worried me, it was the return of caste to centre-stage.
Those of us who have seen the outpouring of public anger over the lok pal bill and also remember the anti-Mandal agitation will concede that the current upsurge, no matter how powerful, lacks the power and intensity of the anti-Mandal protests. In those days, no middle-class person ever spoke of anything else. Schools and colleges closed down as students took to the streets. Then, a more worrying trend began. Young people started immolating themselves to protest the Mandal recommendations. Each day’s front page would bring a new photo of some teenager immolating himself, another young life gone up in flames.
Despite the intensity of the protests and despite his transformation from middle-class messiah to public enemy number one, VP Singh did not relent. He went ahead with the implementation of further reservation. Shockingly, the entire political establishment only paid lip service to the protests and backed VP Singh’s proposals.
When VP Singh’s government fell, in 1990, it was not over Mandal but over LK Advani’s Rath Yatra. As I had predicted, VP Singh’s agenda transformed India forever. Caste, which had been receding in political importance till then, suddenly became the single-most important factor at election time. All agitations began to be framed in caste terms. Parties that were based almost entirely on caste coalitions (the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, Laloo’s mob, etc.) hijacked politics in the cow belt. Because these parties won elections only on the basis of caste coalitions, they did not worry about providing good governance when in office. They knew that, whatever happened, they could count on vote banks based on caste.
I recall all this to make a comparison with the current lok pal agitation. I don’t think that there is anyone who can argue that caste conflict is less of a threat than government corruption. And it is possible to claim that a fundamental change in how caste affects India is more important in the long run than two competing drafts of a lok pal bill.
But here’s my point: the Anna Hazare movement has brought this government to its knees. The anti-Mandal movement, on the other hand, achieved nothing. VP Singh did not relent and did not concede even an inch to the protestors. Despite the inherent instability of his government, neither the BJP nor the Left withdrew support on this issue – even as teenagers were burning themselves alive on the streets of our cities.
So, what’s made the difference? Why does the Hazare movement have the kind of power that the anti-Mandal agitation lacked? Why is it succeeding when the agitation against reservation failed?
There are two broad answers, both of them related. The first is that the middle class has now grown in numbers and confidence to the extent that it can no longer be ignored by the political establishment. In 1990, VP Singh was only too willing to kiss his middle-class supporters goodbye and to embrace the demon of casteism instead. What’s more, it did not do him any harm. His government survived.
In contrast, the Manmohan Singh government cannot possibly ignore popular middle class-led agitations. It has no choice but to negotiate with the leaders of civil society and cowers before their influence.
That’s the first reason. But there is also a second one: the way in which technology has transformed the media and empowered the middle class. In 1990, we only had Doordarshan and a handful of newspapers and magazines. Though many of us in the print media were viciously opposed to what VP Singh was doing, our influence was limited. And the country’s only TV network, Doordarshan, functioned as the lapdog of the government.
Technology ended Doordarshan’s monopoly. The satellite channels which came to India a couple of years after Mandal changed the rules of the television game. Today, satellite TV has become one of the most important mediums for the middle class to discuss its concerns. And the TV channels have kept the Anna issue alive, day after day.
Then, there is the Internet. The lok pal movement has used the web more effectively than any movement before it. Millions of Internet users have been contacted by Hazare’s volunteers. Twitter has become the debating platform for those who have strong views on the progress of the movement.
And even the telecom revolution has helped. Awareness of the movement and its objectives has been spread by using text messages.
We are now in a situation where the middle class has found a way around its political irrelevance. Yes, middle-class voters cannot swing elections. Yes, politicians derive their power from the millions of Indians who do not have computers or mobile phones.
But whereas in 1990, the middle class’ political irrelevance crippled the effectiveness of the anti-Mandal agitation, the power of media has changed all the rules in 2011. When the middle class is agitated, it can organise itself and ensure that it is heard. And the politicians have no choice but to sit up and take notice.
The stupid, contrary, inept and often dishonest responses of politicians to the lok pal agitation demonstrate how out of touch they are. They still live in a past where it was possible to ignore the middle class and its concerns because of the mathematics of electoral political. Faced with this onslaught of civil society outrage, they have simply not known how to react.
But as the events of the last week show us, the rules have changed. Ignore the middle class, ignore its concerns, ignore the growing power of mainstream and social media and you risk coming across as a bunch of effete idiots.
Sadly, that is a lesson that this government has failed to learn.