Tuesday, December 27, 2011

India 2020: Beyond The Middle Classes

If India has to grow to the next level, it must look beyond its Middle Class. In a classic case of narcissist obsession, India seems to think of itself in terms of what the outside world sees of it - the immense consumption potential of the middle classes - but its own reality is both richer and more diverse than that. So, the model of development that the country must pursue is one that must look beyond the middle classes, and release the enormous human waste that the country continues to endure through poverty. In short, the New India needs to be new, not the old one in some shiny garb.

Everyone seems to admit that India's biggest problem is its politics. It may be blasphemous to say so, but democracy has failed India. May be more correctly, India has failed democracy. For all the fine rhetoric and a constitution written in fine English, Indian citizens have little rights or respect from the state. The state that Nehru built ended up being a Desi replica of the Raj, a distant paternalistic institution designed to govern, but not serve, its people. Over the years, this obscure state has only been made more distant, only to be reached out through the high priests donned as politicians. This is India's problem: Yet again, it has put too much faith on what the outside world saw in it, and forgot the messy realities nearer home. Everyone seemed to have glossed over the fact that democracy isn't about being able to vote once in a few years, but that people will be masters of their state and the political class should exist only to serve the people.

One can be sceptical and claim that this is rhetoric too, and a democracy does not actually exist then. It is always about the political class manipulating its people, in every country. There is truth in that claim, but in the advanced democratic countries, the fierce independence of various institutions, of the Professional classes, judiciary, media, labour unions, military, and a culture of questioning and accountability, push the system for perfection all the time. In India, we made people believe that they need to be told what to do, just as the British Raj told us, and continued in that tradition.

In retrospect, Nehru's bold decision to give every Indian a vote, much criticised at the time, seemed to have an effect on India's polity. But his equally momentous decision to retain the English civil service, which ensured that the government remains obscure and a preserve of English speaking (and later Hindi speaking) Babus, came in the way of desired empowerment. In India, a common citizen, despite the claims of democracy, is powerless: On top of this, if this person happens to be a woman, a Muslim, non-Hindi speaking and poor, life is unbearably pathetic, as the government Babus will kick her around as they please, in every matter that requires state intervention; and indeed, everything in India still needs state intervention.

We have been told that the modern Indian businesses have liberated the nation, and Manmohan Singh's budget speech in 1991 was the announcement of second Indian independence, from the license Raj this time. Again, we believed as the others told us: The ground realities are quite different. Despite the Harvard Professor Tarun Khanna's enthusiasm with a billion entrepreneurs, and fairy-tale stories like Slumdog Millionnaire and The White Tiger, in India, businesses remain very much the preserve of the rich and the powerful, the diversified family-run conglomerate which will invariably eat your lunch if you manage to cook something good. The bank lending remains skewed, the institutional bias to big and powerful well accepted and anti-trust an unheard thing. The so-called liberalization was liberalization of the powerful and the middle classes, satisfied with a handout from the stock-market and a job that allows them to get loans, only abandoned the goal of self-advancement and got entrenched in the slavery of the EMI.

It is not something development theorists will readily accept, but all meaningful development efforts start with disruption. China's cultural revolution may have been an inhuman monstrosity, but this formed the new institutions ready to take the country forward. The American civil war, in the previous century, created a country with integrated markets and upwardly mobile labour force, which eventually came to dominate the world. India, so far, had no such disruption, and continuity means that the country remains bound to its past. But I shall argue that this model is now reaching its limits: The disenchantment of middle classes may not unleash a revolution, but we may be reaching the limits of continuity as we fast approach a desperate crisis in governance. What form this disruption will take is hard to predict: This may be an internal strife that shakes the institutions violently, an economic collapse requiring a redesign or a war which redefines the national priorities. However, there is another way, through deliberate leadership, which may define a new vision and recreate the country. This redefinition may look less like Nehru's Tryst with Destiny and more like Gandhi's disruptive politics of bringing the poor to the party, because India, if it has to redefine its future, must look beyond its middle classes and create a more broad-based society.

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