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The urban middle class is now a huge political force

The widespread public protests seen in the wake of the Delhi gangrape is indicative of a new reality: the Indian middle class will not be trifled with anymore.

The post-independence elite – itself from the middle class of that time – has always treated the middle class with disdain. Thus the middle class’s values, its alleged inability to empathise with the “real” poor, its unwillingness to go out and vote, and its obsession with getting ahead in life have been topics of derision and condescension.

Well, dear Indian elite, dear political humbugs, wake up. It is middle class values that are finally triumphing. The success of the old middle classes told legions of the poor that learning English, getting into the IITs and IIMs, and a good education are the way to get ahead, and this new, emergent middle class is not willing to be taken for granted any more. This is what the Anna Hazare agitation and the ongoing protests over women’s safety signify. The middle class has arrived to claim its share of political power, though it is as yet unattached to any particular political party.

AP.

Unfortunately, old political attitudes still prevail in most parties. From the Grand Old Party, which treated the protests as a law-and-order problem initially, to the newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), all still fight for the mythical “poor” when a big chunk of them have left acute poverty behind and are moving into the middle classes.

Some 50 years ago, my family would have been considered poor by today’s poverty standards. Today my family is in the top 1 percent. But perhaps 300-500 million other Indians are where my family was in 1960. That’s a breath-taking change. That should give you some scale to measure today’s middle class numbers with.

AAP, which was forged in the crucible of the Lokpal movement, was a creature of the middle classes, but has suddenly found nirvana is fighting socialist causes that have no relevance to the concerns of the truly aspiring classes in cities. This is why after the initial surge of interest in the media, AAP finds little resonance in India’s metros. All the big disclosures, from the shenanigans of Nitin Gadkari to the disclosures on big corporate houses, now have no takers among the public, even though the public knows that big ticket corruption exists and needs tackling. If they really want an urban base, they should be agitating for different things.

One of the big messages coming through from the Gujarat elections is that the middle class is up and running. The only reason why Narendra Modi won big this time too was the urban middle class voter. In the five major cities of Gujarat – Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Bhavnagar and Rajkot - the BJP won 40 of the 44 seats. It was not Modi’s alleged communalism that got him his vote, but his ability to woo the “neo-middle class” urban voter with talk about governance. Unlike the Congress, which promised the usual freebies, he won without freebies.

While Gujarat may be a special case, since it is 43 percent urban, the fact is India is already 32 percent urban, and this ratio is rising fast.

As noted before in Firstpost, the Indian middle class will swell to 267 million (26.7 crore) over the next five years.  Most of these numbers will be urban. The bulk of them will be in the southern and western states. By 2030, India will have 600 million people living in urban areas – up from around 350 million right now.

Tony Joseph, writing in Business Standard, puts better numbers to the middle class to explain the huge surge in recent urban protests. He writes: “The middle class has sensed that its period of political irrelevance is over, with its numbers growing at a phenomenal pace. They make up about 15 percent of the population today, up from 5.7 percent in 2001-02, according to the NCAER. The projections are even more stunning: 20.3 percent by 2015-16, and 37.2 percent by 2025-26. No wonder, the middle class has begun to behave as if it has wind at its back, and it wants to take the nation’s future in its hands and shape it.”

Not many political parties get this, and even the Aam Aadmi Party, which was a child of this middle class revolution, has gotten onto the wrong track by trying to be all things to all people. If it continues in this direction, it will meet oblivion. It has fallen into the trap of trying to be a better welfare spender than the Congress.

“But what exactly does the middle class want?” asks Tony Joseph, and answers: “You only have to look at what kind of issues bring them out onto the streets to get the answer: first and foremost, they want law and order and crime-free streets; they want rule of law, and accountability from politicians, bureaucrats and policemen; they want the corrupt to be punished; they want well-functioning public services; they want high-quality education … the list keeps getting longer.”

The first political party that gets this will be in line to obtain most of urban India’s votes. That’s  180 MPs to boot.

The urban middle class genie cannot be put back into the bottle of political apathy.