Why Anna's middle class has disdain for Parliament

By R Vaidyanathan

The tripod constructed by Jawaharlal Nehru consisted of socialism, secularism and parliamentary supremacy.

The socialism part went with Narasimha Rao, even though the word is still in our constitution, which declares us to be a socialist republic. Every elected representative is forced to swear by it, exposing us to total hypocrisy in running our polity.

The day the law was amended to deny alimony to Shah Bano, the edifice of secularism, too, developed a crack. In a society which considers everything, including trees and animals, sacred, the notion of “secularism” was anyway a bit stretched. It came down fully with the Ayodhya agitation. However, our constitution includes secularism in its preface. The word was inserted into the constitution during the emergency, and was not a part of the original statute.

The third leg of the Nehruvian tripod, the primacy of Parliament in making laws, was treated with an enormous amount of respect, even reverence. Members of  state assemblies and Parliament were called law-makers even though a good number among them do not know what kind of laws they make. The disconnect between our burgeoning middle classes and the so-called law-makers has been widening in leaps and bounds in recent decades.

A great fault line has been developing for a while, and this hasn’t been noticed by blind political experts. Today there is a huge trust deficit with the political class. In the early sixties, during the conflict with China, this author has seen women giving away their gold ornaments when leaders went around in jeeps to collect money for defence. Today, women will probably run inside their homes if they see a jeep with politicians asking for donations.

The Nehruvian middle class was essentially a public sector one: they tended to work in government, or in companies owned by government: HMT, Bhel, LIC, State Bank of India. Every engineer and accountant in the 1950s and 1960s aspired to work for these companies, and prepared massively for the stiff entrance tests.

The public sector middle class of those decades was often aligned with  Left unions. They sought the creation of more government entities and agitated for enhanced pay. They waved flags when Indira Gandhi nationalised banks. The middle classes shouted Inquilab Zindabad in processions those days. Bengal led this class, and so did Kerala.

This middle class influenced and infiltrated all aspects of Indian life, including the arts, cinema, literature, books and history. They selected their “intellectuals” and “academic leaders”. The government was criticised, but only for being less leftist. They captured the Planning Commissions and hundreds of other academies. They were essentially government-subsidised revolutionaries. The pinnacle of their achievement was the creation of the Jawaharlal Nehru University – appropriately named – where “lal salaam” and “inquilab” could be paraded as serious academic research in social sciences.

It is not that the masses are dumb, but the law-makers are deaf. They talk about the supremacy of Parliament when the third leg of the Nehruvian tripod is about to collapse. AP

There was significant dissent even in such places, but largely between the extreme Left and the moderate Left.

But the 1980s and, especially the 1990s, were different periods. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a major marker on the side of ideology. Narasimha Rao understood history better than many historians. The economy opened up and a new middle class based on the service economy came in being. The share of the service sector moved to above 60 percent and its growth dictated the growth of the overall economy. Information technology (IT) became the new beacon for the middle class. Let’s call them the software (SW) middle class.

Even though IT still forms a small part of our service economy, the fact is it has replaced the public sector middle class. The red flag changed colour, with a tinge of saffron. Its aspirations are different. It includes not just the employed white collar worker; it also contains a huge mass of the self-employed. Their numbers could be upwards of 20 crore – 200 million.

The disconnect between this middle class and the elected representatives is very large, particularly at the local level. For instance, in Bangalore or Mumbai, corporators have no connect with them, whether in terms of language, dress or idiom. Most corporators are road contractors or hooch traders or lottery barons and the middle class is alienated from them.

As for Parliament, who can deny that it has many members charged with criminal activities? The criticism that has been hurled against this new software middle class, which is largely with Anna Hazare, is that it does not fully understand our parliamentary system. Our Parliament is supreme and Anna is not an elected person, it is said.

Sure, but even Manmohan Singh is not an elected person. He hasn’t even been freely elected by the Congress Parliamentary Party. The Congress constitution was amended in May 2004 to give Sonia Gandhi the right to choose the party’s PM, and she chose Manmohan Singh. The National Advisory Council is not an elected body but it formulates laws which are accepted by the government.

Seen against this backdrop, the issue of being elected is treated as a joke by the middle class. The social contract of this middle class with a parliament that is supreme is over. It is time our parliamentarians — both ruling and opposition — realise this.

There is no point in asking why tribals and the poor are not at Ramlila Maidan. They simply can’t afford to be there, or they will lose their daily earnings.

But it is more than likely that the poor are with Anna because corruption affects the corporations and the richer sections less. They can afford to pay bribes — and pass on the costs to their customers or employers. Corruption, for them, is thus just an irritating expense.

For my flower vendor in Bangalore, though, a bribe is a hurtful expense. It can be as much as Rs 30 on a Rs 300 turnover. Arm-chair Leftists who do not understand much about the real India go on arguing about how big business is with Anna. Maybe so. But the poorer sections are more with him since he understands their hurt and loss and frozen anger at the government’s minions and their daily dacoity at their expense.

It is not that the masses are dumb, but the law-makers are deaf. They talk about the supremacy of Parliament when the third leg of the Nehruvian tripod is about to collapse. Are we in a position to deal with this? Are we going to mouth age-old slogans of the public sector middle classes of the 1960s or the new software middle classes? Is it possible to bring Parliament and other elected bodies in sync with the aspirations of the new middle classes?

Despite all the exhortations of Lenin and Mao, it is the middle class which leads change in our country – whether it was our independence struggle or the struggle against the emergency. If Parliament becomes irrelevant then it is a huge challenge for us to rework our institutions. That should be the focus now instead of the inane talk about how Parliament is supreme or the constitution is supreme or the people are supreme.

Maybe, the time has come to ask ourselves whether the current parliamentary system has outlived its purpose.

The author is professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Views are personal