What 2011 anger was all about: Middle Class vs Middle Class

It was a year of anger. And of great frustration.

It was the year of people too.

There were too many people out on the streets protesting, fighting, demanding, shouting and challenging authority. The decibel level was higher all through the year as was the shrillness of pitch. There was plenty of ugliness in the air and the eagerness to hurt with words.

That was understandable. When people are angry they cannot be sweet.

There was an explanation — conveniently reductionist and hopelessly inadequate — for the whole range of furious activity happening out there: middle class rage. The noise around this class has been plenty — the middle class yearns for change, the middle class is impatient, the middle class is tired of corruption, the middle class this, the middle class that. But pray, what is this dangerous beast called the middle class?

Well, it exists as an abstraction but stubbornly defies a clear definition. It is an amorphous entity straddling the vast swathe of space between the miniscule super-rich and the vast population of the poor. It does not quite fit into a money bracket based on bland economic parameters such as earning capacity or spending capacity. It does not fit into the classical definition of 'class' either - there are just too many overlapping layers and too many social coordinates at play for such simplification.

The middle class is not a homogenous group with a uniform strand of thinking — in fact, two separate layers of the middle class can have diametrically opposite responses to the same stimuli. That makes it difficult to interpret its mood and ascribe it motives, both positive and negative.

While Anna Hazare’s followers were swamping the streets in support of his anti-corruption bill, there were people fighting for land and water rights and resisting forcible eviction for industrial and nuclear projects, too. These movements were not made for television cameras as Anna’s movement was.

The people behind them were different, less adept at manipulating the mass media and the public mood. But they dealt with issues which were no less serious than the corruption watchdog of Anna. The movements were manifestation of popular anger, too. That is why it is improper to reduce the widespread mood of anger to one single class or one single set of people.

 What 2011 anger was all about: Middle Class vs Middle Class

Activists protest against the government's decision to allow Foreign Direct Investment in the retail sector, in Jammu. Reuters

But it is also true that all the churn — social, intellectual, economic and otherwise — happens in the space occupied by the middle class. This is where all revolutionary ideas take birth, assume shape and grow. This is where change originates. All big movements in human history — the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Russian revolution, and the Indian freedom struggle — germinated in this space.

There could be an explanation for that: the rich are happy in their comfort zone and unconcerned about the world and the poor are too dispirited to take interest. The middle class space is the fertile ground for ideas as it is involved, directly or indirectly, in the whole gamut of activities that take place in the country. It has the access to information, the knowledge of processes and the intelligence to identify self-interest and recognise threats to it.

Where does the threat come from? Not the political class, as we are made to believe. The political class would be happy doing business with a pliant middle class — it cannot achieve much without the support of the wealth of knowledge and the manipulative skills the latter possesses. It cannot afford to displease the bridge segment that connects it to the voters in several ways. The political class, thus, is never a danger to the middle class.

Curiously, as the history of the anti-corruption movement in India suggests, these end up with displacing the government in power while the original cause gets lost in the deluge of subsequent developments. It was the case with the JP movement of 1974-75 and with VP Singh’s movement prior to 1989. If the Anna movement goes that way too, it should not surprise. The status quo in the society continues. For some curious — or is it devious? — reason all such movements end up targeting the political establishment and lose their sense of purpose after that.

When the middle class has almost all important levers in control, where does it perceive the threat is from? It has to be from forces within — the rich live in their own exclusive world and the poor are too miserable to be fought against. Moreover, no anti-corruption movement has ever been about the clash of classes in the country.

These are revolts of the middle class against the middle class.

Why so? For starters, this is a class which has access to knowledge, the capacity to articulate its viewpoint, is aspirational, understands when it is being robbed of opportunities and has the ability to mobilise members for a cause.

Second, the proximity of its members to the more successful ones of their ilk whets ambitions and competition easily in this section — particularly since they are more aware. Third, the section is generally restless and is rarely satisfied with itself or the circumstances of life in a competitive atmosphere.

On the face of it, the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare, which kept the nation hooked all through 2011, is about corruption. But it has more to do with the growth of a new segment in the middle class, courtesy the economic reforms process set in motion in early 1990s, and its insatiable and failed expectations.

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The reforms have made the economic pie bigger but the share in it has not been uniform across the middle class. The first generation of beneficiaries of the reforms process was content with the largesse coming their way. They were happy with living and lifestyle inflation. The reforms process shifted an entire section from the poor bracket to the middle class and the lowest among the middle class to the next layer. Things were in flux yet there was not much complain about.

However, as the new middle class settled down and the prosperity pie continued to expand, there was a perceptible change in the mood. There was a feeling gaining ground that the prosperity was unevenly distributed. Some segments in the class were growing while others were less fast or even stagnating. Meanwhile, the media was playing up new dreams for the middle class, making them conscious of better living standards, better facilities and better lifestyles.

The new life was not necessarily ostentatious but certainly more comfortable and better than the existing one. Thus cars, houses and club memberships were acceptable goals before one reached 35. It is not that everybody aimed at this life; some wanted to move up the ladder wherever they were. There were some who achieved it, many who did not. There were winners and losers. The latter were not happy — with themselves and those who were successful. The new economy was creating a generation of disgruntled and angry souls towards the end of the first decade of the century, 20 years after the Indian economy opened up.

As anger accumulated, fuelled by frustration, the reason had to be found and also the culprits behind the state of affairs. A spate of scandals of astounding magnitude was the right recipe to increase the temperature across a cross-section of the middle class. The scandals also created the objects of popular anger: the politicians, presumed powerful but mostly belonging to the same class. Corruption was a potent issue because those with the deprivation complex always felt they were losing out due to corrupt practices by others in their class.

Taking it to a more cynical level, in the middle class space there’s no real distaste for corruption or hatred for the corrupt as such. Most of the graft in the country happens in this space. But there has to be an equilibrium. Imagine the reaction if the amount involved in the 2G scam was just Rs 20 lakh and not what many believe is Rs 1.76 lakh crore. Would the reaction against former Telecom Minister A Raja have been as strong in that case? No. Because Rs 20 lakh corruption is acceptable. It continues the equilibrium, the other amount shakes it up badly.

In the 2G scam, big corporate players were as much partners in crime as Raja was. Why don’t we see a great deal of anger against them? The simple fact is the middle class wants to teach others in its class a lesson: be corrupt but don’t overstep the limits at our cost.

The disenchanted groups had a symbol to rally around when the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement began. They were enthusiastic about Baba Ramdev’s movement against black money too, but Anna, with his honest image and innocent appeal was always a better face for popular agitation. He was fighting against corruption and taking on politicians courageously too. There was nothing to hesitate about in joining him.

Thus, what was essentially an anger of the middle class against the middle class became a full-fledged battle against the government and the political class. It has taken the predictable twist. It is highly unlikely that it would result in some significant change or re-formation of existing equations in the middle class or between people and the government. Everyone wants the status quo maintained, not changed.

This is one reason why all anti-corruption movements end up with insignificant results. It is possible that it would resurface in some other ways in the coming year or later. The space occupied by the middle class is volatile. There is always scope for another eruption.

As 2011 draws to close, we expect less hypocrisy.

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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2011 10:34:36 IST