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Is This India's Transformative Urban Moment?

Supporters of the anti-corruption hunger strike by Indian activist Anna Hazare wave the national flag and hold up a fake Indian currency note depcting a portrait of Hazare during a rally in New Delhi on August 21, 2011. (Sajjad Hussain /AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of the anti-corruption hunger strike by Indian activist Anna Hazare wave the national flag and hold up a fake Indian currency note depcting a portrait of Hazare during a rally in New Delhi on August 21, 2011. (Sajjad Hussain /AFP/Getty Images)

By Ashutosh Varshney

Originally published in Indian Express on August 25, 2011

Regardless of whether one agrees with the substance of Anna Hazare’s Lokpal bill, we are undoubtedly witnessing a remarkable social movement.  The crowds gathering in different parts of the country are beginning to satisfy the classic yardsticks of a movement: numbers, symbols, funds, an organizational vanguard, a media strategy, and most of all, a determined defiance of established authority. Pro-establishment movements do exist: think of how the RSS and VHP mobilize when the BJP is in power.  But more often than not, movements derive their authenticity and power from a heroic defiance of the establishment. In part because of that, they can also transform the mainstream of electoral politics.

Two issues call for greater intellectual scrutiny than popular commentary has allowed thus far.  Why has India's urban middle class become the social base of Hazare’s movement? And why has this class chosen the route of movement politics led by civil society, as opposed to electoral politics led by political parties?

The first question is important for corruption pervades both urban and rural India. Moreover, Hazare was raised in rural India, he lives in a village and has an unmistakably rural diction and political style. But the crowds coming out in his support all over India are urban and middle class. The rural folk are either invisible or miniscule.  

The second question — why civil society, not electoral politics — is significant for the latter is typically the customary route to power in a democracy.  But India's urban middle class vote very little, as electoral data over the last two decades continue to demonstrate.  Is vigorous enthusiasm for a civil society led protest enough to achieve a better future?

I will argue below that the middle class base of the movement can potentially be a new moment for restructuring India's politics towards citizen-based governance, but for that to happen, the middle class must not be limited to a Lokpal bill. It must resume engagement with electoral politics, starting with how Indian cities are governed.