Urban Middle Class and Civil Society
Why have the urban middle classes over the last two decades not voted as much as the urban poor or the rural Indians, opting instead for the media or civil society to express their interests and anger? If you ask the average middle class citizen in the Ramlila Maidan, she may not understand the deeper reasons for why the move from electoral politics to civil society came about, and whether that is enough to make a better future.
In all Western democracies, universal-franchise democracy was born only after an industrial revolution had taken place and most of the population had become urban. With the partial exception of the United States in the 19th century, India is the first country in world history, which has adopted and maintained universal franchise in a predominantly rural setting and without an industrial revolution. India was roughly 85-88 per cent rural at the time of independence. Sixty four years later, the nation is still 68 per cent rural. Therefore, India’s political parties have overwhelmingly focused on the rural electorate, and India’s cities have functioned in a primarily rural political universe.
This has generated some paradoxes. First, despite the rural bias of Indian democracy, India’s villages remain poor and underserved, and rural poverty is worse than urban poverty. Why there is a mismatch between rural power and rural economic welfare is an important question, but it will take us too far beyond the scope of this column. I have written a book on the subject. Second, urban politicians hold most Cabinet positions in Delhi, but no political party has historically had a significant urban program or manifesto. The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission is very new.
Indeed, governments that look after cities have come to political grief. After trying to make Bangalore into a Singapore, SM Krishna lost power in Karnataka in 2004; the same thing happened in Andhra to Chandrababu Naidu, who spent time, resources and rhetoric seeking to turn Hyderabad into a world class city.
It is because the electoral logic of Indian politics is so village-heavy that the urban middle class has been gradually withdrawing from the electoral sphere. It recognizes the media and civil society as its own spaces, and the voting arena as somewhat alien.
The middle class has not yet fully appreciated that by installing a Lokpal alone, its cities will not become better places. Will the middle class go to the Lokayukta office every time a cop demands a bribe? A Lokayukta or Lokpal can deal with spectacular corruption, but how will it handle routine corruption?
The odds of everyday corruption can go down, if the middle class re-engages politics, starting with urban self-governance. Given the rural emphasis of Indian democracy, village panchayats have received much more attention than municipal governance. The gram pradhan has some powers; the city mayor is basically a figure head. The 74th amendment, focused on municipal governments, is a bastard child of the 73rd amendment, aimed at strengthening panchayats. Decisions about the city are made not by elected municipalities, but by state and central governments, who are more concerned with the rural vote. If the middle class wants cleaner and better governance, it needs to fight simultaneously for greater powers for municipal governments and greater citizen oversight over them.
India’s newest big city, Bangalore, illustrates the problem rather well. Just like Mumbai became India’s great 20th century city, Bangalore was to be the nation’s 21st century city. Driven by an exceptional IT industry, Bangalore’s private incomes have grown phenomenally, perhaps at twice the all-India rate since 1991. But the revenue generated by Bangalore’s rising affluence does not come back to the city in any significant proportion: the municipal government has neither the resources nor the power, and the rural-inclined state government has no incentive to attend to Bangalore’s needs. A quite lovely town earlier, Bangalore today is an urban nightmare. Potholed roads, traffic that goes nowhere, an awfully late metro, uncollected garbage and heavily polluted air describe the public space.
The Bangalore narrative also epitomizes urban India as a whole. The big exception is Delhi, a city whose public spaces have undoubtedly improved. But Delhi’s exceptionalism is no political economy surprise. It is the only city of India which is not located in a predominantly rural political setting. Delhi's government responds primarily to an urban electorate.
Before the Hazare movement, the anti-Mandal agitation of 1990 was the last great urban challenge to India's power structure. Despite the self-immolation of several dozen young men, the government did not budge, nor did any political party. The protest simply petered out. The majoritarian logic of electoral politics returned more or less unchanged.
The situation has now changed. India is more urban and more affluent than before. Sometime during 2025-2030, it will also have an urban majority. The urban middle class should use the new political moment to return to electoral politics, but the Hazare movement is so opposed to electoral politics and representative democracy. A reliance on civil society alone will not fix India’s governance problems, urban or rural. An anti-corruption Lokpal can only be part of a larger political process.
Ashutosh Varshney is an
Asia Society Associate Fellow and
Sol Goldman Trust Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Brown University. His books include Democracy, Development and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India. The views expressed in this article are his own.