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)

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.

Urban India and Corruption

Corruption afflicts both cities and villages. But corruption consciousness is higher among the urban middle classes. In the nationally representative sample of the recent "State of the Nation" poll conducted by CSDS, 66 per cent of urban India believed that the central government was corrupt, compared to 58 per cent of rural India. More revealingly, the more educated the person, the higher was the consciousness.  Only 49 per cent of the illiterate, as opposed 71 per cent of all those with college or higher education, were conscious of corruption.

Does this subjective perception match objective reality at all?   It is worth noting that the countryside, where 68 per cent of India currently lives, is not where most of  national income is generated.  At this time, not more than 25-30% of India’s GDP comes from villages, with agriculture accounting for a mere 15% of GDP.   More simply stated, over two thirds, perhaps as much as three fourths, of the nation’s GDP is generated in cities where less than a third of the country lives, whereas less than a third, perhaps as little as a fourth, of the country’s GDP is produced in the countryside where over two thirds of the national population resides.

As a consequence, for politicians, the city has primarily become a site of extraction, and the countryside is predominantly a site of legitimacy and power.  The countryside is where the vote is; the city is where the money is.  Villages do have corruption, but the scale of corruption is vastly greater in cities.  (The Adivasi areas are the great exception to this generalization.  They are rural, but their natural resources make them a site of massive extraction as well.)  Basically, the urban middle class is not imagining a reality that does not exist.

Also, unlike the old middle class, a child of the public sector, much of the post-1991 middle class is reared in the private sector.  It encounters the state only when it buys property, applies for a driving license, birth or death certificate, pays income tax, wants a passport, drives a vehicle or has an accident.  These arenas of public life are abjectly corrupt.  In the State of the Nation poll, the police station was identified as the most corrupt office in India, but whereas 25 per cent of all respondents said so, the proportion was as high as 42 per cent for the urban middle class. 

The city may indeed have greater corruption, but we also need to ask why the urban middle class, which has the capacity to pay, resents corruption so much.   In a material sense, corruption undoubtedly hurts the poor much more.  A ten thousand rupee bribe will not economically diminish a Prashant Bhushan or an Arvind Kejriwal, but it can wipe out a poor person for years.  Bhushan and Kejriwal may find the bribe offensive or corrosive of governance, but it is not an unbearable personal damage.

Offense, in short, is driving the middle class mobilization, not material deprivation.  India’s middle class is saying that it does not want to be a consuming class alone.  It has a citizen’s right to get a driving license or a passport, file an FIR, without paying a bribe.

This is consistent with the comparative history of citizenship rights.  Citizenship battles premised upon rights-based service delivery have normally been first fought in the cities.  The poor may have more to lose from the denial of rights-based delivery, but without the resources of a middle class, battles for citizen rights are hard to sustain.  Deprivation alone does not produce a movement.  Analogously, the middle class may not necessarily be moved by the plight of the poor, but when it begins to support and finance movements for cleaner governance, the consequences can be positive for the poor as well.  If taken forward imaginatively, Hazare’s movement has the potential to provide nationwide benefits.  Will the movement’s imagination be more capacious?


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.