Millennium Post

Congress and the ‘middle class’

Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the post of the Congress vice-president after the party’s two-day chintan shivir in Jaipur was an organisational non-event. He was already functioning as the party’s number two, and there wasn’t an iota of doubt that he would succeed his mother in conformity with the dynastic principle. The true significance of his new appointment is political and twofold.

First, the Congress decided to project Gandhi as its top leader or mascot in the next Lok Sabha election. And second, the thinking of Gandhi and his confidants (often called ‘second-edition baba log’ because of its elite backgrounds) found an unmistakable expression in various leaders’ speeches and the so-called Jaipur Declaration.

Ironically, the clearest expression was to be found not in Gandhi’s speech, but his mother’s. Gandhi reflected on the limitations of India’s political system in accommodating and articulating the interests of various sections of the people, on prevalence of mediocrity in governance, and on state leaders’ failure to delegate powers to subordinate bodies. He also tugged at the emotions of Congress workers by talking in a very personal manner about his trauma at the killing of his grandmother by the guards who had taught him to play badminton. However, it was left to Sonia Gandhi to ask the Congress to reach out to India’s ‘aspirational’ middle classes. She said the party must ‘recognise the new changing India… increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better educated generation. This is a natural and welcome outcome of rapid economic and social change’ brought about by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) programmes to empower ‘the disadvantaged’.

India’s youth, she added, ‘is getting more assertive, it wants it voice to be heard… Aided by …television, social media, mobile phones and the Internet, today’s India is better informed and better equipped to communicate… people are expecting more from their political parties…We cannot allow growing educated middle classes to be alienated from the political process’.  

The substance of this position was drafted well before the Jaipur conclave by a working group set up by Rahul Gandhi’s team. Its purpose was to distance him from Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Left-of-Centre orientation’ and articulate his own socio-economic views. Gandhi’s assertiveness was also reflected in the fact that half the invitees to the shivir were from the Youth Congress.

Gandhi’s line was duly reflected in the 56-point Declaration, which acknowledges that ‘there is a rising educated and aspirational middle class… We will continue to create new opportunities for them and a climate conducive to their advancement.’ It defines the Congress’s primary constituency not as poor and marginalised Dalits, Adivasis, religious minorities and other backward classes, whose cause it once championed, but more vaguely as the ‘middle ground’, and pledges it ‘to speak for both the young middle class India and the young deprived India.’ In several places, the Declaration text conjoins the middle class with the
aam aadmi
and exhorts the Congress to adopt an election platform of ‘nationalism, social justice, economic growth for all – especially the aam aadmi and the middle class – and secularism.’

Clearly, the Congress has shifted ground. It has redefined and illegimately expanded aam aadmi to include youth and the upwardly mobile middle class. The term ‘middle class’ is a misnomer in India. Unlike in the West, where the middle class earns close to society’s median income and forms two-thirds of the population, in India the term connotes a much richer, narrower group. Legitimacy apart, the Congress has executed this shift for three reasons. First, it’s worried that if it ignores the assertive, articulate urban elite, it may do badly in the next election in the cities – the very places where the UPA did well in 2009. Second, the Congress is buying into the ‘aspirational’ discourse promoted by some sections of the media. Third, under Gandhi, it’s moving further away even rhetorically from the economic redistribution agenda.

All three reasons are questionable. The UPA did perform better in urban and semi-urban areas than in villages. Its strike-rate was much higher in the big cities. For instance, it made a clean sweep of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad.

But the Congress’s story is different. Its urban strike-rate was 10 percentage-points lower than the UPA’s. It did reasonably well in urban Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala and Punjab, but poorly in urban Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Orissa. The bulk of the Congress’s urban votes probably came from the poor and lower middle classes, including slumdwellers, and not from the upper middle class which generally prefers the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or other non-Congress parties.

It would be foolish for the Congress to chase that class just because it became vocal in the recent anti-corruption and anti-rape mobilisations. The Congress should of course have taken a clear stand on the Lokpal. It should also have been less defensive about its government’s shoddy and repressive handling of the anti-rape protests. But that still doesn’t mean that the Congress should have proactively wooed the upper middle class.

Second, much recent theorising about this class is simply wrong. It incorrectly argues that high ambition and aspirations uniformly bind India across urban-rural and class divides. While the ‘old’
aam aadmi
wants ‘patronage’, the new middle class-mediated variant wants to prosper through ‘entrepreneurship’. The first spells the ‘politics of grievance’, the second ‘the politics of aspiration’; the first is confrontational, the second inclusive.

The Congress has ceased being an agenda-laying party. Although it still enjoys a higher vote-share and a broader base than the BJP, it no longer sets the terms of India’s politics. The Congress could have regained some lost ground had it returned to welfare and a pro-poor platform. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction. (IPA)
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