Congress’ disconnect with middle class
At the valedictory meeting of the National Advisory Council (NAC), its chairperson, Sonia Gandhi,
congratulated the assembled members for their contributions in the matter of securing various entitlements for the poor. It is not known, however, whether as they trooped out of the meeting room, the members reflected on why the assorted goodies for the underprivileged have not induced them to extend a perceptible electoral support to the benefactor. Instead, the supposed beneficiaries appear to have turned their back on the bountiful donor. Considering that the NAC members are known for their distinguished careers in their respective fields of activity, it will be surprising if they haven’t been assailed by a sense of bewilderment at the virtual rejection by the recipients of their strenuous efforts to be helpful.
It is possible, of course, that the election results will show that the poor have not deserted the Congress. In that event, the NAC will be able to claim a measure of success in its endeavours. But, even then, the almost certain electoral setback for the Congress cannot but show that in terms of numbers, those below the poverty line – for whom the NAC’s ‘entitlements’ were meant – were not enough to save the Congress. The ‘blame’ in that case will fall on those above the poverty line – the so-called neo-middle class, or the section just above the line but below the middle class, as also the ‘great Indian middle class’, as the CPI’s A B Bardhan sarcastically described this segment after the Left’s setbacks in the 2009 polls. The CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat, too, had noted at the time ‘a disconnect between the Left and sections of the middle class’. According to him, this disconnect was most pronounced in the case of the ‘young who have benefitted post-reforms in terms of better
opportunities, jobs, income’.
More recently, Union finance minister P Chidambaram said that the country had changed in the last few years from being a ‘petitioning society’ to an ‘aspirational’ one. What this means is that the masses are no longer dependent on a benevolent mai-baap sarkar to provide them sustenance, but believe in the ‘opportunities, jobs, income’ provided by a buoyant economy. It is obvious that this attitudinal change is the outcome of the economic reforms. Yet, it is no secret that large sections of the Congress are uneasy about the process which they call LPG, a disdainful acronym for liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. In their place, there is a preference in the party for a return to a state-controlled system instead of market-oriented one. However, as prime minister Manmohan Singh has said, ‘there is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable’. According to him, ‘China has understood the logic of an open economy’ and it is necessary, therefore, that ‘we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people’. The NAC, however, showed no such inclination. On the contrary, it reinforced the left-of-centre instincts of Sonia Gandhi, which she had imbibed as a young bride living in an unfamiliar country in the household of her formidable mother-in-law Indira. Neither Sonia Gandhi, nor her brains trust, which is described by critics as her kitchen cabinet, was prescient enough to realise that India had changed since 1991. They did not actually call for a return to the licence-permit-control raj, but their general outlook favoured such a roll back.
The resultant disconnect was not only between the Congress and the middle class, but also the people in general who are evidently more interested in the vikas or development promised by Narendra Modi than in the ‘entitlements’ ordained by the NAC. What is unfortunate is that the brainy members of the NAC, who would have been expected to discern the emerging trends and communicate them to the chairperson, did not have a clue about the changing social scene presumably because of their bias. Had they been more perceptive, they would have been better placed to tell the chairperson about the new tendencies than the subservient Congressmen who tailor their views in accordance with what they believe are Sonia Gandhi’s wishes. The prime minister himself might have told the party president what Chidambaram is saying now about the aspirational 160-million strong middle class which is behind the doubling in the last seven years of the purchase of cars, air-conditioners, colour TVs, refrigerators, laptops and credit cards with the ownership of mobiles going up from seven per cent of the population in 2004-2005 to 82 per cent. IPA