August 19, 2011 9:11 pm

India’s squeezed middle complains of a corrupted dream

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Social reformer Anna Hazare’s cause is well-intentioned but also dangerous, writes James Lamont

Delhi’s elite have long thought themselves immune from the threat of middle class revolt. Rising incomes and increased aspirations were meant to bring people on to the streets of autocratic China, not democratic India. But now an activist in white kurta pyjamas and a Nehru cap may be about to prove them wrong.

That India’s democracy guarantees it a more sustainable future than its great Asian rival was a certainty for Manmohan Singh, the 79 year old prime minister, and those like him. The consensus went that China’s fast development, which has far outstripped India’s since the 1970s, would soon stumble when its people one day demanded their freedom.

Now veteran social reformer Anna Hazare, has caught the state off guard, bringing tens of thousands on to the streets of the country’s major cities. Many are young and middle class, and their outcry – broadcast round the clock by the nation’s TV channels – is one of anger with rampant corruption, and a Congress party-led government leaden-footed in its response.

As one Delhi-based businessman explained, the middle class are working harder and yet finding their goals – such as education or buying a house – further out of reach. The idea that politicians, bureaucrats and oligarch-like business leaders are plundering a growing national cake is increasingly intolerable to India’s “squeezed middle”, touching a nerve in a country whose economy is much changed over the past 20 years, but whose vote bank politics remain stuck in the past.

Yet while Mr Hazare’s cause is well-intentioned, it is also dangerous. The 74 year old is not an obvious champion for India’s youthful, urban classes, who are supporting him in growing numbers in what is becoming an uncomfortable face-off with a flagging Mr Singh.

A former army driver, Mr Hazare was previously best known for running a rural model village, where he implemented religiously-inspired iron discipline to raise education standards and improve agricultural productivity. He overtly encourages comparisons with Mahatma Gandhi, India’s liberation leader; but his background proves he is no Gandhi.

True, his resort to hunger strike as a weapon against the government has proved as effective today as it did when Gandhi held British rule to ransom in the 1930s and 40s. But Mr Hazare, despite being a formidable lobbyist, has neither legitimacy to rewrite the laws of the land himself, nor to subvert democratic process.

Even so the Congress party-led coalition, which has lost traction since its re-election in 2009, is at a loss as how to handle him. This week it made the crashing mistake of jailing him when he threatened a public fast. Overnight, he became the next best thing to a Bollywood blockbuster. India loves an arrest, and the martyrdom it confers. The government’s mis-steps made Mr Hazare a hero, not the people.

The real risk – for the government, and India’s stability – is that this anti-corruption movement will gather momentum, becoming a lightening rod for malcontents all over India – of which there are many. Already the issue at hand has changed, from corruption in Asia’s third-largest economy to one of a governance deficit in the world’s largest democracy. India’s leaders stand accused of silencing dissent and trampling the constitution.

Senior lawyers line up to warn the government that it had committed a “colossal folly”. The shrill Hindu nationalist opposition cries that India had returned to the era of the Emergency, under former president Indira Gandhi, from 1975 to 1977. But far worse is a growing public disdain for the political class itself, with doubts about whether it really represents a young population of 1.2bn with rising economic ambition.

Here the Congress-led government has itself to blame. On its watch a number of corruption scandals have blown up, including the $39bn estimated to have been lost from state coffers during the auction of 2G mobile spectrum licences. Graft scandals marred last year’s Commonwealth Games, while a Mumbai property scam also managed to tar the handlebar-moustached rectitude of the army’s top brass.

Some in the Congress party plainly regret this week’s action against Mr Hazare. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and, at 41 years old, a symbol of generational change, is probably among them. The legacy he is set to inherit from his mother, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, now looks all the more shaky.

Others, however, risk complacency by seeing Mr Hazare’s arrest to be business as usual. Salman Khurshid, the Oxford-educated law minister, says the protests in Delhi are simply part of the nation’s political theatre. “This is one way of showing dissent in Indian democracy,” he says, “You sit there, you sing songs, you are given food by the police and that’s the part of the compassionate Indian state. What’s wrong with that?”

Mr Hazare’s campaign may yet fizzle, of course. Many political analysts predict India will muddle through, in a prolonged monsoon of discontent, characterised by grievances, bungling and a weakened government. They are probably right: this Indian Summer is certainly no Arab Spring, or at least not yet. The jail in which Mr Hazare was put is no Tahrir Square. Mr Singh, a respected leader, is not comparable to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

But deafness to appeals for change risks something worse, if not now, then soon. For this anti-corruption struggle does bear some of the hallmarks of that which unfolded in the Middle East earlier this year. Young populations, armed with better information, do not suffer gerontocrats, distant power and cheats indefinitely. Instead they seek peaceful renewal – and if denied it by defunct parliaments, they seek it on the streets. India is right to have faith in its democratic institutions, but until its leaders become less self-serving and more honest, that faith alone is unlikely to be enough to keep India’s dreams alive.

The writer is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief

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