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Anti-CAA Protests: Has the Middle Class ‘Done it Again’?

There is little doubt that the middle class has a countervailing and influencing power that cannot be ignored.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Anti-CAA Protests: Has the Middle Class ‘Done it Again’?
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Snapshot
  • Strange as it might seem, the middle class — the type that pays income tax, gets graduate degrees, covets English medium education — is not a major factor in the calculations of your average Indian politician.
  • The middle class’s voting power is limited even in urban constituencies because of the overwhelming presence of vote-rich shanties, slums and tenements — and then it happens. Some kind of a middle class outrage builds up. And then there is an impact that is undeniable.
  • When the hour comes, the middle class wields an influence that is disproportionate to its voting power in the number game called ‘elections’.
  • The message after this month’s street protests seems to be an affirmation of the broader, liberal values of the Constitution.

The big question facing us after a surprisingly huge, widespread and largely spontaneous wave of urban protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now an Act) is this: Has the middle class done it again?

Strange as it might seem, the middle class — the type that pays income tax, gets graduate degrees, covets English medium education and watches middle-of-the-road Bollywood movies — is not a major factor in the wily calculations of your average Indian politician. Yet, it is everywhere where the state power is discussed or encountered: TV studios, courts, malls and marketplaces. It cribs about corruption, often proudly sporting an ‘I-hate-politicians’ or ‘I-am-not-political’ tag. It is but natural that this class is hardly on the top of the minds of grassroots political leaders or the parties that nurture them.

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What Stirs the Middle Class to Action?

The students that have led the wave of protests this week are from this middle class. Given the huge mass of votes that can be had in the vast rural or semi-rural hinterland on the basis of caste, community, loyalty to personalities or populist promises, this class hardly figures in election-time calculations. Its voting power is limited even in urban constituencies because of the overwhelming presence of vote-rich shanties, slums and tenements, humbler than fancy apartments that this class often lives in.

And then it happens. Some kind of a middle class outrage builds up, with or through the media, rubs across the aisles on people from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Politicos ignore, sidestep or confront it with a mix of surprise and cynicism.

Yet there is an impact that is undeniable and leaves an indelible mark on politics.

We saw it in the early 1970s when Jayaprakash Narayan led what is now famously referred to as the JP Movement. The middle class protest then had a somewhat rustic character, but included in its fold people as diverse as Arun Jaitley, who later became India's finance minister, and Lalu Prasad Yadav, later Bihar's chief minister (both were law students, despite their disagreements and differences). Inflation and unemployment triggered anger among youths that led to the JP Movement, but the snowballing events led to the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, which led to her ouster in the 1977 elections.

A decade later, the Bofors arms deal and alleged ‘payoffs’ connected with that made a new hero out of the rebel Congress Finance Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh who went on to become prime minister at the head of the National Front coalition in 1989. Widespread middle class outrage led by a media campaign on the scandal in the Indian Express run by Arun Shourie, played a major role in the defeat of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

CAA Protests: Not a ‘Congress’ Affair, But a People’s Movement

The middle class erupted again with the India Against Corruption movement in 2011 that eventually led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party, on the one hand, and then the rise of Narendra Modi to the prime minister's chair in 2014.

This is a class that has historically been seen more in a quest for what might be called a ‘good life’ for itself and ‘good governance’ for the nation. It has been largely innocent of the details of grassroots politics centred in rural areas. Its mystique seems to be in positions of pivotal influence: in the media, bureaucracy, corporate sector and Bollywood/show business.

When the hour comes, it wields an influence that is disproportionate to its voting power in the number game called ‘elections’. In fact, even voting was not a popular habit in this class until not so long ago.

So, it is indeed fascinating when members of this section turn up at spots like India Gate, Jama Masjid or Jantar Mantar to make a point to the political establishment, as they did this month in an eruption over the Citizenship Amendment Act. The dresses, the placards, the slogans and the demeanour at the protests in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and elsewhere — capped by the arrests of historian Ramachandra Guha, Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, and others — showed that this was not a Congress party affair — much as the BJP would have us believe — but one that moved the usually apolitical class into the political limelight. This is because of the values that mattered to it, given its cosmopolitan moorings and beliefs in material progress, a sense of equality and propriety and social harmony.

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During Milestone Moments, the Middle Class Springs to Action

If there is one phrase to explain this, it is ‘thought power’. The Indian National Congress was founded by disgruntled civil service aspirants circa 1885, supported by new-age entrepreneurs, and nurtured by urban lawyers. All of them felt the British Raj was unjust.

The BJP has its origins among urban small business owners, journalists (both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were in the tribe) and, of course, lawyers.

Perhaps because the core ideology (whichever ideology) often comes from the middle class, the section matters more than it is seen to be in run-of-the-mill elections. When milestone moments happen, the middle class springs up to hit the streets. Even Indian communists are cut from the same cloth!

Anti-CAA: Middle Class’s Countervailing Power Can’t Be Ignored

The message after this month’s street protests triggered by the ugly violence at Jamia Millia Islamia University seems to be an affirmation of the broader, liberal values of the Constitution. It is a rude shock to those who might have confused a popular election mandate as an endorsement for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. In the numbers game called ‘democracy’, one can never really tell in a nation of 125 crore people.

But there is little doubt that the middle class has a countervailing and influencing power that cannot be ignored.

With some imagination, we could call it the ‘Liberal Parivar’ that challenges the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) right-wing Sangh Parivar (family). If not for anything else, the ‘Liberal Parivar’ does it at least for the fact that it is more exposed to modern education and global trends than the average pracharak from the Sangh. No wonder we had the United Nations weighing in on the citizenship law.

(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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