SHORTLY before he died, Nani Palkhivala repeated his claim that the biggest mistake the framers of India’s Constitution had made was to provide for a universal franchise. The problem with giving the vote to everybody, he said, was that all kinds of illiterate people now vote and elect entirely undesirable persons to Parliament.
Given Palkhivala’s previous record (it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that his basic philosophy could be summed up in two principles: lower income tax and let the corporate sector run India), the statement should not have evoked any response. And yet it provoked streams of letters to the editor, mostly from middle class people who praised Palkhivala for his unique insight into the failures of Indian democracy and wished that the framers of the Constitution had followed the Palkhivala prescription.
Of course, Palkhivala’s idea was both silly and unworkable. The basis of democracy is that we are all equal and any restriction of the franchise would destroy that principle. Further, there is little or no evidence to suggest that educated people make better voting decisions than those who are illiterate. Even after the horrors of the Emergency, opinion pollsters were horrified to find that a majority of middle class respondents did not think that the Emergency was such a bad thing and even now, it is the middle class – more than any other class – that has the shakiest commitment to secularism or to liberty. In many middle class homes all over India, Narendra Modi is still a hero, and a bit of dictatorship is not seen as such a bad thing.
Had the framers of our Constitution followed the Palkhivala prescription, there is a good chance that (a) we would not have remained a democracy and (b) the vast majority of Indians whom Palkhivala would have disenfranchised, would have resorted to violence. There remains also the possibility that in many states, institutions which awarded bogus degrees would quickly have been set up by politicians who would then have used these spurious qualifications to enfranchise their supporters.
But even though Palkhivala’s idea is a non-starter at every level – practicality, ideology, morality, and so on – it is astonishing how often it crops up in middle class conversations. The prosperity of the last decade should have made the middle class more content. Instead, it has had the effect of alienating it further from non-middle class India and from the political structure.
These days the Indian middle class – now around 200 million people according to some estimates – is the big story all over the world. Our economic growth has not been led by a surge in manufacturing, so relatively few new jobs have been created. Instead, we have grown on the basis of services, most of which enrich only the middle class. The two big Indian phenomena of the last few years – call centres and software providers – are middle class dominated.
All this has led to a huge rise in middle class confidence. There was a time when an IIT educated engineer would have dreamt of going to Seattle and earning a dollar salary. Today, he prefers to go to Bangalore and enjoy a much better quality of life (servants etc.) than he could ever have enjoyed in the US. Plus, the shops are filled with fancy goods, new hotels and restaurants open every week, the real cost of foreign travel has come down (holidays abroad are fast becoming the norm – last year around six million Indians travelled overseas and outbound tourism now vastly exceeds inbound tourism) and there is a very real sense in which the global success of Indians in the services sectors (the knowledge businesses, financial services etc.) has caused the middle class to shed the old Third World mindset.
The problem, of course, is that no matter how well the middle class does, India is still very much a Third World society. Even as Chandrababu Naidu was busy telling us how Hyderabad would become a cyber-city, farmers who were unable to repay loans to rural money-lenders were committing suicide. Even as L.K. Advani was telling the audience at an Economic Times function that he thought that Indians were feeling good (he liked the phrase, he said, when he first saw it in an advertisement for Raymonds fabric), the electorate was gearing up to vote his government out.
So great is the gulf between the two Indias that people who live in one have no idea of what is happening in the other. It is easy to make fun – in hindsight – of Chandrababu and Advani, both of whom fully expected to be returned to power, but the truth is that nearly everybody else in middle class India also got the election results wrong.
When the BJP government ran its India Shining campaign, it was widely criticized on the grounds that the ads amounted to a misuse of public funds for party political purposes. Nobody made the point that India was not shining. Almost all of the media actually believed the hype; we took measures of middle class prosperity as indicators of the true health of India and believed that A.B. Vajpayee was set for another term. But as the election results demonstrated, there is more to India than the middle class.
Many people believe that the gulf between the two Indias can never be bridged, that we are headed towards a situation where economic progress will be largely middle class driven while the political system (thanks to the universal franchise that Nani Palkhivala abhorred) will operate independently of the middle class and therefore, the English speaking media. Within the BJP for instance there are those who believe that the party has no hope of returning to power if it talks about progress and economic development. To win over the masses, or so the theory goes, it must return to the politics of Hindutva and carve out new constituencies based on caste.
As cynical as this view may seem, it is undeniable that electoral politics today is less ideology-driven or issue-based than at any time in the history of our democracy. The vast majority of Indian political parties stand for nothing except for caste and/or dynasty.
In Jammu and Kashmir, both the National Conference and the PDP are family businesses; in Andhra, the TDP stands for nothing more than Naidu’s personality (and his father-in-law’s legacy); in Tamilnadu, the DMK is a family corporation while the AIADMK is a sole proprietorship; in Orissa, the BJD is headed by a former political novice whose only qualification is that he is Biju Patnaik’s son; in Maharashtra, the NCP is an extension of Sharad Pawar’s ego while the Shiv Sena is a dynasty; in Bihar, the RJD is Laloo Yadav’s family plus a caste-base; in UP, the BSP is Mayawati plus a dalit vote bank, while the Samajwadi Party is a collection of crony capitalists surrounding Mulayam Singh’s family and its Yadav vote-bank; and so on.
This is only a partial list but the story is the same in nearly every state. Few if any of these parties actually believe in anything. They sell themselves to the highest bidder when it comes to coalition building in Delhi and appeal for votes at home not on the basis of any programme but on the basis of caste or charisma. Thus, you now have the extraordinary situation where one India – the middle class version – is moving forwards while another – the mass-based electoral version – is actually moving back in time.
Inevitably, this increases middle class alienation from the electoral system. Why is it, ask middle class people, that nine times out of ten, whenever a criminal stands for election, he wins? Why do the people of UP not begin to question Mulayam Singh Yadav’s commitment to secularism and socialism (his party is called the Samajwadi Party, after all) even when it is clear that he’s doing deals with the BJP and selling UP to capitalist cronies.
Why is Laloo Yadav – who has run Bihar to the ground – seemingly undefeatable at election after election? Why is Sukh Ram still a force to reckon with? Why does Jayalalithaa keep popping up again no matter how often she seems down and out?
There’s really only one broad answer to this question – and it is not the one that Nani Palkhivala gave.
The reality is that for much of India, the democratic system is seen as having failed to deliver on the promises it held out. And when a system fails, people return to the loyalties that preceded the emergence of that system – caste loyalties, ethnic loyalties, religious loyalties, and simple tribal loyalties to totemic or iconic figures.
And yet, the middle class does not recognize that the system has failed most of India – after all, it has delivered pretty much everything that the middle class wanted it to. The electoral behaviour that educated people find so aberrant is blamed not on genuine frustration but simply on illiteracy.
The significance of the General Election of 2004 is that it offers us a small hope of reversing this trend, of stopping the two Indians from drifting further and further apart.
Unlike many others, I do not accept that the Congress won the election. But I have no doubt that the BJP lost it. The mandate that emerged was not one for Congress rule but it was, nevertheless, a sign that people wanted a more equitable pattern of development; that they wanted a government that cared as much for all sections of society as it did for the urban middle class.
To some extent, I suspect that the Congress recognizes the ambiguous nature of the mandate. By refusing to accept the prime ministership that was her’s for the taking, Sonia Gandhi has served notice that she will not run her party like the RJD or the SP, like a family business. The choice of ministers has been instructive. Manmohan Singh has virtually no political base outside of the middle class but she preferred him to all other candidates because she recognized that he was a reformer who understood the realities of India (unlike say the BJP’s urban TV sound-bite specialists who have no grasp of the big picture). If there is one man who is a middle class hero but recognizes nevertheless that there is more to India than the middle class then it is Manmohan Singh.
Laloo Yadav who started out wanting to be deputy prime minister and then held out for the home ministry was told that he would get nothing more than railways. Mulayam Singh, who stood for the Lok Sabha, expecting to get some major central portfolio, was told that neither he nor his party were needed. Men of integrity with some commitment to more than just urban India have been given portfolios nobody expected them to get. For instance, Mani Shankar Aiyar was an obvious choice for the panchayati raj or rural development ministries. But his principal qualification for petroleum (traditionally, the big bucks ministry) was his honesty – it is a fortunate coincidence that he’s also turned out to be one of the best petroleum ministers in recent times.
All this augurs well. So do the kind of speeches that Manmohan Singh has been making – the clearest expression of his vision of India came when he inaugurated the IGMT conference a month ago – in which he always outlines a more equitable pattern of development.
Of course, it is too early to be too optimistic. But my fear is that if this government fails to bridge the gap between the two Indias, if middle class arrogance grows and if public alienation increases, then we may be heading for tougher times than most of us realize. The middle class will incline more and more to the Palkhivala view. And the rest of India will use elections only to bolster tribal and dynastic loyalties.