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Is the Indian middle class becoming an active agent of change?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: January 17, 2013, 12:21 PM IST
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The recent outcry of middle-class men and women, many of whom not associated with any political party or developmental organisation, is an important phenomenon that deserves careful attention. Prior to the Delhi rape case agitation, there was also significant middle-class participation in the anti-corruption movement. Also the popularity of 'Satyamev Jayate' is a pointer towards something new happening in India. Does this mean that the Indian middle-class, the chief beneficiary of the liberalisation process, is dissatisfied with the way things are in the country and are increasingly coming out of their closet and taking active interest in the affairs of the country? Is activism on various issues becoming the norm rather than exception? Or is this just a flash in the pan?

In the absence of any serious research on this issue, one can only make some tentative conclusions. One thing is absolutely clear - the role of television is changing rapidly and social network sites have become an important arena for public debates and expression of viewpoints. It is clear that media is moving from a "reporter" to a "reporter-activist" model of functioning. Development issues clearly have TRP and therefore we have dramatic live coverage of protest movements and debates on TV are becoming less "debate" and more "interrogation" of public figures. 'Satyamev Jayate' proved that a Sunday morning television show on development issues can have huge TRP and can also generate donations for various organisations. There are other popular TV shows like Crime Patrol which bring out cases of violence against women and end with some lessons for the viewers. This phenomenon is not restricted to national channels only but also can be seen in regional TV channels. Social networking sites have opened the possibility for the ordinary citizen (as opposed to the expert columnist) to express his/her viewpoints, share news items, and enter into active discussions.

This is a change from being a passive recipient of news and views via the newspaper and occasionally writing "letters to the editor". Expressing views on various developmental issues has become quite popular in the social network sites. The social network sites have also become a space for various organisations and individuals to share news of their activities which encourages others to do similar activities.

Increasing television coverage, social network sites, candle-light protests in the street are perhaps solving one of problems that the middle class have felt since Independence - as voters, the middle-class simply did not have the numbers to make a difference. Now the game has changed. Not only the middle-class has grown in numbers but more importantly they can now have an impact on the political class without having the numbers thanks to television and social network sites.

There is another significant change if we take a relatively long-term view of things. During the nationalist movement and during the days of the Naxalite movement of later 60s, a large number of middle class youths were inspired by the idea of "sacrifice" and indeed some even sacrificed their lives. I think that the new middle-class activist is no more into "sacrifice". Hence, there is no more any contradiction between dressing up and going to a shopping mall and also participating in an agitation or expressing one's discontent on social networks. In an age of multiple identities, it is possible to shift from being a consumer of a MNC brand to an agitator on the street within a few hours and go back home to watch the favourite mega-serial.

This may look like "shallow" activism to a twentieth century person but this is the trend of the new century. It is possible that the middle-class is finding agitation as much "fun" as visiting a trendy coffee shop. The middle-class agitators love a little bit of glamour that comes with television coverage of their activities and they like to post images of themselves in street corner protests. It's the new cool thing.

Another aspect of this new phenomenon is perhaps that "ideological battles" have become obsolete or at least less important than they were during the nationalist phase or the Naxalite phase of middle-class agitation. This also makes the new agitations in India somewhat different from the "Occupy Wall Street" type of clearly anti-capitalist movements in Europe and America. While the financial meltdown in Europe and America has resulted in a new interest in systemic thinking about capitalism and its negative effects, in India the new activists are not "ideological" in nature but are into specific issues - corruption, rape, safety of women, poor governance, education, so on and so forth. A section of the middle class is not into agitation but is quietly contributing to various organisations working for the disadvantaged. But they share a common trait - they are not interested in ideological debates but are interested in specific issues like education, health, care for the elderly etc.

So neither Marx nor Gandhi nor Savarkar are attractive but good organisations doing specific tangible programmes are attracting volunteers. Pratham's ASER Centre is an example. It will be wrong to say that no one is interested in ideological texts but they are certainly less in number than those who prefer to work on specific issues. Apart from volunteers, there are also a large number of young people who are joining the development sector as professionals. They like to work for the poor but also enjoy their i-pads.

Two elements of the new middle-class agitators make them a difficult category for the old political class, left, centre or right. The first of course is that they are articulate and know how to make an impression on television. The second, paradoxically, is that they are unpredictable. Gone are the ideologically committed "I shall sacrifice my life" category of youths. They were easier to predict.

It is no longer easy to predict on which issue the new agitators will flare up and which issue will start snow-balling. Hence in their frustration, the less intelligent members of the old political class end up saying that they are "dented and painted". One young female student of Delhi University being interviewed on TV recently, during the anti-rape agitation, perhaps summed up the new age mindset when she said "What's wrong if I try to look good during an agitation?"
First Published: January 17, 2013, 12:21 PM IST