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India India’s Middle Class Asserts Itself

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
May 19, 2011

India’s middle class asserts itself

May 19, 2011
Ramesh Thakur

India is on the move, with millions climbing into middle-class status and a growing pool of billionaires. Yet it also has more poor, hungry and illiterate people than any other country in the world; access to safe water and sanitation remains a pipe dream for most people and disease is endemic; power, transportation and communications infrastructure are risible; and life continues to be nasty, brutish and short for millions.

Contradicting irrational international exuberance, India suffers from glaring governance deficits. Almost a quarter of members of parliament face a variety of criminal charges. According to Transparency International, the World Bank and the United Nations, India fares poorly on global corruption, ease of doing business and human development rankings.

Pro-poor results are unlikely to be delivered without market-friendly policies. And punishing the corrupt would help to attract the necessary investment capital and also maximize the return on it.

Part of the explanation for India’s pathologies is that the rule of law is more rhetorical than real. In India, law is owned by the politically powerful followed by the economically wealthy. Justice has not yet been seen to be done with respect to the perpetrators of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 or the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. In both cases, powerful politicians incited the riots that killed up to 3,000 Sikhs and 2,000 Muslims while the police stood by passively. Indian Muslims and Sikhs worldwide are yet to reach emotional closure on those traumatic events.

Now some former high-ranking Congress party officials do face the prospect of trials for the killings of the Sikhs in 1984, and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) head of the Gujarat government in 2002 is in the crosshairs of a Supreme Court ordered special investigation. In the meantime, there have been other high-profile trials and even murder convictions of highly connected individuals, something that would have been unthinkable two decades ago. And some cabinet ministers are in prison awaiting trial for corruption.

A few years ago, in a country that is 80 per cent Hindu, the president was a Muslim bachelor, the prime minister and army chief were Sikhs, and the woman behind the throne was an Italian Roman Catholic widow. All this is powerful testimony-cum-tribute to the maturity of India’s democratic, secular and inclusive political system.

Good governance is vital to India. First, to hold the country together through flexible and pragmatic power-sharing arrangements that promote unity in diversity. Second, to provide the political-cum-legal infrastructure to backstop growth and prosperity that will absorb the world’s largest new pool of labour entering the economy each year. Third, to channel the world-beating creative and entrepreneurial aspirations of the newly empowered young consumer class.
On May 14, in provincial election results, incumbent governments were swept away in four of five cases. In addition to Sonia Gandhi being the most powerful politician in the country, India will now have four women heads of state government responsible for the fate of 368 million people: 30 per cent of the country’s population.

Two of the four state results are of national significance. In West Bengal, a Communist party in power for 34 years oversaw a stagnation with declining shares of manufacture, capital and intellect flight, and falling educational and health standards and services. In Tamil Nadu, the head of the state government had installed family members in the cabinet in the state and in New Delhi as a junior coalition in the Singh government. In effect, Tamil Nadu had become a family profit enterprise. The voters have thrown out both sets of *******.

The much-hyped middle class may finally be consolidating as a political force to be reckoned with, especially in the urban centres. Educated and informed, it is starting to assert itself politically by exploiting the citizen’s levers in a free society, including the judiciary and a vigorously competitive electronic and print media.

Rising prosperity of the growing middle class has given many Indians the means to travel abroad and evaluate domestic governance against international benchmarks. The more they experience public service, infrastructure and governance in Southeast Asia, Japan and the West, the less they will settle for inferior standards back home.

Civil society — lawyers, human rights advocates, social activists — has maintained the demand for criminal accountability through the press, the political process and the justice system. In an increasingly networked world, it often joins forces with international counterparts to publicize, harass and otherwise exert pressure for a settling of accounts in India’s notoriously slow courts.

India has an almost unmatched record of looking progress and prosperity directly in the eye, only to resolutely turn its back and walk off in the opposite direction. Recent developments suggest that winds of change may be blowing apart the unholy nexus of politics, big money and crime.

Ramesh Thakur is professor of international relations at Australian National University, and adjunct professor in the Institute of Ethics, Law and Governance, Griffith University.




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