If there was one underlying theme of the Anna Hazare-inspired coup by the people, ironically against a democratically elected regime, then it was collective anger. It was not the kind of destructive anger that one witnesses among mobs during riots (as we saw transpire in London recently). Instead, it reflected a collective disappointment; something akin to your hopes being dashed. If there are two words that could explain this best, then it is: aspirations belied.
And, like an incoming tide, this has long been coming. The government, in particular, and the polity in general, has chosen to ignore the warnings that have been trickling in over the last two years. Inevitably, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), when it has chosen to respond, has offered palliatives that have long outlived their shelf life, or simply shot the messenger.
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Therefore, the UPA has only itself to blame: it first stoked aspirations and then failed to deliver. The three biggest failures have been inflation, corruption and jobless growth—all of which have worked in tandem to deny aspirations. This is obvious from the demography supporting Hazare; they come largely from various strata of the middle class or wannabe middle class—they were the biggest beneficiaries of the growth surge of the last decade and also consequently those who stand to lose the most.
In 2009, the UPA was returned to power, more emphatically than any previous coalition regime. The key factor was that the country at large believed that the UPA was best placed to help people realize their aspirations. The government was, however, grossly underprepared (there is an uncanny similarity between the current Indian cricket team and the UPA. Both, seemingly invincible so far, are inexplicably imploding). It had frittered away its first term, pushing popular and populist agendas, but not even attempting to fix key structural problems such as the infrastructure bottleneck, stagnant agriculture, a jobs-friendly manufacturing set up, fiscal rebalancing and so on.
The economy was riding on the momentum built up over the previous decade. A robust global economy ensured that this was prolonged, lulling the UPA into believing that the country was on autopilot. The 2008 global economic crisis should normally have served as sufficient warning. Not only did it fail to seize the moment, the UPA’s policy mandarins started suggesting that India was sufficiently insulated.
In the three years that followed, inflation, slowly but surely, took root in the economy. Initially it started out with food inflation and then gradually, abetted by a surge in global commodity prices, spread to manufactured products. At present, inflation is just a shy away from double digits.
In fact, the UPA went to polls in 2009 in the backdrop of very high food inflation, but was politically unscathed. The silence of the masses may have further lulled it into inaction. It is probable that people were reconciled to it in the hope that more job opportunities may come their way, as the economic growth continued to accelerate, and compensate household budgets.
But, from the data released by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), we now know that fewer than two million jobs were created in the first term of the UPA in office. Jobs creation averaged about 400,000 a year in the period 2004-05 to 2009-10, compared with 12 million a year in the previous five-year period. To make matters worse, not only was there a contraction in the workforce, but there was a marked shift towards casual workers. In the period 2004-05 to 2009-10, the number of casual workers rose by nearly 22 million, while it nearly halved to 5.8 million for regular workers.
Just as the people were coming to terms with inflation, which eroded family budgets, they also had to deal with the unfortunate reality of jobless growth. The final blow, as it were, was the expose of alleged corruption in public office; the economic price of graft is that much less money to fund development so critical for creating jobs. The sense of deprivation was complete.
An additional factor, that often does not get sufficient due, is the disempowering effect of change. The pace of change this country has witnessed in the last decade has been bewildering. Our lives—the way we live, communicate, commute, work and so on—are being transformed in ways in which we cannot even imagine, leave alone fathom. The skill-set required to survive in this new India is entirely different from how people are being equipped. This gulf has meant that only a lucky few are managing to keep pace and naturally end up on top of the heap. For the majority, watching from the sidelines has become a way of life.
Taking all of the above together, it is clear that corruption, Hazare’s pet peeve, is just part of a matrix of reasons that have left the public in general, and the middle class in particular, unhappy. The 74-year-old social activist has thus become the lightning rod for the disaffected; the raw nerve he has touched is collective anger stemming from unrealized aspirations.
This can end only badly. Either the Hazare camp will err in its overreach (given its penchant for shifting the goal post), or the UPA will collapse under the weight of its contradictions. Neither is desirable.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com