In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, many (including me) have written about a political awakening of India’s urban middle and upper classes. People are genuinely shaken and introspecting deeply about their roles as citizens. Thousands are also firm that this time will be different, that this stirring will not be quieted by the passage of time.
But political awakening is not the same thing as political relevance.
I have been involved in urban change for at least a decade now, working both at the grass roots as well as with governments at multiple levels, engaging with politicians of all stripes. Both ends of work have had learnings. On the grassroots front: we have had close to 400,000 urban citizens connect with us in one campaign or another, but many have not stayed on. I can honestly state that mobilizing the middle class is like gathering sand with a sieve. People get stirred to doing things and then taper off very very quickly—if there is intense engagement, it is often driven by self-interest (the street in front of my house, the park in our neighbourhood, the community centre that we want and so on). When this immediate issue is resolved, the engagement dies down. There is no moral tale in this—the truth is that self-interest is a vital aspect of participation. If there is a lesson, it is that it’s incredibly hard work to keep people engaged in a sustained manner.
On the politician front: many politicians have told me over the years that the urban middle class is irrelevant. Politicians are market players, they react to the signals they receive from the people. So, this observation is not a value judgement, it’s a statement of reality.
Politics in India is still substantially driven by identities of caste, subcaste, subcommunity within that. Elections are like chess games, with each major party watching whom the others are nominating in each constituency like hawks and then working to break the numbers: getting relatives from the opposition candidate’s family to stand, incentivizing some independent candidates to step up, buying off others who could swing key blocks. With each move, the calculated aim is to splinter the electoral math and nudge the needle by the barest minimum margin for victory.
Cash and crime are increasing determinants of success. Aspiring candidates need to bring their own kitty; only the rare honest worker can expect to win with little money. Elections are times of massive cash transfers across the chain, with middlemen lopping off their share of the grease that is lubricating our democratic machinery. The same is happening with criminals—those who can use strong-arm means to sway the vote.
Seat by seat, block by block, this same process is repeated: a complex, multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that changes with every passing day as the nomination deadlines close in. Senior politicians’ homes and offices are besieged by potential candidates demanding “tickets”, supporters are rallied from constituencies, mobiles buzz continuously.
After the Mumbai attacks, we saw many states going to the polls. I have seen some of the post-poll interactions among senior politicians, both winners and losers. One was with a political scion. This young parliamentarian told me disparagingly, “Your columns with their elegant ideas, all the media talk about a new wave of development and governance—all romantic nonsense. We are still working the same political equations on the same age-old formulae. I can show you one district where I spent months bringing development to the areas and we won just one seat. And another district where we played the most cynical form of electoral politics and we won a majority of the seats.”
As we were talking, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, with minions and satraps milling around everywhere, people coming up and touching feet—the bazaar of Indian politics—one of the successful MLAs came up to listen to our conversation. After a few minutes, he enquired about me. When informed that I was a friend from the city, and of my background, he simply turned and walked away—a pointed signal of my insignificance.
Another experience was not so subtle. When sitting with a senior politician—different party, different state—a junior politician was introduced. He smiled at me politely and said, “Saab, aap to apni convent English mein development aur democracy ki baat karte hain. Kabhi to ek election lado, ek chunav jeeto. Phir baat karenge.” The message could not have been more direct—prove that you are relevant.
The truth is that Indian politics is unknown territory for most of the urban middle class. Placards and candles are fine for one or two days. And then what? We are far from being politically relevant today, despite all the churning that is happening in our hearts, despite all the heated debates we are having in our college canteens and corporate cafeterias and community centres.
The first rays of political awakening are becoming visible. Political relevance? A long, long way away.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org