Dwarka, India — Shubhrangshu Barman Roy and his childhood friends are among the winners in India’s economic rise. They have earned graduate degrees, started small companies and settled into India’s expanding middle class. They sometimes take vacations together and meet for dinners or parties, maybe to celebrate a new baby or a new business deal.
Yet in August, Mr. Roy and his friends donned white Gandhi caps, boarded a Metro train in this fast-growing suburb of the Indian capital and rode into New Delhi like a band of revolutionaries to join the large anticorruption demonstrations led by the rural activist Anna Hazare. They waved Indian flags, distributed water to the crowds and vented their outrage at India’s political status quo.
“I could feel that people really wanted change,” Mr. Roy, 36, recalled proudly.
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It may seem unlikely that middle-class Indians would crave change. They mostly live in rapidly growing cities and can afford cars, appliances and other conveniences that remain beyond the reach of most Indians. Theirs is the fastest growing demographic group in the country, and their buying power is expected to triple in the next 15 years, making India one of the most important consumer markets in the world.
But buying power is not political power, at least not yet in India. The wealthier India has become, the more politically disillusioned many of the beneficiaries have grown — an Indian paradox. The middle class has vast economic clout yet often remains politically marginalized in a huge democracy where the rural masses still dominate the outcome of elections and the tycoon class has the ear of politicians.
Elsewhere in Asia, emerging middle classes once helped topple authoritarian governments in South Korea and Taiwan, as rising incomes brought demands for greater democratic rights — an equation still simmering in China. But India had democracy before it had vast wealth, and the dissatisfaction of the middle class here has focused on the failings of the country’s democratic institutions.
For several years, the question of what, if anything, could awaken the middle class has hovered over Indian politics. Often dismissed as apathetic toward electoral politics, the middle class sometimes seemed to have in effect seceded from the nation — living in private compounds, using private schools and hospitals, and showing little interest in voting — minimizing, when possible, its contact with the state.
“People have completely lost hope in all political parties and personalities,” said Arvind Kejriwal, a prominent activist and key adviser to Mr. Hazare. “They believe that every five years, you just change the faces and the parties but nothing is going to happen. There was a huge sense of despair.”
A generation ago, the Indian middle class was smaller and centered around civil servants who lived in government housing and sent their children to government schools. Today’s middle class is a creature of the economic reforms of the 1990s and is tightly wedded to the private sector. Its success is celebrated in Bollywood movies, and the Indian news media serve as a bullhorn for its views.
If the earlier middle class saw some politicians as heroes, idolizing Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, this middle class mostly regards politicians with contempt, placing more faith in business leaders or, in some cases, in nongovernmental organizations. Government is no longer regarded as a provider or enabler, but as an obstacle.
“This middle class is less about ‘what the state can do for me’ than ‘the state is preventing me from doing what I want to do,’ ” said Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Hazare movement rattled India’s political establishment because it offered a glimpse of what could happen if the middle class was mobilized across the country. Professionals and college students provided the organizational spine, and money, that brought hundreds of thousands of people of all backgrounds onto the streets in what many described as a political awakening.
Many analysts say that India needs a politically engaged middle class as a corrective force. Others are more skeptical, arguing that middle-class alienation is as much about caste as class — a backlash by upper castes against the rise of political parties representing the lower castes since the 1990s. And still others suggest that middle-class disgust with politicians stems from a lack of patience with the messy mechanics of democracy, an unrealistic desire for a Singaporean efficiency.
Mr. Roy and his friends say they have spent years focusing on their careers, acting mostly as spectators to politics, often as a jeering peanut gallery.
“We’ve been told since our childhoods, ‘Politics is bad, don’t get into politics,’ ” said Partho Nag, one of Mr. Roy’s friends. “But the point is that somebody has to clean it up. We can’t just scold people.”
‘Help Your Country’
In April, Mr. Roy was conducting a training seminar at an auto parts factory, ignoring the messages piling up on his cellphone. A business consultant, Mr. Roy clicked through PowerPoint slides as he lectured about 50 workers on topics like “operational excellence.” During a tea break, he scrolled through his messages, stopping cold at one from a friend.
“You shouldn’t be at work,” it read. “You should be here, trying to help your country rather than any company.”
“Here” was Jantar Mantar, the famous protest site near the Parliament building in New Delhi, where Anna Hazare was waging his initial hunger strike against corruption. Mr. Roy had not been paying attention to the news and knew almost nothing about Mr. Hazare. That night, he turned on his television and saw thousands of people rallying as Mr. Hazare, 74, campaigned against the government. He was jolted.
“I saw that he was doing his bit,” Mr. Roy said. “So I thought, ‘Let me do my bit.’ I’ve done nothing for the country. But I would love to do something.”
Mr. Roy and his friends, including Mr. Nag, had grown up in New Delhi in the same government housing development. They were all the sons of government bureaucrats who would later offer similar advice: Get a government job.
“He always insisted,” Mr. Nag recalled of his father’s prodding. “But we had an idea that a government job was too lousy.”
They were teenagers in the early 1990s when Indian leaders embarked on the reforms that began dismantling the stifling licensing regulations that had choked the economy. Private enterprise, large and small, would steadily emerge as the engine of Indian growth and the delivery vehicle of growing aspirations. Mr. Nag would open a small IT service firm. Two other friends would start a textile trading company. Mr. Roy would earn graduate degrees and start a consulting firm.
Politics often seems to saturate life in India, but it was mostly a sideshow for Mr. Roy and his friends. Mr. Roy was soured by his first taste of politics: after the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard, riots broke out and innocent Sikhs were killed, many set on fire, across northern India. The father of one of Mr. Roy’s friends was dragged onto the street and killed.
“I hated it,” he recalled. “From age 18 to 26, I never voted because I thought my vote wouldn’t change anything.”
In his professional life, Mr. Roy found an ideology he could believe in, the management philosophies of Toyota. His first job was with an Indian truck manufacturer that teamed up with the Japanese auto giant. “I was blown away,” he said. “I decided I wanted to use these Japanese practices.”
He went to business school and began reading books by management gurus like Shigeo Shingo and James P. Womack. He wrote a 300-page thesis on reforming Indian education and eliminating corruption by using, in part, Japanese management philosophies.
He married, had a son and settled in Dwarka, a planned suburb that is part of New Delhi. Politics remained something his circle complained about over dinners, if studiously did not participate in — until Mr. Hazare.
Mr. Hazare’s April hunger strike forced the government into negotiations over a proposed anticorruption agency, known as the Lokpal. After those negotiations collapsed, Mr. Hazare, who is based in the western state of Maharashtra, returned to New Delhi in August for a new hunger strike, sparking demonstrations across the country. This time, Mr. Roy and his friends rushed to support him. Mr. Hazare fasted for 12 days before the government accepted some of his key demands. Mr. Roy rejoiced.
“At least when I grow old, I can say that when that historic moment happened, I was there,” he said.
Paying the Water Bill
No one likes corruption, yet the Hazare movement raised a question: Why did the middle class mobilize on this issue?
Dissecting and defining the middle class is an obsession in the Indian news media, yet analysts warn against depicting it as a homogenous group or equating it economically with middle classes in the West. Estimates of the group’s size range from 30 million to 300 million people, while incomes also vary widely. India’s poor have been the hardest hit by rising inflation, yet inflation has also deepened the anxieties of the middle class, including many of those who joined the Hazare protests.
As a group, the middle class has often seemed unmoved by India’s many social problems, more determined to remain secluded inside the comfort of its self-spun cocoon. India’s poor would seem more vulnerable to exploitation because they lack the economic power to protect themselves. One reason for middle class discontent can be found on the narrow street outside Mr. Roy’s home in Dwarka. Real estate has become an engine of Indian growth, underpinning rising urban affluence, even as it has become, more than ever, a locus of official corruption. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Roy pointed to a crude asphalt scar in the road where workers had installed an underground water connection. The scar extended along the road toward Mr. Roy’s house, only to abruptly turn left in the direction of another building.
“You see this?” he asked, angrily. “This is a connection that comes here, but it is illegal.”
For Mr. Roy, the scar in the street marks the corruption and collusion and the failure of the state to deliver on its end of India’s social contract. His family is supposed to get water from a legal connection for $4 a month. Except that water is unusable. For years, his father had paid a fee to fill large jugs from a private water tanker — until his father slipped while carrying one of them.
Mr. Roy then spent about $1,000 to build an underground water storage tank beside his home. Now, every week a tanker delivers a $30 shipment of water into the tank, while Mr. Roy also buys bottled water for drinking, bringing his monthly bill to about $160. Mr. Roy suspects that local officials, rather than correcting the situation, allow it to continue in exchange for kickbacks from the owners of the private water tankers. In the end, though, he pays.
These tales of petty graft proliferate across India, but especially in cities, analysts say, for the simple reason that cities now have more money.
McKinsey Global Institute, a consulting group, has estimated that India’s middle class could grow to nearly 600 million people by 2030. Today, nearly three-quarters of India’s gross domestic product comes from cities, where less than a third of India’s population lives, an imbalance that correlates with the divide between middle-class economic and political power.
“For politicians, the city has primarily become a site of extraction, and the countryside is predominantly a site of legitimacy and power,” Ashutosh Varshney, an India specialist at Brown University, wrote recently. “The countryside is where the vote is; the city is where the money is. Villages do have corruption, but the scale of corruption is vastly greater in cities.”
Mr. Roy found himself more drawn to Mr. Hazare partly because Mr. Hazare became a beacon for civil society figures who were filling the vacuum created by a weak government. Mr. Kejriwal, one Hazare loyalist, is well known for his role in the freedom of information movement that established a constitutional right for citizens to obtain government documents. Another adviser, Kiran Bedi, famous as the first woman in India’s elite police civil service, became a social activist after getting sidelined in her career as a police reformer.
“She was the one who could have changed the system,” Mr. Roy said. “But she was the one thrown out of the system.”
That has led to a striking dissonance: Recent polls show that middle-class and college-age respondents are optimistic about their long-term economic future and that of the country, yet are deeply pessimistic about the state of politics and political parties. They are proud of India yet disgusted with Indian politics.
A Lasting Engagement?
On Sept. 28, a month after Mr. Hazare ended his fast, a group of Hazare volunteers gathered around a young lawyer named Rishikesh Sharma as he pointed across Parliament Street at a columned, whitewashed New Delhi police station. They were preparing to march onto the station grounds and ask officers to sign pledges refusing to accept bribes.
“This is a regular government department,” Mr. Sharma said, reassuringly. “Since their salaries are paid with taxes we pay to the government, we have every right to pose questions about how it is being run.”
The station house protest was one of the events organized in recent weeks to keep the Hazare movement energized and the middle class engaged. As much as the government, the Hazare team had been startled by the huge outpouring during the August protests and has since tried to deepen its connection with the middle class.
“It’s really important to keep them,” said Prashant Bhushan, a Hazare adviser, in an interview in September. “This movement is not only about corruption and the Lokpal. This movement has acquired a deeper dimension of seeking to change the whole system.”
The question now is whether the middle-class activism is merely an outburst of discontent or the makings of a movement. In the past month, the Hazare team has waded into certain parliamentary races as part of a campaign to press the governing Congress Party on passage of a final Lokpal bill — even as it has struggled with internal squabbling. Recently, Mr. Hazare distanced himself from Mr. Bhushan over comments he made about the restive region of Kashmir. Ms. Bedi has also come under attack for her handling of airplane tickets for speaking engagements.
The disagreements underscore the movement’s lack of ideological coherence: Some critics have been suspicious because of the support given to Mr. Hazare by right-wing Hindu groups. At the same time, Mr. Bhushan is a left-leaning, vocal critic of the 1991 economic liberalization policies — the policies credited with helping to create today’s middle class.
For now, Mr. Roy is drawn to Mr. Hazare because of his rectitude more than any ideological kinship. Mr. Roy’s group has made a personal pledge to no longer pay bribes. It is also running a small nongovernmental organization to help students at a school in Uttar Pradesh state. Mr. Roy does not expect quick change on corruption, or his water situation, but he does think India’s economic beneficiary class now must engage in politics, too.
“We have complained enough.”
Sruthi Gottipati, Nikhila Gill and Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.