Saturday, 5 February 2005

Why doesn’t the urban middle class vote?

On 3 February, Haryana went to polls. What was interesting this time was that the residents of the new housing colonies in the glitzy part of Gurgaon formed their own party – Gurgaon Residents’ Party (GRP) – and fielded a candidate. A majority of these people come from the affluent upper middle class, who view politics as a cesspool and will not have anything to do with it barring drawing room conversations and exercising one’s vote. The fact that they formed a party and contested the elections, albeit with one candidate, is a significant step forward.

But what happened on polling day? The voter turnout in New Gurgaon was a measly 40 per cent or less. In one polling booth, there were only 173 people who cast their vote. Now, I’m guessing that some of this could have to do with the fact that many of the residents of New Gurgaon may have moved in very recently or are still registered as voters in other parts of the country. But that would be a small number.
It’s become fashionable to berate the urban middle class (both upper and middle) for not being more dutiful citizens. But few will try and analyse why the urban middle class behaves the way it does.

For some idea about the reason, here’s an article you should read. It’s called `Upper middle class seceding from India’ and was written by TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan. Here’s the link: It’s an excellent piece.
I will just quote two passages from there, but you will need to read the whole article to understand the import of what TCA is saying.

“The combined effect of these two developments on our society has been dramatic. The economic strength has meant the enlargement of the middle classes and the controlled political chaos has meant their gradual disengagement from the political process. The voter turnout is a quick indicator of the underlying attitude.”

“The political issue is whether a country with a disengaged middle class can look after its institutions of democracy and governance. These institutions require a high level of commitment, and the fact that this commitment is being eroded is evident in the decline of our institutions.”

I think the reason why the urban middle class does not vote or engage with politics more actively is because it faces a crisis of choice. There is no party that represents their voice. Let me elaborate from a personal perspective. Actually it’s not very personal and I have found many of people of my generation and from a similar socio-economic background feeling the same.

My political awakening came during and just after the Emergency, around the time I was finishing school and joined college. Obviously, we couldn’t but oppose the Congress, which embodied everything that was bad about Indian politics – dictatorship, dynasty, lack of principles and values, the lumpenisation of politics (represented by Sanjay Gandhi’s goons and the Youth Congress riff-raff). For those not enamoured of the Left, it was the Janata Party that was the preferred party. And though our admiration for the Janata Party was shaken in the wake of the developments in 1979, something within us revolted at the thought of voting for or supporting the Congress.

Soon the disillusionments with the non-Congress parties began to increase, as the heroes of the Emergency chose personal aggrandisement over principles. The BJP was formed in 1980 but no one seriously reacted to it. It was just another star in the anti-Congress galaxy. The National Front experiment revived our hopes of an era of value-based principled politics but it was like the last burst of light from a dying flame. The election violence in Meham orchestrated by deputy prime minister Devi Lal’s party and the government’s refusal to take action, L K Advani’s rath yatra, the crude antics of those who claimed to be inspired by JP. And then, the Mandal issue. That was perhaps the last straw.

I didn’t exercise my vote in 1991. I couldn’t bring myself to.

1991 was a watershed. The Congress that came to power seemed to have put the dynasty and the socialist legacy behind it. We started looking at it in a new light. But we found that the party hadn’t gotten over the dynasty.
Corruption, communalism, casteism and criminalisation became the new leitmotifs of Indian politics. There was no room for values, principles, ideology. That’s when I decided to start voting for individuals and not parties. The choice got narrowed down to candidates from the Congress and BJP. The rest had rendered themselves absolutely irrelevant and were speaking in an outdated idiom I couldn’t relate to. Yet I resented having to choose between these two parties.

Right now there is no party that resonates for me. No party is interested in appealing to me or to the socio-economic group I come from.

The Congress may have improved in some ways and there are a lot of people in the party I respect a great deal but its continued belief in the divine right of the Gandhi family to rule is abhorrent to me. The sycophancy seems to have plumbed to disgusting levels. But I am told it is not an issue for the vast majority of the people in the interiors of the country.

So I look towards the BJP. For me, its championing of economic reforms and its bijli-sadak-pani slogan were a refreshing change from the mai-baap attitude of the previous governments. It too has a number of people whom I have a lot of respect for. And it seemed to have put the fuddy-duddy Jan Sangh behind it. But it became a Congress clone and I also come up against its Hindutva agenda. Though I will take on critics of the BJP who adopt double standards when hitting out at the party (more of that in a later article), I am uncomfortable with its sectarian appeal. I cannot relate to a party that rationalises the Babri Masjid demolition or does a knee jerk reaction to the arrest of the Shankaracharya. But I am told that the BJP does not bother if people like me agree with it or not. We are, after all, not its constituency.

The sundry regional parties and the non-Congress, non-BJP parties aren’t bothered about me and I don’t want to have anything to do with them.

And then there is this whole attitude to economic reforms. `It has benefited only the urban middle classes. They don’t represent the real India,’ is the refrain. The aam admi is the one who counts, we are told, not the urban, English-speaking middle classes. Those who opposed the BJP thought they were mocking that party when they said India was shining only in the metros. They didn’t realise that they were mocking people like me as well.

For every political party, people like me are a minority who can be ignored. And then they complain when people like me don’t vote.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.

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