Sunday, 5 January 2014

The middle class too sells its vote

In April 2011, anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, riding high on middle class adulation, made a seemingly pithy remark. Indian voters, he said, can be bought for as little as Rs 100, one saree or a bottle of alcohol. They don’t, he lamented, understand the value of their vote.
It was an odious remark directed specifically at voters at the bottom of the economic pile, those who lived below, at or just above the controversial Rs 32-a-day poverty line. But barring a few commentators who slammed it, the ordinary public were delighted by it. Absolutely spot on, they said. It is the vote-bank politics that panders to these people which is ruining the nation, they sneered. The politicians regularise their slums and illegal power and water connections, give them illegal ration cards, protect the goons and so on.
And then there was the sanctimonious posturing. We don’t do these illegal things; we are law-abiding. We don’t go running to those vile politicians to bail us out.
That claim has been effectively shattered by the sight of the well-off residents of Campa Cola housing society in Mumbai not allowing demolition teams to enter the complex to bring down illegal structures as ordered by the Supreme Court. No tear-jerking histrionics were spared to whip up public sympathy. Pressure was put on the local politicians. In doing all this, the Campa Cola residents behaved no differently from the slum dwellers for whom actress Shabana Azmi sat on a dharna several decades ago and was roundly reviled for doing so.
There are some who hold that this case cannot be compared to that of demolition of slums. But the merits of this particular case are not relevant. The point is that the middle class is no different from the unwashed masses when it comes to breaking laws and then trying to go scot free.
The Campa Cola case isn’t an isolated one. In 2006, in Ulhasnagar in Maharashtra, public pressure forced the government to issue an ordinance that regularised illegal buildings. That same year in Delhi, a drive against unauthorised buildings had people who were singing paeans to chief minister Shiela Dixit suddenly turn against her. They even wanted the Delhi Master Plan to be changed to make the constructions legal.
The middle class also likes to believe – and more than that it would like others to believe – that its members vote responsibly and cannot be bought off. Nothing could be further from the truth. The middle class are as liable – and willing – to being bribed for its votes as the poor. Except that the bribe in question is not rice at Rs 1 a kg or cookers, television sets, laptops (regularisation of unauthorised constructions is something both classes have in common, though); the stakes are much higher.
What else was the announcement in September of the constitution of the Seventh Pay Commission but a bribe to the middle class voter? Why do reservations in educational institutions and government jobs become an issue before every election (the latest being quotas in Central government jobs for Jats)? Who else but the middle class of the target communities will benefit from this? What makes the Aam Aadmi Party zero in on electricity bills as the key election issue in the Delhi assembly elections? The majority of the Delhi voters are from the middle class (and are perpetually averse to paying bills and taxes) and this issue has touched a chord with it.
Remember also that the middle class is not a single ethnic/caste/community bloc. So its members are part of community-specific vote-banks (Muslim, upper caste Hindu, OBC Hindu, Dalit Christians etc.) that politicians woo and successfully at that through sectarian give-aways and promises.
What is also conveniently forgotten is that many of the freebies that are given in the name of the poor – notably the fuel subsidies – actually benefit the middle class. That is why one will never see the middle class criticising the economically disastrous subsidies on cooking gas, petrol and diesel, even as they denounce the equally ruinous food subsidies for the poor. And the middle class is quite willing to barter its votes for getting its illegal constructions regularised. In 2000, then Union urban development minister Jagmohan was a hero when he demolished slums in Delhi; he became a villain when the demolition drive targeted encroachments and unauthorised constructions in middle class and upper middle class localities. The demolitions became a major issue in the municipal elections and Jagmohan, who had to face the ire of his own party, lost the 2004 elections. The party cadres, facing the wrath of the middle class, simply abandoned him.
The middle class is going to play a huge role in the coming elections – the assembly elections round the corner and the general elections next year. And the middle class will be wooed – as a group and community-specific sub-groups – by politicians with all manner of promises. There will also be demands that the middle class will come up with, which will be met to the extent they can. Is this wrong? No. In a democracy, these are par for the course. But let the middle class not take the moral high ground that it is above selling its vote like the despicable poorer sections do.

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