Much media space is being consumed by whether the middle-class origins and loyalties of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption crusaders de-legitimise the movement by underscoring its ties to the selfish interests of an already privileged elite. Team Anna stands accused of focusing on an “easy” issue like corruption, while shying away from the rapacious injustices suffered by hundreds of millions of less visible Indians from dispossessed tribals to ignored minorities in the north east.
Historically, the middle classes have been agents of change and democratisation. In the West, the rise of the bourgeoisie was inextricably linked to wider political participation and the growth of more representative forms of government. But rather than the European middle class in the 19th century, a more germane point of comparison for the Hazare-movement lies north of the Himalayas, in Asia’s other fast-changing colossus: China. In both China and India, economic liberalisation has spawned a new and growing middle class, with a substantially similar temperament: urban, relatively wealthy, consumption-oriented and nationalistic.
The cold fact is that in China as in India, the aspirations and needs of the middle class are sometimes in dissonance with those of peasants and migrant workers. Were China to hold democratic elections tomorrow, the 700 million peasants in the country would likely vote for policy priorities different from or even opposed to those suiting the interests of city-based professionals and business people.
The Chinese bourgeoisie thus, have in-built resistance to a scenario that would place them on the same political footing as their less educated and rough-edged compatriots from the countryside.
Similarly in India, the politics of identity and social justice that has characterised much of politics for the last few decades tends to evoke either lamentation or apathy amongst the educated middle class, for whom the actions of the poor in voting in “illiterate” and corrupt politicians simply because of caste or community allegiance are abhorrent.
What the middle classes on both sides of the Himalayas have in common is an impatience with poverty and a comfort level with certain authoritarian tendencies. There was scarcely an Indian businessman in China I met during my seven years in Beijing who did not speak admiringly of the ability of the Chinese government to “get things done”.
“It’s what these Indians really need,” spat out one small business owner from Mumbai, “the danda (stick). That's the only language they understand. The contempt implicit in the use of the word "Indian" by the man in question did not imply that he considered himself a foreigner. It was merely drawing a distinction between the undisciplined and lazy Indian worker and the upwardly mobile, “normal” middle class elite.
Whether it was Beijing's ability to grab land from peasants for special economic zones, its capacity to keep its cities largely free of slums and their malodorous inhabitants, or its penchant for dealing with more egregious economic crimes with the odd execution (for example in 2007, the former head of the Chinese food and drug safety, watchdog, Zheng Xiaoyu, was put to death for corruption), actions that have the Western middle classes up in arms, many amongst India's urban elite covertly or openly envy China its freedom to take action, unhampered by the voting poor.
Anna’s supporters may be more benign, but there are, nonetheless, authoritarian undertones in their resistance to any debate when it comes to devising prescriptions to the problem of corruption.
However, despite the fact that they might have autocratic leanings that are less than inclusive and on occasion may even be at odds with the interests of the poor, the mobilisation of the middle classes is a forceful check on governmental abuse and impunity, be it in one-party China or “democratic” India.
In China, the urban and technologically networked have come together powerfully and often to demand change and force the government to back down. Only this month, 12,000 or more protestors marched in the well-to-do, north eastern city of Dalian, calling for the removal of a new factory that makes a toxic chemical used in polyester products.
Wealthy and educated enough to know and care about the long-term impact of environmental pollution, this was only the latest in a series of similar protests in which the mainland's middle classes have taken on the government. The most prominent example was a 2007 movement where government plans to construct a chemical plant in the port city of Xiamen were frozen after thousands of residents joined in opposition through a flood of mobile phone text messages.
As in India, the Chinese middle classes tend to reserve their ire and energy for specific issues that impact their own lives rather than press for a fundamental overhaul of the system. Unsurprisingly, since it is the current system that has given birth to them and under which they have flourished.
This may be an imperfect system which allows for the continued repression and disenfranchisement of many. But at the same time, it has engendered a larger and more upwardly mobile middle class than existed before. The reason Anna’s supporters care is because they believe things can get better, having experienced this betterment themselves. Middle-class activism is therefore an expression of optimism as much as frustration.
Anna's supporters, ironically for a Gandhian leader, might be more consumers than citizens in the conventional sense, their passions fuelled by the new capitalist-paradigm that has empowered them. They might not always have the most egalitarian or noble of motives. But nonetheless, the heightened consciousness both of specific problems (be it corruption or environmental distress) as well as of their own capacity to affect change that middle-class movements in India and China create in their wake is a force for good.
Expecting better, cleaner and safer delivery of public goods is to the benefit of the whole nation. Corruption affects the toiling millions of India, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes, as much as the urban elite just as the health and safety of the environment in China are not the sole concern of its middle class. And in both Beijing and New Delhi, middle-class protest forces governments to respond, disrupting the immunity from scrutiny that power has traditionally brought in common to these countries, regardless of their differing political systems.
(The writer, Business Standard's Europe correspondent, is the author of Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China)