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Sanjaya Baru: Emerging Middle Class Nations

Caught between the rich and the poor, emerging India walks a diplomatic middle way.

Sanjaya Baru  |  New Delhi 

Caught between the rich and the poor, emerging India walks a diplomatic middle way.

Goodbye East-West. Goodbye North-South. Goodbye bipolar certainties. Hello G-20. Hello IBSA, and Hello multipolar uncertainties.

The first decade of the 21st century has been witness to the end of the bipolar and unipolar world of the previous century. Yes, there has been no radical restructuring of power relationships. The economies remain the “North” and the remain the “South”. remains the most powerful military machine and its missiles still point to the East.

But just as in any society the emergence of a middle class alters the nature of the rich-poor divide, so also in the world today a new middle class is altering the bipolarities of the past century. So what’s new? Even in the 20th century, there were “three” worlds — first, second and third. True. But the twin contradictions of the 20th century were between the first and the second world (East-West rivalry) and between the first and the third (North-South divide).

The “middle” of that era was not the second world but the “non-aligned” nations that were, in fact, a mix of both East and West and of North and South. On fundamental global issues, the non-aligned did not really have a unified position, even if they were able to act as a pressure group from time to time on one issue or another.

What is different about the early 21st century is, in fact, the emergence of the new middle — countries that are no longer poor and not yet rich, but big enough to make a difference to the way the world is run.

Many nomenclatures have been used to describe them, with varying degrees of accuracy and success. Some would say the nearly two-decade old term “emerging economies/markets” captured this phenomenon. Goldman Sachs may want to patent its term — for Brazil, Russia, India and China — that lie at the core of the new middle. More recently, at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, a new core croup was formed, dubbed — for Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The three democracies from this group have another platform called IBSA, which some view as the three “leaders” of the democracies of Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Even as new groups of the “non-rich”, “non-poor” middle class nations form and re-form, at the global level, the middle class have been invited to join the board of directors in the new entity called “Group of 20”. In the G-20, the new middle class — Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa among others — have an awkward dual role, they have to protect and project their own national interests even as they speak on behalf of the developing world.

In playing this role, they are bound to fall between two stools on occasions, as India did at Copenhagen. The options before India were: (a) strike a bargain with the rich, (b) champion the cause of the poor and (c) defend its own interests as a middle class power.

On purely bilateral or national security issues, India would be well advised to try strike bargains with the rich — as it did on the civil nuclear energy agreement. On international issues where India’s interests run parallel to other developing countries, it can successfully champion the latter’s cause, as it often does in multilateral financial organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in other economic organisations like the World Trade Organisation. However, where India’s interests are not necessarily aligned with either the rich or the poor but with those of emerging economies, it would naturally gravitate to new organisations like BRIC, and even G-20.

Managing this complex interplay of interests without being purely cynical and transparently self-seeking requires sophisticated diplomacy both at the professional and political level. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has proved to be a consummate diplomatic player who has helped India, an emerging “middle class” power, manage a changing and complex world, walking a middle path between the rich and the poor.

Critics of this new approach would, in fact, say that India is “abandoning” its role as a spokesperson of the developing world. Some critics of India’s stance at Copenhagen have, in fact, chided the prime minister for abandoning the in favour of BASIC. But such critics remain innocent of the ways of the world.

The fact is that the poor no longer need spokespersons and India’s self-proclaimed leadership is often mocked at. It gives Indian diplomats lots of opportunities to travel but rarely has India been able to “monetise” its global leadership, the way China is doing with its investment and aid.

While it is true that Karl Marx saw the middle class as providing leadership for an ill-organised poor, today’s poor are not as impressed by the stirring speeches of middle class leaders as they are by the opportunities offered by the rich.

So, at Copenhagen, the middle class BASIC nations could say all they liked in favour of the G-77, but it was the rich G-7 that was coughing up the money and buying up support. If India had, in fact, tried to become a leader at Copenhagen, it ran the risk of what happened to in Modern Times in that classic scene where he thought he was leading a working class protest till the procession came to a crossroads and, while he marched on, the crowd behind turned left and marched away.

The challenge before India is to keep its friends in the developing world while making new ones in the developed, even as it grows as a middle class power with interests of its own to protect and project.

First Published: Mon, December 28 2009. 00:52 IST