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Vivek Dehejia: Middle-class revolutions, again

AAP's rise mirrors the rise of similar movements in history, and each case reflects the role of a politically energised middle class

Vivek Dehejia 

Vivek Dehejia

To many observers of the Indian scene, the rise of the (AAP) is nothing less than a cataclysm, upending settled assumptions about the upcoming general as a contest between the and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Yet, one's genuine enthusiasm over the arrival of a fresh voice in our national political discourse should not blind us to the fact that, far from being a uniquely Indian event, the rise of mirrors the rise of similar movements across time and space, in each case reflecting the role of a politically energised middle class.

Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Wall Street Journal, contends that protest movements around the world share a common theme: the emergence of what he dubs "a new global middle class". Fukuyama argues that "political protest has been led not by the poor but by young people with higher-than-average levels of education and income. They are technology-savvy and use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to broadcast information and organise demonstrations. Even when they live in countries that hold regular democratic elections, they feel alienated from the ruling political elite".

Fukuyama was commenting on street protests in Turkey and Brazil last summer, but his remarks could apply equally to more recent protests in Ukraine and, indeed, to the rise of in India. Nor is fuelled protest, resulting in the emergence of new social movements and political parties (much as grew out of the Anna Hazare agitation for a Lok Pal), a recent phenomenon.

So long as there has been a middle class - which, roughly speaking, grows out of industrialisation and modern economic development, making it an eighteenth and nineteenth century phenomenon in Europe and of more recent provenance in the rest of the world - it is this social group that has spearheaded most, if not all, protest movements and, indeed, social and political revolutions.

From the American and French revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, through the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, then the Russian and Chinese revolutions in the twentieth century, and on into our own time, the catalyst is common: a disaffected middle class railing against the ills of an established political and social order. Indeed, the parallels are even more striking, as the spark of revolution is often struck when the excesses and degeneration of the old political elite - whether manifesting as corruption, cronyism, or poor governance - reach a point of ignition: and the torchbearers of that revolution are, invariably, the newly risen urban bourgeoisie.

Further, the disaffection of the middle class with the existing political order, in turn, reflects what the late Samuel Huntington referred to as "the gap": the distance between the expectations of the middle class - whether in terms of economic development or of social and political empowerment - and the depressing actuality of its lot in the face of an unresponsive and intransigent system.

This middle class dissatisfaction at unfulfilled aspirations is often popularly referred to as the "revolution of rising expectations". This concept helps explain, for instance, why the Arab Spring began in relatively prosperous Tunisia, not in its poorer neighbours in North Africa or the middle east.

Yet, as Fukuyama rightly observes, while the middle class can be instigators of political change, they very rarely, if ever, are able to carry out meaningful and long-lasting political reform without forging coalitions with other groups within society - typically, the urban proletariat and the rural peasantry. This is because, in most times and places where such revolutions have broken out, the middle class simply is not large enough numerically, and, therefore, lacks the political mass to effect change on its own.

An exemplary case is the 1848 revolutions in Europe, a turning point in history at which, in the famous phrase of the late A J P Taylor, "history failed to turn". The revolutionaries, intellectual children of the American and French revolutions, were able to unseat monarchs, yet they were unable to win crucial buy-in from other groups, and hence failed to consolidate their political gains.

Within a few years, or less, the old autocrats (or parvenus eager to replace them) were able to re-establish power, by outmanoeuvring, or in some instances co-opting, the new middle class. In France, for example, King Louis Philippe was deposed, but following a shambolic republican interregnum, Emperor Napoleon III was crowned. Kingdom to empire was paved, thus, by a failed revolution.

Even more intriguingly, revolutionaries (usually, again, when they represent a minority of the populace) have, themselves, shown an autocratic streak, when democracy fails to deliver the models of governance that they have sought. In Chile, in the 1970s, for instance, the military coup and subsequent brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet drew support from the middle class, which, rightly or wrongly, valued economic development (or, more precisely, economic policies favourable to the middle class) over political liberty. While fraying at the edges, continuing middle-class support for the autocratic rule of the Communist Party in China, likewise, has a similar explanation.

Will India's own "middle class revolution" similarly fizzle or be co-opted? Time will tell.

The author is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and is co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India (Random House India, 2012)

First Published: Mon, January 20 2014. 21:48 IST