The Indian Middle Class: Straddling the Worlds of Morality and Amorality
Indu Agnihotri, Newsclick, August 24, 2011
There is a need to recognize that the issue of fighting corruption touches the heart of the Indian people. Even as we witness new exposes on the undercurrents of the discourse on public morality, the mass of Indian people are seething with anger. Given their daily struggle in the face of unprecedented food inflation and rising costs of living the groundswell of public anger should not be surprising. The people do not fail to see the irony of their own plight with the striking affluence of the elite classes, who attain new mileposts in discovering ever so fresh ways to increase their profits through influence over policy and decision making, while taking recourse to corrupt practices. Some time ago urban India watched with bated breath the public disclosure of how ministerial berths were negotiated by high profile individuals who sought to intervene virtually in the nature of commissioning agents. The duplicity of running for public office in the lust for private gain never stood out more sharply.
No one in India would question the need to address the hydra-headed genie of corruption in India. What is particularly awe- inspiring is that the extent and level of corruption has today left no aspect of public life untouched. But more alarming is the manner in which it impinges on the daily life of the people, virtually drawing each one into its clutches.
While the Anna Hazare team is focusing on corruption in public life as a facet of a governance crisis, there are in fact different faces of corruption. While features of corruption in the political -public sphere continue to dominate the debate we would be naïve to put a veil on other aspects, which in fact are deeply imbricated and which should be brought into the discourse on public morality and ethics.
At the same time, the correlation that the Indian media is drawing between this rising public anger and its expression through the mode of civil society platforms needs to be put under the scanner. Like in the case of other movements, there is a need to ask who is protesting and against what? What is the alternative or solution being posited and by what means? Are the proposed solutions, such as the Jan Lokpal Bill capable of providing alternative and better means of governance and by what manner would the present hazards/ ills be taken care of/ addressed. Moreover, how far the corporate media, which is backing Anna to the hilt, is itself free from the taint of corrupt practices remains a moot issue?
Last week, the Zee TV sponsored popular show, Sa re Ga Ma, featured Team Anna in a double whammy… an anti corruption - independence day special. Patriotism and morality rubbed shoulders with the world of corporate- backed glamour. Nobody raised questions about the inherent tensions in this strange alliance between corporate- sponsored patriotism and, the Bollywood backed Hindi music industry. While the first stands thoroughly exposed for being party to corrupt practices to get past the regime of laws and monitoring mechanisms which were sought to be put in place even as the so-called ‘license Raj ‘ was dismantled, the latter is only too well- known for its dubious involvement and deep entanglements generally referred to as ‘links with the underworld.’
Not surprisingly, the Sa re Ga Ma programme featured children, along with successful stalwarts from the contemporary music world. The target was clearly children and the middle class. Both invoke a certain kind of helpless and innocence. A no-politics zone, in a society which sees itself as mired in problems primarily due to politics, more so at a time when the media is out to taint the political class, by ascribing to it the most vile of intentions. The shrill voice against corruption is very much part of the ‘spiritual’ trip that the middle class is on since the early and mid 1990s,when it became clear that the only way to achieve individual ambition was to shut yourself away from ‘higher’ goals which could, in a sense, be achieved only on a collective basis.
That brings us to the question we need to ask: has the Indian middle class finally found a cause that it identifies with? Has it managed to cross the lakshman rekha, separating it from the untiring and committed efforts of the ‘secular- left jhola brigade,’ as the media chose to caricature it? Has it finally realized that its own identification and obsession with material prosperity as opposed to what it saw as misplaced idealism was misplaced?
After all, what kept this middle class apart and aloof for the last several decades of activism , in the post –emergency regime, from nearly two generations ofnationalists/socialists/communists? From those who sacrificed their careers to contribute to building a nation which would distinguish and demarcate between imperialism and self reliant India and, hopefully, choose the latter; which would opt for more sustainable lifestyles so that corruption and other socio-political distortions, which breed discontent, could be kept at bay. These efforts, it was hoped, would make way for more planned interventions at the level of society and economy so that inequalities could be kept in check.
The fact is that there was no dearth of icons or alternatives but middle class India shunned programmatic alternatives even as it chased imported solutions, and items, galore. In its eagerness to chase its own individual dreams, it rejected collective efforts, as well as the thesis that poverty and inequality act as breeding ground for crime, and corruption and fundamentalism. In fact the only time middle class women and youth ‘spontaneously’ poured out on to the streets was in the early 1990s, when they took up cudgels against the Mandal Commission recommendations to argue that merit and competition were being sacrificed in the name of reservations and social justice. The posters carried by women students, announcing that ‘we do not want unemployed husbands’ or the youth leaders’ symbolic act of shining shoes on the streets, made obvious their lack of knowledge and affinity with everyday histories of oppression, denial and exclusion in the society that they were a part of. The resistance to reservations persists even as the capitation fees/ paid seats and other practices continue to be exposed now and then.
So what is it that has now finally ‘inspired the youth,’ at the present juncture?
Team Anna’s biggest selling point is that it has no collective goals except a statement of good intentions. This is backed by individual claims to assert moral power, against all and sundry. This individual self- righteousness is the ideal soul-mate for a society which identifies with ‘the people’ as an undifferentiated mass. It talks of the nation, even as it refrains from defining it; it gives a clarion call against corruption, even as it fails to identify the fountain head of corruption in liberalized India; it raises the slogan of Inquilab, without venturing into any debate about the nature of change or the underlying politics of social movements; it chants Bharat Mata ki Jai, while glossing over the fact that people can be deeply religious and yet harbor latent hostilities with regard to ‘others;’ so much so that some would even justify killings of these so called ‘others,’ as in 1984 or in 2002. Presumably, all are not equal nor equally part of the ‘people.’
This middle class wants to move forward, with apparently honest intentions. But it would rather not face any uncomfortable questions. It professes a commitment to change, without spelling out what and how it will change. It asserts the need to put into place a mechanism to stem corruption, even as it seeks to by –pass the institutional processes which may be required to put such a mechanism into place. It has little time and patience to put into place constitutional mechanisms through democratic process.
Independent India has seen many clarion calls for such change and against corruption. But Team Anna’s USP lies in their ability to invoke history –such as claiming the mantle of being a Gandhian—even as they erase it at other levels. Team Anna does not enter into a debate on mundane issues, such as the nature and path of development; or the ideological content of social movements. It is this focus on protesting on the here and now, on an ‘as is where is’ basis which suits neo-liberal middle class India. The ‘ask no questions and seek no answers’ approach hints at the comfort zone that the middle class seeks to create for itself.
Anna’s movement seeks to cement the alliance of the middle class’ professed allegiance to upholding morality in public life, even as it compromises with those who perpetuate it in everyday life on a regular basis. It is this class which embraces a hideously obscene consumerist lifestyle, in a routine sense. It espouses the spin-off effects of the neo-liberal order, without raising questions about its effects and growing social inequalities. It adapts to changing norms of social interaction, even as it shies away from questioning the deep roots of segregation, exclusion and discrimination.
If team Anna really wishes to root out corruption, it should target not only the Prime Minister and his colleagues, but also the everyday acts of corruption, by which such practices gain social acceptance.
Consider for example, the most rampant socially accepted and legitimate practice which propels corruption from the lowest to the highest level. Why does team Anna not, for instance, ask questions as to how the marriage economy flourishes in perfect tandem with the black money economy or what contributes to ever-rising rates for dowry in urban and rural India? How ‘upar ki aamdani’ is a major consideration while fixing marriages within the arranged marriage network, or, that dowry- giving or taking would not be possible if the middle class did not acquiesce in corruption in everyday life. Every family which participates in the system of finding an arranged match for their daughter and its concomitant of lavish marriages virtually gets sucked into the system of corruption which is doubly made socially legitimate by a consciousness that is summed up in comments such as well, what could the poor fellow do, he has ‘x’ number of daughters to marry off…’ The fact remains that as the women’s movement has tried to assert over and again, dowry and caste based arranged marriages point to a deeper social malaise. The political class and the elite have been only too happy participating in the great tamasha of the Indian wedding and participating in the photo-ops galore, be it the star –studded weddings of well known media houses or industrialists. If the argument for the indefinite fast is that the Lokpal bill has been pending for several decades, it may well be asked as to what for instance, has prevented the Dowry Prohibition Act from being implemented leave alone question the interest behind repeated attempts to dilute laws related to crimes against women?
While claiming the mantle of a Gandhi, Anna and his followers may do well to remember that Gandhi’s success lay in his combining the strategy of challenging the might of the British Empire with aspects of change which began from the home. It is the absence of this social content or meaning in the slogan of anti –corruption that Anna has raised which appeals to the middle class India in India, which is ever so happy moralizing on the loss of values of others even as it basks in trespassing humaneness on an everyday basis. Like the proponents of the neo-liberal order who see ‘growth’ as a one stop formula to fix structural issues of constraints on development while asserting that its benefits reach all, Team Anna and their supporters project ‘corruption’ at the top as the solution to all of India’s ills. It is this which appeals to the middle class, which wants to wish away caste, or class differences; which would rather look the other way when communal riots happen; which does not ask why the fruits of development reach only a few, while others lose out even on basics such as the right to food. It is easy and simpler to identify the enemy while keeping oneself out of its critical gaze.
Corruption in contemporary India is all pervasive. It makes pathways for those who can pay, where none exist; it can buy security to those who have much to fear and even more to lose; it buys comforts for the leisure class, while the working people struggle to survive. Corruption too is a luxury which the rich can afford. The fact is that those who are unsuccessful at handling corruption are amongst the ones who remain poor. But when these very poor try to resort to reaching out to what is theirs too, eyebrows are raised and the law swings into action.
The fact is that the ethics of the corrupt underlie the sociological categories on which our definition of citizenship rests today. It is these definitions which define the policies which in turn guide the Planning Commission’s interventions in public policy. These lay down the parameters of the Government of India’s inter-face with its highly differentiated citizens as being poor, extremely poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and so on. The very definitional and procedural processes propel and generate their own forms of corruption.
The present day champions of the anti-corruption wave need to examine how modern growth patterns are blurring the distinction between ethics, morality and social goals; how, over the years, patriotism has come to be equated with building private fortunes; and, how individualistic goals are projected or translated as growth and success, while pitting social change against merit and competition. Corruption finds its roots in ties of bondage, which operate differently in a free market society and tells you that it is wise to lose your social moorings so long as your career graph continues to rise. It is this aspect of crossing the line between morality and amorality which poses the real challenge. It is this which ought to also draw the attention of those crusading today. Till that happens we may need to watch against the plunging of our country into newer depths of a moral crisis, even as its people struggle in their daily lives in times which pose moral dilemmas at the most fundamental level. To live or not to live, this is the question people are forced to seek an answer to, each in their own way. More so in times when the custodians of their trust abdicate all responsibility so as to pursue the politics of power, even as the media chooses to further obfuscate the very instruments and power of politics.