29 July, 2021

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Democracy & The Middle-Class

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

In 2019 Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption activist who almost brought the Manmohan Singh government down in 2011, cried foul: “The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] used me.” Narendra Modi swamped the Lok Sabha with a clear majority in 2014 thanks in large part to Hazare’s campaign against the Congress regime. Hazare first emerged in 2011, when he attempted to exert pressure to implement more stringent anti-corruption legislation. With its unenviable track record on corruption, the Singh government produced a massive oppositional backlash against it from the ranks of India’s civil society, with Hazare at the forefront.

The irony of Hazare embarking on another anti-government campaign eight years later does not seem to have been lost on anybody. In its first few outbursts the Hazare campaign had been devoid of politics, and indeed had defined itself by its opposition to politics. It divided commentators, with some praising it for taking a principled stance against the Singh regime and others arguing that, on one hand, it threatened to destabilise or delegitimize an elected government and, on the other, it resorted to fascist tactics.

Arundhati Roy authored a searing critique of the protests in which she highlighted the blind spot in them: how come Hazare, protesting vociferously for an Ombudsman for corruption, was sidestepping more important issues, such as farmers’ suicides? “By demonising only the Government,” she noted, “they [the protestors] have built themselves a pulpit from which to call for the further withdrawal of the State from the public sphere.”

This latter critique is important, if not interesting. In Hazare’s opposition to politics, the very systems and structures on which representative democracy operates, she sees the posturing of an anti-statist hellbent on reducing the powers of the government. For what purpose? It’s not as though Hazare himself was politically colourless: he had made statements in support of no less than Narendra Modi, during the latter’s term as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. And it’s not as though those thronging in support of Hazare’s protest campaigns were politically colourless either: some of them even worked as government bureaucrats. Though she didn’t explicitly acknowledge or mention it, it was clear these campaigns masked certain interests which coexisted with other interests, yet predominated over them. Being anti-political, even if populist and class-blind as Partha Chatterjee saw it, had not prevented them from being hijacked by a certain view of politics, indeed of democracy.

I like to define this view as mostly, though not exclusively, middle-class. I realise the pitfalls of identifying it with a particular class, especially since it’s hard to define this one: just who, or what, is middle-class in this part of the world? An advertising executive I met three years ago tried to be helpful: there were four middle-classes as far as Sri Lankan and South Asian society went, and they were traditional, aspiring, super/urban, and emerging. But even this is problematic, not least because as far as categories are concerned, there are actually two ways of looking at, and classifying, them: objectivist, or based on criteria like income levels, and subjectivist, or based on perceptions of status and position. Regardless of these niceties and finer distinctions, however, for the purpose of explaining their attitude towards politics, I limit the middle-class in Hazare’s and Sri Lanka’s case to those who use human capital, not just their intellectual capacity but also their physical strength, to earn a living.

Much of the literature on the role of this middle-class in democratisation focuses on the link between economic aspiration and political reform. That “structural linkage” assumes that as an economy develops, authoritarianism will wither away, thanks to the rise of an educated, professional, meritocratic stratum.

Although the empirical evidence collected thus far is not enough to establish this view as a fact, the assumption has been accepted as such for more than a century. It traces its origins to the influential work of Seymour M. Lipset, who saw economic growth as a precondition of democratisation and argued that far from fostering political liberalisation, the working class served to hinder it. In other words, the class most benefitted from growth, which would by default and over time stand up for democracy, was the middle-class.

Lipset’s observation suffers from two major limitations. The first is obvious: it’s limited, for the most, to the experience of Western liberal democracies of the mid-20th century. To put that simply, it is limited by time, space, and historical context. The second is as significant: it endorses a centre-right if not right-leaning position that is anti-working class (Lipset viewed the proletariat as authoritarian). In other words, not only is his study contextually limited, it is also shaped by his ideological convictions. But Lipset’s hypotheses about the link between middle-class aspiration and political liberalisation have been taken at face value by scholars, activists, and NGOs the world over, from New York to New Delhi. 

Even those academics who have pointed out Lipset’s contextual and ideological biases tend to harbour contextual and ideological biases of their own. Much of the work which provides an alternative account of middle-class involvement in political democratisation focuses on the East Asian and South-East Asian experience. At first glance, the shift to this region makes sense: the transition from Third World to First in the economies of Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan did not mirror a transition from autocracy to democracy. Indeed, as Lee Kuan Yew put it to Fergus Bordewich, political autocracy and one-party rule encouraged Singapore’s middle bourgeoisie to favour honest government over party politics. 

But India is not Singapore, just as Singapore is not the US. The dynamics and the optics are different. It is important to account for these differences if we are to formulate a proper, cohesive account of whether, and to what extent, middle-class growth in South Asia has, or has not, widened democracy. Certainly, the middle-class in this part of the world has grown and continues to grow, as it has and is elsewhere else. As a percentage of the population Sri Lanka lags behind India: 28 percent there, less than five percent here. But in terms of their assertiveness, not much of a gulf exists; they share roughly the same characteristics, above all by how different they are to their East Asian counterparts.

An alternative account of their fragile relationship with democracy, indeed their conception of it, must be formulated. Such an account would consider the Hazarean view, i.e. how civil society activism tends to oppose not just political figures, but also the idea of politics. More importantly, it would also take into account just how the middle-class, by virtue of the same characteristics and attributes scholars say aid democratisation (education levels, upbringing, electoral participation), tries to reduce political power, by resorting not to the legal system, but to a moral, extra-legal authority well outside the state machinery. This pits it against not only the Lipsettian view of middle-class democratisation, but the East-Asian experience also, in that unlike either scenario, in South Asia we have a middle bourgeoisie averse not just to corrupt politicians and judges, but more intriguingly to politics and laws in general.

Hazare made his arguments from a moral pedestal; it distanced him and his supporters from the whole political-legal edifice of the country. A distrust of politics and laws was, in other words, at the heart of Hazare’s campaigns, and it remains a hallmark of Hazare-style middle-class activists in Sri Lanka as well; not for no reason did supporters of Ranjan Ramanayake not only argue that he was right to condemn politicians, but also erroneously assume this is why he was put in prison. In turning Ramanayake into a martyr, Sri Lanka’s middle-class thus operates as its Indian counterpart does: disparaging lawmakers and judges.

My argument here is that the middle-class engages in that for the same reason why its East Asian counterpart does not: politics of the authoritarian kind has facilitated the rise of the middle-class there, while politics of the democratic, yet corrupt kind has not done so for its equivalent here. To put that simply, our middle-class has grown economically, but not (yet) politically. Ergo, it aims at democracy, but minus politics and law.

35 years ago, Partha Chatterjee made a very pertinent distinction between modernity and democracy, and more significantly between civil society and political society, in relation to postcolonial India. What the middle-class aimed for, he contended, was modernity, i.e. more opportunity. But what drove the postcolonial state, far away from the West and South-East Asia, was democracy, i.e. more welfare. The kind or sort of democracy South Asia’s middle-class continues to disparage, abhor, indeed wish away, has attempted to fulfil an important function: welfare, or democracy, for the lower-classes and marginalised populations – or as Chatterjee calls them, the “dangerous classes.” This is something middle-class activists tend to leave out in their debates, something that should not be left out.

The implications of these points should be clear to all: while civil society remains occupied with issues of governance (reform), political society remains more concerned with issues of distribution (welfare). To put this in perspective paraphrasing Arundhati Roy, in its pursuit of a polity free of politics, the middle-class of South Asia (including Sri Lanka) has attempted to establish two oligarchies instead of one: one for the masses, and one for itself. This is what it is, and we ought to recognise it as such: a tragedy and a farce, rolled up in one. Insofar as South Asia’s middle-class is concerned, then, the democracy that it desires – sleek, well run, above all stable – may not be the democracy other groups desire.

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    Economic development leads to more democracy, but this western concept is not validated on the ground.

    China, South Korea, Singapore are examples for failure of this concept.they remain authoritarian as ever, even after miraculous economic development.

    Middle class may be a beneficiary of economic growth, but it is greedy and worried about their own individual upward social mobility without any social concerns. It is true that it functions as a bulwark in between the upper-class and the working class, but it is very selfish. that only blocks the aspirations of the working class.

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