This Article is From May 02, 2014

This Election and the Urban Middle Class

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

The middle class, long considered an irrelevance in Indian politics, has emerged as an important factor in Elections 2014. Besides having the purchasing power to meet all essential needs and more, in India, the middle class is also identified by its aspirational, educated, secular, liberal and generally progressive outlook. While the size of the middle class and its ability to dictate the outcome of elections may be open to debate, the values of the middle class exercise an ever growing influence on our politics.

Irrespective of how it is defined, it is clear that following the liberalisation of the economy, India's middle class has grown substantially in numbers and clout. For example, statistics by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) revealed that in 2010, the Indian middle class doubled in size over the last decade. During this period, millions of households were lifted out of poverty and the size of the middle class was 153 million in 2010. This is more than the current population of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates put together! According to NCAER, by 2015-2016, the numbers of this class are expected to touch 267 million.  McKinsey experts expect the size of our middle class to grow from five per cent of the population in 2007 to more than 40 per cent over the next two decades.

While this growing middle class-upwardly mobile with 49 per cent of the total number of cars and 53.2 per cent of all computers in India-is the target consumer for the corporate sector in the land of paradoxes that is India, it is also possibly the most disenchanted element of the electorate. Studies of Indian elections have consistently shown that the poorest in India vote in numbers well above the national average, whereas the educated middle-class turns out in numbers well below it. This disenchantment over successive elections has led to a politically disconnected and alienated group that paradoxically, is capable, intelligent, secular, and has a lot to offer to our politics.

One part of the problem is the gradual replacement of independent India's educated Parliament, particularly in the northern states, with leaders that are routinely described as "mafia dons", "dacoits" and "anti-socials". Another is that India has a highly competitive society where the salaried middle-class rarely enjoys the luxury of being able to take the kind of risks that a political life implies. This has left out of Indian politics the very group of people who are the mainstay of politics in other democracies.

Yet it is this section of society that is also acutely aware of some of India's most pressing needs such as the need for sound and stable governance. They are engaged with an idea of India that is growth driven and not merely by the divisive politics of caste and community. They demand a sustained increase in the quality of public services. Far from the shrill cries of Hindutva, their priorities are investment in education, healthcare and urban development. And over the past 10 years, the UPA Government has delivered on addressing these anxieties and meeting these aspirations.  

But as the Government, we are also conscious that the idea of India cannot ignore the 500 million who are not yet economically or socially secure. And while it may appear that the middle class does not explicitly benefit from development reforms such as the Right to Education and Food Security Act, these will go a long way in creating the peaceful, law-abiding society that is essential for 21st century India to thrive. The middle class emphasizes growth, but we must understand that the logic of the market will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace. Pulling people out of poverty is in everyone's interest. Indian cannot shine unless it shines for all.

And it is clear that the Congress party reflects the values of such a society. Unlike the divisive and polarising spectre of other political parties, the Congress stands out as an inclusive party that recognizes the need for change with ideas to address anxieties of the urban middle class.

I am conscious that, before I entered politics myself, one of my more frequent laments had been about the abdication by the Indian educated classes of our political responsibility for our own destiny. Many shy away from politics as a profession because of the belief that the scope for professionals is limited. However, that is changing. My own innings in politics is prefixed by one of the stories of the Indian dream that is common to probably every professional in India. It begins with a child born into a middle class family benefiting from the power of education, working hard to enter one of India's many reputed colleges, graduating from one of the well-known international institutions and relying on our traditional values to build a successful career.

My own life story gives me the faith that the Congress understands the needs of growing middle class, has the right ideals, and is the best placed to uphold the values of hard-work, and secularism that underpin the aspirations of the middle class for itself and for the Idea of India in the 21st Century.

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