India's middle-class rebels find their cause

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2011, 12:00am


Protests by India's middle class against the corruption sweeping the country are a pleasant contrast with the political apathy that has characterised it. For decades, members of that class have been happy to leave politics to the politicians while getting on with making money, buying gold jewellery and arranging their children's weddings.

Unlike its Western counterpart, the Indian middle class has never led the nation by articulating the ideals or set of principles on which a good society should be based. Middle-class Indians participate little in the civic life of their cities, not minding if their street is filthy, as long as their patch is clean. Even in general elections, the urban turnout has always been significantly lower than in rural areas.

So it's great that the middle class has been swarming the streets to support anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare in his demand for a special ombudsman with the power to investigate and punish corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and judges. Hazare has galvanised and animated the middle class in a way not seen for more than a generation.

The only shame about this eruption of indignation over corruption is that it exposes the hypocrisy of the middle class. Where was their indignation over poverty?

Anti-corruption protesters keep grumbling about how all the recent corruption scandals have tarnished India's global image, but was it not tarnished by the poverty that was almost synonymous with India?

When poor farmers were committing suicide in droves a few years ago - swallowing pesticide in despair over their indebtedness - there was not a squeak. Nor over female feticide, dowry deaths or child labour. Actually, the last one is not that surprising given that many middle-class families are happy to employ 10-year-olds as servants because they don't answer back and accept smaller salaries.

Nor did they jump out of their armchairs last year when the New Delhi government pushed poor construction workers off the streets and packed them off to their villages so that the city would look 'clean and tidy' for the Commonwealth Games.

Oblivious of their double standards, middle-class Indians bemoan slums sprouting up on public land yet happily grab the patch of land in front of their house (also public property) by putting potted plants on it so no one else can park on 'their' territory.

But somehow corruption really gets their goat. It hurts their self-image and vanity. It squelches their dream of a resurgent India. So, yes, it's great that the middle class is becoming more politically engaged. The pity is that it is so totally self-serving.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India