Don’t blame the middle class for political apathy

Condemning middle class Congress leader P Chidambaram (‘How much do people care?’, IE, July 10) as selfish, myopic and lacking in social awareness and empathy for the somewhat deprived belongs in one thread of criticism common to radicals, professional revolutionaries, politicians and those entrenched in the power structure and enjoying all the privileges but suddenly losing power. Chidambaram’s outburst falls into the last category: He is not attempting to study the underlying reasons behind such insulated behavior.

What Chidambaram considers as the middle class is a small number of highly urbanized, affluent, income taxpayers with a minimum per capita income of one lakh rupees per month. This is in a situation where the average monthly income of so many Indians in the self-employment and unorganized sector is approximately Rs 10,000 or less a month. In his seminal work, The Social Background of Indian Nationalism, sociologist AR Desai pointed out that the social base of the Indian nationalist movement was narrow with very limited mass mobilization. The massive popular support and participation in the nationalist movement is a myth and the fact remains that the passivity of the typical Indian surprised leaders as diverse as Bipin Chandra Pal and Mahatma Gandhi. Pal wondered how effectively the British could rule while keeping only 32,000 soldiers in India. The widespread, repressive equipment of a brutal, colonial administration was effectively and obediently managed by the Indians themselves. Mahatma Gandhi marveled at the lack of protest from ordinary citizens of Punjab even when faced with several instances of police brutality. One of the allegations filed by the Mahatma against the British was that it made the Indians “not men”.

The British never used conscription in India. Recruitment during World War II was carried out under a slogan of economic improvement. And it was a great victory, even if the soldiers should be disappointed later. In comparison, during the Quit India movement, 60,000 people were imprisoned – not a large number in a mass movement of a country the size of India. The nationalist movement was led by wealthy lawyers, and non -lawyers like Subhas Chandra Bose and MN Roy were expelled.

This is not to discredit the nationalist movement or the subsequent political evolution but simply to remind us of the restriction of our political space before and after Independence. The political class has never really attempted to expand the base of the middle class, to make political participation enjoyable and rewarding, thereby enriching the political process itself. The people of the different categories that make up the modern nation conform, in general, to social, economic and political realities. The integration of the middle class into the political process requires its quantitative expansion and development of the political process that is not guided by dynastic ambitions and the influence of powerful interest groups, leading to the emergence of a state reform that rewards fair meritocracy.

The writer has retired as Professor of Political Science, Delhi University