India's fed-up middle class
An anti-corruption crusade inspires millions of middle-class Indians to political action for the first time
Why is India's middle class angry?It's no longer willing to put up with rampant government corruption. Throughout the summer, tens of thousands of Indians took part in a series of marches and mass protests, as part of what social anthropologist Shiv Viswanathan calls "a revolution of rising expectations" in the world's second most populous country. Corruption is nothing new in India, but several recent scandals have been particularly galling. It emerged last year that allies of the ruling Congress Party had wasted $40 billion by awarding telecom contracts to well-connected businessmen proffering bribes. Those revelations came on the heels of India's humiliating mismanagement of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an Olympics-style multisport tournament for the 53 British Commonwealth countries. Some $10 billion was spent building stadiums and infrastructure that were largely useless for the general public, and much of that money was squandered through corruption, incompetence, and bribery.
Is bribery commonplace?In India, it's a way of life. Whenever Indians encounter government agencies, they have to pay a bribe — to get a marriage license, to go through customs, to get a telephone installed. Some two-thirds of Indians have reported having to grease the palms of government officials, and they've had enough. "I hated it," call-center employee Amit Bhardwaj told The Washington Post as he recalled counting out a $20 bribe to secure a birth certificate for his son. "This was the first thing I did for my newborn son."
Who turned this outrage into a social movement?Anna Hazare, a longtime social activist who models himself after Gandhi. Hazare, 74, has for decades led nonviolent movements around Mumbai to promote farming improvements, end discrimination against untouchables, and attack corruption in local government. But after last year's major scandals, he took his fight to the national level, using Facebook and other social-networking sites to encourage people to come to anti-corruption protests. Millions of Indians supported him in April, when he launched a hunger strike to force the government to create an anti-corruption ombudsman. The government responded with a watered-down law that exempted top-level officials from scrutiny. So in August, the frail and elderly Hazare declared a new fast. The government arrested him and detained 1,200 protesters in New Delhi, but the crackdown backfired spectacularly when tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in cities across India, chanting, "I am Anna!" The government quickly released Hazare, who continued his hunger strike for 13 more days, until authorities finally capitulated, passing Hazare's more stringent version of the bill unanimously. India is now set to have an independent body called the Lokpal — a Sanskrit term that means "protector of the people" — charged with investigating complaints of corruption involving politicians and government employees.
Will that end corruption?Not overnight. Officials will keep demanding bribes, so corruption won't end until people refuse to pay them. Hazare has urged his followers to do just that, and activists have encouraged people to put on the simple white cap Hazare wears, known as a topi or "Gandhi cap," every time someone asks for a bribe. Sales of topis have soared. Finally, says novelist Chetan Bhagat, it's becoming "cool to be clean."
Why has Hazare's campaign been so popular?Thanks to globalization and technology, the old India is dying, and a new one is being born. Tens of millions of people have moved out of poverty since the early 1990s, when India opened up its centrally planned economy and set off double-digit economic growth and soaring private investment. The old, relatively small middle class was made up of civil servants and bureaucrats who owed their livelihoods to the government. But now, the middle class includes some 200 million people who work in the private sector, in technology and engineering firms, call centers, and factories. Their support for Hazare is a result of "the sense of inchoate rage they feel at a political system which displays contempt for their priorities," writes Swagato Ganguly in The Times of India. "The theme of corruption is just a metaphorical way of broaching the question, 'What are you doing with my money?'"
What other changes will they demand?They want a public sector that works with the efficiency that characterizes India's burgeoning private sector. The middle class — defined as households with an annual income of at least $4,000 — is predicted to make up more than 40 percent of India's population in 20 years, by which time the country's urban population is expected to have doubled. That has huge implications for the country's politics. No longer will Indian politicians be able to secure power by placating poor rural farmers with subsidies. They face far more daunting challenges of upgrading the country's severely overtaxed city services and roads. And in addressing those challenges, politicians will increasingly be held to the standards of a middle class that has advanced through "education, technology, and business savvy," says investment strategist Mehran Nakhjavani. That sets ever-tighter limits on the nation's tolerance for "the shenanigans of an incestuous and venal ruling class."
A middle class on a tight budgetWestern luxury brands sell well at the top of India's market, but the biggest consumer successes are those geared to the hundreds of millions of Indians on tighter budgets. On the back of the middle class's growing aspirations, India's car production increased by 34 percent last year alone; the country's most popular car is the Maruti Suzuki Alto, which sells for about $4,700. More and more Indians have bought washing machines, but not Western-style behemoths; a top seller is a small, $66 model that automatically finishes a wash after one of India's all-too-frequent power outages. And most Indians are used to either making their clothes or buying them cheaply from a local tailor, not off the rack. So Arvind Mills, the country's biggest jeans company, offers a "ready to sew" jeans kit to village tailors. The company sold more than a million of them in two months.