India has witnessed in recent weeks a remarkable anti-corruption campaign, the focus of which has been a hunger strike (now ended) by an elderly civil society activist, Anna Hazare. He has been demanding the establishment of a Lokpal, an anti-corruption ombudsman, with extensive powers. While some have criticised Anna Hazare’s movement for seeking to bypass democratic institutions and for ignoring the rural poor, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to celebrate his perceived victory over a government tarnished by repeated corruption scandals.
Ashutosh Varshney is a political scientist who divides his time between the United States and India. He reflects here on the implications of this new anti-corruption movement in an article first published in the Indian Express newspaper and reposted here with his and the Express‘s permission:
Regardless of whether one agrees with the substance of Anna Hazare’s Lokpal [anti-corruption ombudsman] bill, we are undoubtedly witnessing a remarkable social movement. The crowds gathering in different parts of the country meet the classic yardsticks of a movement: numbers, symbols, funds, an organisational vanguard, a media strategy, and most of all, a determined defiance of established authority. More often than not, movements derive their power from a heroic defiance of the establishment. In part because of that, they can also transform the mainstream of electoral politics.
Two issues call for intellectual scrutiny. Why has India’s urban middle class become the social base of Hazare’s movement? And why has this class chosen the route of movement politics led by civil society, as opposed to electoral politics led by political parties?
Urban India and corruption
Corruption afflicts both cities and villages. But corruption consciousness is higher among the urban middle classes. In the nationally representative sample of the recent “State of the Nation” poll conducted by CSDS, 66 per cent of urban India believed that the Central government was corrupt, compared to 58 per cent of rural India. More revealingly, the more educated the person, the higher was the consciousness. Only 49 per cent of the illiterate, as opposed to 71 per cent of all those with college or higher education, were aware of corruption.
It is worth noting that the countryside, where 68 per cent of India currently lives, is not where most of national income is generated. Over two-thirds, perhaps as much as three-fourths, of the nation’s GDP is generated in cities where less than a third of the country lives; whereas less than a third, perhaps as little as a fourth, of the country’s GDP is produced in the countryside, where over two-thirds of the national population resides.
As a consequence, for politicians, the city has primarily become a site of extraction, and the countryside predominantly a site of legitimacy and power. The countryside is where the vote is; the city is where the money is. Also, much of the post-1991 middle class is reared in the private sector. It encounters the state only when it buys property, applies for a driving licence, birth or death certificate, pays income tax, wants a passport, drives a vehicle or has an accident. These arenas of public life are abjectly corrupt.
We also need to ask why the urban middle class, which has the capacity to pay, resents corruption so much. In a material sense, corruption undoubtedly hurts the poor much more. A ten thousand rupee bribe will not economically diminish a Prashant Bhushan or an Arvind Kejriwal [prominent supporters of Anna Hazare], but it can wipe out a poor person for years. Bhushan and Kejriwal may find the bribe offensive or corrosive of governance, but it is not an unbearable personal damage. Offense, in short, is driving the middle class mobilisation, not material deprivation. The middle class is asserting its citizenship right to get government services without a bribe.
This is consistent with the comparative history of citizenship rights. Citizenship battles premised upon rights-based service delivery have normally been first fought in the cities. The middle class may not necessarily be moved by the plight of the poor, but when it begins to support movements for cleaner governance, the consequences can be positive for the poor as well.
The Urban middle class and civil society
Why have the urban middle classes over the last two decades not voted as much as the urban poor or the rural Indians, opting instead for the media or civil society to express their feelings and interests? If you ask the average middle-class citizen in the Ramlila Maidan [a public space in Delhi where Anna Hazare staged his hunger strike], she may not understand the deeper reasons for why the move from electoral politics to civil society came about, and whether that is enough to make a better future.
Universal franchise came to the West only after an industrial revolution had created an urban society. With the partial exception of the United States in the 19th century, India is the first country in world history, which has maintained universal franchise in a predominantly rural setting and without an industrial revolution. Therefore, India’s political parties have overwhelmingly focused on the rural electorate, and India’s cities have functioned in a primarily rural political universe.
This has generated paradoxes. The rural bias of India’s democracy has not made the countryside well-off. Contrariwise, urban politicians hold most cabinet positions in Delhi, but no political party has historically had a significant urban programme or manifesto. The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission is very new. Indeed, governments that look after cities have come to political grief. After trying to make Bangalore into a Singapore, S.M. Krishna lost power in Karnataka [a state in southern India] in 2004; the same thing happened in [the neighbouring state of] Andhra to Chandrababu Naidu, who sought to turn Hyderabad into a world-class city. Because the electoral logic of Indian politics is so village-heavy, the urban middle class has been gradually withdrawing from the electoral sphere. It recognises the media and civil society as its own spaces, the voting arena as somewhat alien.
The middle class has not yet appreciated that the Lokpal can easily deal with spectacular corruption, but not routine corruption. Routine corruption is more likely to go down if the middle class re-engages politics, starting with urban self-governance. Given the rural emphasis of Indian democracy, village panchayats have received much more attention than municipal governance. Decisions about the city are made not by elected municipalities, but by state and central governments, who are more concerned with the rural vote. If the middle class wants cleaner and better governance, it needs to fight simultaneously for greater powers for municipal governments and greater citizen oversight over them.
India’s newest big city, Bangalore, illustrates the problem rather well. Driven by an exceptional IT industry, Bangalore’s private incomes have grown phenomenally, perhaps at twice the all-India rate since 1991. But the revenue generated by Bangalore’s rising affluence has not come back to the city in any significant proportion. Public amenities have collapsed. A quite lovely town earlier, Bangalore today is an urban nightmare.
The Bangalore narrative also epitomises urban India as a whole. The big exception is Delhi, a city whose public spaces have undoubtedly improved. Delhi is India’s only city which is not located in a predominantly rural political setting. Delhi’s government responds primarily to an urban electorate.
Before the Hazare movement, the anti-Mandal agitation [opposing affirmative action for those from underprivileged castes] of 1990 was the last great urban challenge to India’s power structure. Despite the self-immolation of several dozen young men, the government did not budge, nor did any political party. The protest simply petered out. The majoritarian logic of electoral politics remained unaltered.
The situation has now changed. India is more urban and more affluent than before. Sometime during 2025-2030, it will also have an urban majority. The urban middle class should use the new political moment to return to electoral politics, but the Hazare movement is so opposed to electoral politics and representative democracy. A reliance on civil society alone will not fix India’s governance problems, urban or rural. An anti-corruption Lokpal can only be part of a larger political process.
Ashutosh Varshney is a professor at Brown University, and a visiting professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Change in Bangalore. His books include ‘Democracy, Development and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India’.