India File

The Republic of Hope

Poornima Joshi, Tina Edwin, Jinoy Jose, A Srinivas | Updated on August 17, 2018 Published on August 14, 2018

Mobility moves Flower sellers such as Devi have taught themselves numbers through the mobile keypad

India’s large, nascent middle class seeks a slice of the urban, service sector. It wants English education, a good life, and a political force that understands its aspirations — BusinessLine reports in this two-page special

Kame Gowda, an octogenarian shepherd in Dasandoddi village, seven km from Malavalli taluk in Mandya district, embodies all that is positive about India today — its innovative spirit, grit in the face of adversity and optimism amidst despair.

Displaying engineering ingenuity by building 14 tanks around a hill to conserve water, Gowda has a keen vision for the nation: “Celebration of the Independence Day is basically to remind the citizens to not get carried away/fooled by outsiders and allow them to rule. Hindus and Muslims should live unitedly. Some of them may err and commit some mistakes, which should be amicably resolved. Jai Bharat Mata.”

Gowda is not alone. Despite the crests and troughs of triumphs and defeats since 1947, Indians retain touching hope and faith in a young, restless Republic. In his The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani says about India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: “(He) hoped to use the state actively to reconstitute India’s society, to reform it and to bring it in line with...the movement of universal history.”

Things have not panned out the way Nehru — who believed that the State should, as Khilnani describes it, “build a constitutional non-religious regime, extend social opportunities” — would have liked. But as the next general elections approach, there is hope (not to deny the sullen anger) in the air.

Small-town India

Today, there’s a new ‘Idea of Young India’, of becoming middle class, educated and urban. Says Surinder S Jodhka, Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU: “The middle class cannot be viewed merely in terms of consumption and income. It is a normative category. Everyone wants to be in that space called middle class. The digital revolution has furthered this aspiration – of having a mobile phone, of going to English medium schools.” This aspiration is shaping political destinies.

A paper by Sandhya Krishnan and Neeraj Hatekar, “Rise of the New Middle Class in India and its Changing Structure” (Economic and Political Weekly, June 3, 2017) estimates that the middle class has doubled between 2004-05 and 2011-12, to account for nearly half the population (over 600 million), assuming a spend of $2-$10 per capita per day, in 1993 PPP terms.

Middle India’s ambitions coincide with the rapid growth of the services sector that today constitutes nearly 60 per cent of economic output. Over 30 per cent of India’s population was urban in 2011. Urban per capita income is a staggering 87 per cent higher than in rural areas.

However, a small town-metro divide is visible. The percentage of the poor is not more than 14 per cent in the metros, whereas the smaller towns have a much higher proportion of the poor, about 30 per cent.

That the contribution of farming to GDP has fallen from about 57 per cent in 1950-51 to just about 14 per cent today explains much of this urban expansion, as well as rural despondency. More Indians in absolute terms live in cities than elswehere in the world.

A key BJP strategist hones this distinction between towns and big cities in the context of the party’s electoral strategy. He reveals how well-placed the ruling party still is, given the enduring appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi among “aspirational India”. The idea of someone from outside the entitled elite of Lutyen’s Delhi occupying the highest office still resonates among the new beneficiaries of the post-globalisation economy, he explains.

“You see the top ten among the IAS toppers, only two of them are from big metros, Delhi and Chennai, the rest come from Jammu, Badaun and similar towns in the transforming Tier 3 and 4 cities. The story is similar in the top engineering and medical institutions as well as professional courses such as law and chartered accountancy. Middle India has seen a level of prosperity and it is inspiring a larger number in its fold,” he says.

To this India, Modi stands tall among other politicians, especially in contrast with Congress President Rahul Gandhi who struggles to shed his entitled dynast image, he observes.

The voters’ backing extends to those who promise change to the young, in particular. Low voter turnouts would indicate the absence of appeal beyond traditional caste and community lines.

Record voter turnouts were in evidence in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Delhi assembly polls in February 2015 and even in the Bihar assembly elections in November 2015, where a record number of voters turned out to elect sushasan babu (Mr Performer) Nitish Kumar once again to power.

In electing Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, 66.38 per cent of the voters came out to vote, the highest in any general election. Just seven months later, it was Arvind Kejriwal who drove an even larger number of voters in Delhi, a record 67.08 per cent, to the polling booths to secure a staggering 67 seats in the 70-member assembly. In November, 2015, Bihar registered an overall voter turnout of 56.8 per cent, the highest among assembly polls in the State held since 2000.

Inclusive governance

Modi, Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar represented to the voters a break from the past and a leap into the future. But others have been here many years before, in South India.

In Tamil Nadu, late former chief Minister K Karunanidhi won the support of the masses by initiating Dalit and backward castes’ reservations way back in the 1960s, creating an educated middle class that lifted Tamil Nadu’s economy as well as social indices (health, education, gender). Today, the development of the South cannot be delinked from better functioning institutions, schools, hospitals and infrastructure than in many other regions.

As economist and Infosys Prize winner Kaivan Munshi observes in his paper “Caste and the Indian Economy”, caste plays a role at “every stage of an Indian’s economic life; in school, university, the labour market, and into old age”. That’s why social reform politics in States such as Tamil Nadu has managed to make a creative impact, says sociologist Sanil MN, who teaches at Haryana’s SRM University.

“What we need to see here is the imaginative way in which people like CN Annadurai or Karunanidhi elevated the anti-caste, social reform politics of Periyar to the level of State politics,” says S Anandhi, Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. “They have changed it in such a way that you’ll have a social justice angle to development projects.”

The space for social justice became very important even during the 1990s. “Tamil Nadu utilised it to accentuate the social justice aspect of development. Which is why it has the largest share of Dalit enterprises in the country, and a significant presence of OBC enterprises,” Anandhi explains.

The spread of education, coinciding with post-1990s reforms, has opened up career and entrepreneurial possibilities for women, enabling them to seek careers in defiance of their families.

Innovations, digital and otherwise, have helped arrive at solutions for a host of concerns — on the environment, gender or disability. Says Lizzie Chapman, co-founder and CEO, ZestMoney: “The experience of the Indian telecom sector tells us that technological leapfrogging is possible in sectors such as financial services and healthcare.”

Corporate philanthropy is making its presence felt. Nasscom Foundation, the CSR arm of Nasscom, has a partnership with technology company CGI to launch a digital literacy centre for underprivileged sections. The centre aims to provide training to 1,000 people on how to use computers, mobile phones and other digital devices.

The training will focus on how to send email, buy from e-commerce websites, pay bills online, and check the weather forecast. They will also learn how to use the Internet for services such as Aadhaar cards, ration cards, and PAN cards, as well as how to protect themselves against cyber attacks.

Spurred by better social services and a growing economy, two-thirds of India’s population (those between 15 and 64 years) can transform their lives. Change, thanks to post-reform growth rates, is visible in the boom in sales of two-wheelers, e-commerce and smartphones. But whether this middle class has arrived in socio-cultural terms is a moot question.

With inputs from Vishwanath Kulkarni and Venkatesh Ganesh

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Published on August 14, 2018
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