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VIRENDRA KAPOOR
NO HOLDS BARRED

Congress discovers the middle class

Some 200 parliamentary seats are now fully or semi-urban and no party aspiring to rule India can afford to ignore them.

Wait for the shift

Let us call it the Congress' discovery of the middle class. After virtually ignoring its existence for over sixty years, it seems to have dawned on the party that the middle class is now too numerous and too influential to be treated with disdain. Having all along relied on the so-called illiterate and ill-fed masses — the biped cattle as some derisively but quite wrongly called it — for winning elections, the Grand Old Party was now worried that its long estrangement from the urban, middle- and upper-classes, especially the youth, could cost it power in the coming round of state and parliamentary elections. Winning power being its sole objective, the party was now desperate for the middle-class vote.

Not long ago, Congress candidates treated voters living in pucca houses in cities and towns with scant respect, believing, not without reason, though, that they could not be lured into voting for the party since they voted of their own free volition. On the other hand, those living in slums and jhuggi clusters could be relied upon as the party's captive vote-bank. The poor had served as the cannon fodder for the Congress all along. Even when the Congress was a freedom movement, its leadership was in the hands of the middle and upper classes, while the peasantry constituted the support-base. After Independence, this electoral dichotomy did serve the Congress well till the advent of caste-based parties such as Mayawati's BSP, Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP and, to a lesser extent, Sharad Yadav's JD(U).

With the 30% advantage that the Congress had typically entered the electoral fray on the back of the solid support of Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins, lost two decades ago, the party now felt obliged to scrounge around for support from hitherto neglected urban, educated classes. This was clear from the cry of despair that issued forth from the recent Chintan Shivir in Jaipur. The Anna Hazare Lokpal protest and the public outrage over the December gang rape in Delhi had jolted the Congress out of complacency.

Also, the Congress now sees percentage in wooing the urban middle class since there has been a huge growth in its numbers following the economic reforms of the 1990s. Some 200 parliamentary seats are now fully or semi-urban and no party aspiring to rule India can afford to ignore them any longer. Whether or not the Congress succeeds, it is likely that the accent on the urban middle class vote would necessarily change the tenor and tone and even the personnel of its politics. At the very least, it would slow down the process of the party's further lumpenisation.

A Sajjan Kumar-like rough-edged operator would now find it hard to gain prominence in an environment which is getting increasingly hospitable to a Sheila Dikshit-like politician. It is noteworthy that the success of Dikshit in Delhi, who won the Congress three Assembly elections on the trot, was in no small measure due to the desertion in droves from the BJP of its hitherto solid middle class base, which found it easy to identify itself with her. Had the Congress projected someone like Sajjan Kumar or even a Jagdish Tytler, things could be quite different in the national capital. Because she appeared to be one of "us" rather than "them", the middle class voted for the Congress, especially when the BJP lacked a credible face to project as her rival.

Indeed, the Congress' discovery of middle class could result in a shift in the way the national cake is apportioned, with more outlays for urban renewal and infrastructural development. Admittedly, the Centre has been quite generous in doling out funds to Delhi, and large chunks of those funds were frittered away by the Delhi government. Yet, overall, the emphasis in both Plan and non-Plan expenditure has been on rural development and on various rural entitlement schemes. That is set to change with the Congress' felt need to endear itself to the urban middle class. Which is not such a bad thing, especially if it results in making certain norms, certain scruples relevant to the practice of Congress politics. And helps in injecting a wee-bit of decency into the conduct of Indian politics.

The sleeping MP

The best guarantee the people have against being let down by their leaders is for them to know them well. Now that Rahul Gandhi is the undeclared prime ministerial candidate of the Congress, it ought to be everyone's concern to know more and more about him. (Just as it is imperative to know more and more about his putative BJP rival, Narendra Modi.) So it should interest everyone to know that in his nine long years as a member of the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi has hardly opened his mouth, never asked a written or an oral question and barely attended the House.

The latest statistics available for the current Parliament reveal that the Gandhi scion intervened but in a lone parliamentary debate — remember his Kalavati script during the debate on the Lokpal issue? — asked nil questions and was present only 41% of the time. On an average, each member participated in nearly one-third of the debates, asked 235 questions and attended the House 77% of the sessions.

Indeed, in being a least active member of the Lok Sabha, Rahul faced stiff competition only from one other member. Who? Well, who else but his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. But to be fair to her, she at least directs from the front-row seat her foot soldiers through angry hand-gestures to protest against any real or imaginary offence caused by the Opposition. Rahul does not even conduct the Congress orchestra in the House.

Money speaks

The growing intrusion of corporate money into the media is beginning to show in myriad ways. For instance, ever since a big industrial group made a huge investment in a multi-channel television group, its news channel has become rather staid. While other English language channels debate major controversies of the day, and generally excoriate the government for its various acts of omission and commission, this channel's focus has shifted to "soft" or non-controversial topics. A minister has only to pick up the phone to complain to the corporate boss that untrue things were said about him in a panel discussion for the channel to be chastised by its paymaster. Discretion being the better part of valour, the channel generally steers clear of major controversies, thus leaving the field clear for the other English language channels. Likewise, thanks to corporate pressures, the channel now feels obliged to use the services of controversial journalists who lack even basic skills of proficient writing and clear articulation.

Mamata shakes a legImage 2nd

According to reports in several West Bengal papers, the state Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress boss, Mamata Banerjee, forced industrialists participating in the recent investors' conference in Kolkata to sing with her on the stage. Though reluctant, industrialists felt obliged to join the Maverick Mamata on the stage and hum along with her the famous Tagore song, Ekla Chalo Re.

Those who make it their business to read political meaning in such things saw in Mamata's choice of song a clear message to the Congress: The TMC was determined to go it alone in elections without the Congress and make a success of it as well.

 
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