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India’s Elites in Crisis

NEW DELHI – For a country with 1.2 billion people, India is ruled by a surprisingly small elite, which runs everything from the government to large companies and even sports bodies. But a series of scandals, some involving billions of dollars, has now seriously undermined that elite’s standing in the eyes of the Indian public.

Almost anyone in a position of power in India, including well-known print and television journalists, is now viewed with suspicion. This is occurring at a time when economic growth is pulling a young and upwardly mobile population into the urban middle class. This new middle class is no longer constrained by the patronage systems of the village, but it also does not enjoy the cozy relationship that links the old middle class with the elite. Could this crisis of the elite trigger India’s own Tiananmen Square moment?

Except in totalitarian regimes, a country’s elite depends on a degree of popular acceptance, which is mostly derived from the belief that the elite is broadly “fair” in its dealings. Following the recent series of scandals, the average Indian does not believe this anymore.

Of course, doubts about the ruling elite are not unique to India. Almost all countries undergoing a shift from a pre-industrial equilibrium based on patronage to one based on modern institutions and the rule of law have faced such crises of legitimacy.