India’s Bourgeois Revolution

NEW DELHI – In 2009, when I competed in India’s last parliamentary election, I was something of a rarity. I was not a professional politician. By contrast, all of the other candidates in my constituency – indeed, most of the contenders across the country – had devoted their entire lives to politics, many since their student days.

I was not born into a political family; I had no seat or political fiefdom to inherit; and I had entered the race without a political “godfather.” I had not even lived in India for decades, having spent my adult life working abroad for the United Nations. Nonetheless, I managed to wrest a seat from the opposition Communist Party of India, which had won the two previous elections in my constituency, with a substantial margin of 100,000 votes.

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This victory represented a slight crack in the well-guarded fortress of Indian politics, which had long been reserved for a small and largely hereditary circle. The only exceptions had been movie stars, whose popular appeal was based on fame, not political pedigree. Professionals who had built careers and reputations in other fields simply could not get their foot in the door.

But this may finally be changing. In the current general election, there are more non-politician candidacies than in any previous poll. For example, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the technology giant Infosys, is running on behalf of the Congress Party in Bangalore, India’s information-technology capital, against a five-term incumbent from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In Mumbai, the newly established Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party has nominated Meera Sanyal, a former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s operations in India. And, in Chennai, the Congress has put forward the electronics engineer S.V. Ramani.

This amounts to a fundamental shift from previous generations, when politicians tended to come from either the top or the bottom of Indian society – unless, of course, they were the nationalist leaders who won India’s independence and comprised its original political class (and whose heirs have continued their legacy). They could be maharajahs or zamindars (landlords), with a feudal hold on their districts’ voters and the time and money to devote to politics. They could also be semi-literate members of the underclass, who viewed politics as their only means of advancement and could appeal to others like them. For everyone else, the route to success was to study hard, pass their exams, and build careers based on merit.

Such an approach might be understandable in a highly competitive society where the salaried middle class could not take the kind of risks implied by a political career; but it undermined the quality of Indian politics. Indeed, it excluded the educated professionals who tend to be a mainstay of democratic governments elsewhere, bringing middle-class values and convictions to politics.

In Europe, for example, middle-class professionals comprise the bulk of the activists, voters, and candidates for political office. In India, by contrast, their counterparts are too busy working to make ends meet to have time for activism. They lack the money found at the top of India’s stratified society, and they have little access to the votes that lie at the bottom. As a result, middle-class professionals have largely abstained from the political process.

That pattern has allowed Indian politics to become increasingly populist, with candidates appealing to the lowest common denominator to win votes. Given this, growing disenchantment with Indian democracy among the middle class is not surprising. Some have even spoken of the “secession of the elites” from Indian politics.

That is why the participation of middle-class candidates in the current election is so significant. If the old pattern is being reversed, the change is almost certainly a result of India’s economic transformation, which has enabled millions of people to join the middle class, bringing with them a new energy and dynamism. Hard-working professionals are no longer willing to sit on the sidelines while the political class makes critical policy decisions. Equally important, India’s educated middle class will, in the not-too-distant future, become large enough to matter in elections.

To be sure, India’s parliament already includes several educated young professionals who previously would not have participated in politics – people with good degrees, a clear vision for the country, international experience, bright ideas, and the capacity to articulate them. But they are all children of politicians. Though the dynastic trend in Indian politics may be bending, it is far from being broken: This year, the BJP has nominated technocrat Jayant Sinha for the seat being vacated by his father, former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha.

And yet, despite their hereditary advantage, this new generation of educated, articulate, and forward-thinking politicians is raising the standard of Indian politics – a shift that the growing involvement of well-educated professionals will advance further. If the current trend continues, India’s middle-class voters will have more representatives with whom they can identify, rather than having to pay allegiance to politicians for whom they constantly need to make excuses. That will be Indian democracy’s salvation.

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