But deepening accountability in a durable manner will require structural reform.
Massive demonstrations occurred in a landmark square, with citizens expressing deep discontent with their government’s performance. A centre-left party, once representative, had, in their eyes, been sucked into the corrupt system, with multiple scandals, and was the reason for rising inflation, low growth and an ineffective and unresponsive government. An entrenched political elite, which had failed to provide basic public services like healthcare and education, was beset with collapsing support. Police action created martyrs. This was Brazil in June last year. It was also Turkey, Italy and Egypt before that.
This is not a new phenomenon. Revolutions have historically tended to occur in less developed countries,when the shift to modernity was its sharpest, with democratic reform prevailing subsequently. The French Commune, the Bolshevik revolution and Mao’s rise were all stimulated by discontented middle classes. In 1848, Europe was beset by a “Spring” as well, akin to that in the Middle East. Collective civil society action in India has a long historicity too, from Champaner to Bhoodan. This country has failed to grow fast enough to provide jobs for its growing middle class. Across regions, communal and local life patterns, governed previously by paternal, religious and local authorities, are being broken with increasing mobility, individualisation and the rise of unrelated spheres of culture and entertainment, which are subversive of their authority. A new middle class of intellectuals and professionals is rising, actively creating new spheres of associations, attempting to transcend the insular worlds of family, community and religious sects through social media and a spreading print culture.
Given rising education, citizens demand choices and opportunities, beyond basic nutritional and security needs. With economic opportunities tied to political and commercial connections, they struggle in a middle-income trap, a threatening gap opening between rising aspirations and a disappointing reality. Families with growing durable assets like housing are threatened by expropriation or taxation. They are on the frontline, witness to deep-rooted abuses of power and the failure of governance. The failure of the political class to meet their rising expectations for economic and social development has driven them to political activism, culminating in an anti-corruption movement and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. Voters are rebelling. The result could be political revolution.
We live in a gilded age. Disturbed by the inefficiency, corruption and injustice of a rotten political system, the Progressives, in the 1890s, reformed every aspect of the American state, society and economy. They instituted a new income tax, imposed women’s suffrage and ruthlessly cut down political machines through prohibition and a vigorous press (the Muckrakers). Avid modernisers, they were confident reformers, pushing for intervention in economic and social affairs, with strong budgetary support for education and healthcare. The growing business community contributed too, through large private foundations and by a duty to society through philanthropic giving. Within a decade, general prosperity prevailed and a great power rose.
Patrimonial politics is universal, historically institutionalised throughout South Asia. Political movements, within and without ruling groups and institutions, revolve around tribal solidarity and factions of kinship, patronage, locality and community. Our outdated systems cry out for reform, with primary education rotten and healthcare facilities overburdened. While agriculture languishes and textiles stay stagnant, welfare systems expand, creating new avenues for patronage. We aspire to a Progressive Era.
With citizens roused, socialism has seemingly returned. Rising inequality, as the Pope attests, is a global phenomenon, leading to increasing opposition to capitalism, with disorganised masses voicing common discontents. Our partially oligarchic economy, with its political-industrial nexus, provides rich targets for this movement. With rising anti-business rhetoric and calls for subsidised public services, populism could run amok, overcoming reason, creating heavily indebted metropolitan and regional governments, with interest groups seeking ever increasing sops. The tragedy of the commons will deepen, with mispriced natural resources, such as water and coal, consumed without replenishment. While calls for open auctions and lower energy prices are valid, business investment requires regulatory stability and market-based contracts. Moving beyond vague rhetoric and posturing to evidence-based policies that consider economic realities will require new institutions and policy heft. With the middle class split across interest groups, entrepreneurs will seek limited government, lower taxes and less regulation. Others will look for free water and TV sets.
Sociological barriers remain. A middle-class-driven movement, a minority in this vast agglomeration, cannot by itself bring about long-term political change. Without a coalition with the mutinous poor, and a centralised leadership, mass scale-up will be hard to implement. The Tahrir Square movement and the Orange Revolution fizzled out for a lack of nationwide political organisation, with little effort made to develop linkages with peasants and the working class. In contrast, Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood utilised their long developed social base to triumph in the elections. Avoiding co-option by the system’s incumbents through seemingly unconditional support will be a challenge. A significant part of our middle class is employed directly or indirectly by the government, creating stakes in the continuation of the existing patronage networks and economic control. Patronage will always have followers.
There are two possible outcomes. Like the US during the Progressive Era, a coalition between the middle and working classes could rally support for civil service reform and bring an end to our patronage system. Or, we could distract ourselves with identity and caste politics and get co-opted by the system. Such revolutions are transitory, laying down an agenda for political and social change that, through gradual reform and struggle, could be achieved decades later. That a liberal democracy with strong economic growth will emerge from this ferment is not guaranteed. Durable political change, with deepening accountability, will require structural reforms, with a changing social outlook. This opportunity for systemic reform is one which the political class, with its new entrants, could help bring about. What prevails, only time will tell.