Mumbai I’ve been coming to India regularly for over a decade now, several times per year for many years and annually more recently. There have been visible changes, tall apartment blocks growing like weeds, highways under endless construction finally completed, more people with more money more visible, but all of this in a death grip alongside and frequently oblivious to the same grinding, relentless poverty of even more people. How does change come to a nation of 1.1 billion people? Very slowly, very slowly.
On the eve of coming national elections, the rising of the middle class is an undeniable factor and part of the conversation of change. Their cry for more transparency, less corruption, and more protection for women in public and private spaces has found not only voice but some political weight in emerging parties. Nonetheless, their issues will not be what turns this election, and it is not just because of their lack of organization. They simply don’t have the numbers yet and haven’t done the work to build the bridges to offset their weakness.
Their strength is in some of the cities, but even there for example internet usage, according to Google, is 37% in urban areas, while the government statistics estimate total internet access at approximately 93 million. Certainly, these are big, fat numbers, but nationally they are less than 10% of the population. They are caught in an echo chamber where their own voices are vibrating back to them, louder and louder, but little heard otherwise, and, elsewhere, too much is as it ever was.
Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director in Mumbai, and I had a challenging conversation with two dynamic women community organizers trying to find their way to a workable model to engage the new India they sought to activate around modern values and sensibilities. They had tried and abandoned a model of selecting associates of sorts to train and support in various organizing projects around Mumbai and had applied themselves with great energy and significant resources to the task, but had shifted gears. Why? The director stated simply and flatly, “not enough capacity.” The meaning of the simple phrase was two-fold. On the one hand a fledgling organization like theirs was ill equipped to chase all over a city of 18 million to realistically support at any effective level more than a half-dozen mini-campaigns chosen somewhat at whim by the trainees themselves. On the other hand without her fully saying so, it became obvious in their experience that there was no way to simply graft on to their trainees their theory of change unless they could also figure out a way to actually demonstrate and model what change and organizing would look like.
Their insight might seem obvious, but it is one still missing in Indian society at large, where this emerging middle class is hoping that speaking truth to power can in fact change the way power works. Reading the editorialists in countless papers, they are frustrated that somehow politicians are adjusting without either embracing change or fundamentally adapting to a different political climate and culture. The miscalculation of the Common Man party in having won the right to govern in Delhi, but then forfeiting the position in less than two months is a case in point. Hard questions are facing their candidates around the country on whether they are quitters or “doers.” In effect people are asking why they should waste their votes on the party, if they are not going to demonstrate the ability to establish through government the changes on the issues they advocated. Our organizing comrades may be searching for sure footing, but at least they already understand, they are going to have demonstrate what they are advocating, which seems to have been an elementary lesson overlooked by the new middle-class reformers.
Meanwhile according to Google, the most common uses of their searches right now in the run-up to the election are two. One is what the caste is of Modi, the BJP frontrunner. The other is whether or not Rahul Gandhi, the emerging spokesperson for the Congress Party, is a Christian.
As I said, change comes very slowly.