Tag Archives: Common Man Party

Middle Class Movement Takes Needs than Wishing and Hoping in India

IMG_1065Mumbai     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.

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Middle-Class Movement Meets Political Machines in Indian Election Run-up

06-voters-list-india-600Bengaluru  In the one and one-half years since I last visited Bengaluru, or Bangalore as it is still known in the West, the changes were visible from the time I hit the expressway.  The new airport, 40 kilometers from the city center is no longer as new, but for the first time the ride was not an on-and-off experience of navigating a construction zone, but a smooth sailing of sorts by Indian standards all the way in.  Perhaps more startling though was that with the new expressway, construction had moved from horizontal to vertical, as we sped past one huge luxury apartment and housing block underway after another with giant billboards advertising the prices everywhere for pre-sale.  Dust and honking horns had been replaced by a land rush it seemed as the merging middle class looked to move on up to the big time.

            With an election beginning in mid-April on a month long polling process to accommodate 750 million eligible voters in the “world’s largest democracy,” as India never tires billing itself, voters are treated in their numerous daily newspapers to a continuous shuffle of party lists in final preparation for voting short weeks away.   Observers were watching with early interest the emergence of what is called the Common Man Party as a potential spoiler to the more traditionally dominant parties, the governing Congress Party and the right, conservative party, the BJP, which many are now favoring to regain control of government behind Narendra Modi, the controversial, development oriented governor of the state of Gujurat.  The left and regional parties are involved as well in endless attempts to create coalitions to threaten the primary parties and maintain their pockets of strength in both Parliament and local areas.

            The Common Man Party has attracted a lot of attention with its adoption of a platform to stop corruption, not allow parliamentarians to be shielded for criminal cases, and advocacy of transparency, better education, childcare, and other middle class issues.  Many of its candidates are new to political life.  For example an investigative journalist is running in Delhi.  A 30-year veteran of children rights campaigns is running in Bengaluru.  Having won with a candidate for governor in Delhi who resigned in less than 2 months in office in protest of his inability to implement anti-corruption measures against major party opposition there, they have been widely watched as new “kids on the block.

            It caught my eye that they were hoping to overcome the financial and organizational lead of other parties by using the secret and effective weapon of going door-to-door and propelling their efforts with volunteers to offset their more meager financial resources.  This is almost an American-style effort targeting their middle class base.

            The results will be worth watching as they emerge in May, but it seems almost certain from talking to ACORN India’s organizers on the ground working among lower income families that the “reformist” effort will fall seriously short, despite their enthusiasm.  This is still a very poor country and seeing a well-known Bollywood actor plead on TV for the electorate not to vote simply for whoever paid them the most for their ballot, is perhaps more telling than anything else in the election run-up that I’ve seen so far.           

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