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How Arvind Kejriwal may turn the middle class against itself

The rainbow coalition of middle classes that brought the Aam Aadmi Party to power in Delhi — from the emerging consuming classes at the bottom end to the car — and home-owning classes at the top – is in danger of unravelling rather quickly. The reason: the Kejriwal government’s hasty moves to show it can deliver in two months what others could not in 67 years. AAP’s crass short-term political motivations and calculations will destroy the very middle class consolidation and political activism that brought it to power. This story will probably not play out in 2014 or in the next Delhi assembly elections, but over the next two years. This is because the party is too new to be discarded by its enthusiastic backers so fast.

The problem for the urban middle class has always been that it has felt politically disempowered as the powerful cabal that ruled India has seen the rural vote as critical for its survival. But India is 32 percent urban, and the urban middle class vote has been rediscovered – first by Narendra Modi and now by AAP.

ArvindKejriwa_APNApunjabliveHowever, the middle class vote is actually split between BJP and AAP. And in its greed for a complete majority in Delhi and for creating a national footprint in a jiffy, AAP is actually likely to end up splitting its own middle class vote further by sharpening this class coalition’s internal contradictions.

Nothing illustrates this point better than AAP’s decision to ask common people to use its anti-corruption helpline to conduct stings on officials who seek bribes. Unlike AAP’s two earlier moves – free water and cheap power – which do not directly pit one segment of the middle class against another – this one will split the AAP support base right down the middle. And if AAP turns clerarly Left, the middle class may desert it substantially.

Political analysts may argue that AAP was elected on an anti-corruption platform, and so it had to prove its credentials quickly or risk losing credibility. However, the way it has chosen to do so will damage the coalition.

For a start, let me disagree with the idea that the AAP vote is purely an anti-corruption one. It is a bit of that, but five different factors combined to bring it to power on the middle class vote: the collapse of governance under UPA-2 at the centre; the complete lack of political sensitivity to middle class concerns on urban service delivery (safety of women, poor public transport, corruption in the delivery of basic municipal services, etc), perceived transfer of urban revenues to cater to rural vote banks, and lack of political opportunities in traditional mainstream and regional parties.

The big-ticket corruption scandals swirling around UPA-2 (2G, Coalgate) mattered only in the context of the sense that rural-backed politicians were siphoning resources for their private or caste or regional benefit.

Seen another way, the middle class upsurge against Sheila Dikshit is actually the result of a many things coming together at the wrong time for her. The irony is Dikshit is not essentially an anti-middle class politician. The BJP moved in too late with its changes in Delhi leadership to capitalise on this. AAP gained. However, there is a misunderstanding about what the middle class really wants: it wants governance, which is about eliminating minor corruption in our day-to-day dealings with government. The middle class is not genetically anti-corruption. It seeks economic growth and stability and its antagonism to small-time corruption is less real than it seems.

This is where Kejriwal’s encouragement to aam aadmi stings against day-to-day corruption could backfire by splitting the middle class. Ask yourself: whom will the stings sting? The babus who man the government are part of the same middle class. Will they be happy to be sacked or suspended when they themselves are victims of more powerful vested interests? The autorickshaw drivers who backed AAP are always at odds with the middle class users of three-wheeler transport. Will stings on auto drivers who always demand more than metered fares (or use faulty meters) turn two groups that backed Kejriwal against one another? Also remember: Kejriwal is expecting the ordinary everyday victim of babudom to fight his battles, but once stings become a free-for-all, it is more than likely that criminal elements will use this to target people for blackmail and extortion. Will the middle class still be eager to do his stings? Moreover, AAP also fails to notice that the middle class is as much a bribe giver as taker.

Who bribes the traffic policeman when caught for jumping a signal? Who offers speed money to get work done at government offices? The same middle class that hopes to use stings to fix corrupt babus will blow its top if babudom uses the spycam in a reverse sting to nail people offering a bribe to them. The boot will then be on the other foot. The worst middle class nightmare would be if economic anarchy generated by stings and counter-stings results is a complete breakdown in governance and slows decision-making in government. A low-trust government-public interface will become a no-trust situation very rapidly.

Kejriwal’s political calculations are likely to destroy the very hope he engendered in the urban middle class. And by cynically playing the Congress’ game of trying to spoil the BJP’s chances by a premature expansion of AAP nationally, we are not only going to have a hung parliament in May, but send the split middle class back to a sulk at home. AAP needs to correct course or end up as the biggest political copout of this decade.

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