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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 8, February 15, 2014

What about 2014?

Monday 17 February 2014

by Arko Dasgupta

If people are to be believed, 2014 is slated to be a year of much significance for India and its citizens. What makes 2014 so special? Is it the numbers at play? They add up to 7, which I’m told can be a rather lucky number. That, however, is not an answer good enough to convince even the most credulous mind. Ah, the Winter Olympics are round the corner (where our athletes will be competing not under the national but under the Olympic Flag) and we have the FIFA World Cup sometime after that. But wait, they’re both largely non-events to the (close to) fifth of humanity that populates India. Oh, then it must be the scheduled referendum on Scottish independence in the latter half of this year which should positively resonate with us freedom-loving Indians as it is Scotland’s chance to “awake to life and freedom” like we did nearly seven decades ago. Is that it? No, we still haven’t arrived at our answer and we aren’t getting any warmer.

There is however that small matter which is the bare minimum for a state to qualify as a democracy. Yes, that’s right. That electoral matter. We are made to understand that this year we—the ordinary masses—have been conferred magical powers that could be used to steer the nation in the direction of our choosing. Indeed 2014 shall be the year used to henceforth demarcate our modern history between the then and the hereafter, much like 1991 once was, or 1947 before that. If, we are told, we make the “right choice”, Shangri-La awaits us, and if we don’t, well, “we’re on the road to hell anyway”, if I remember hearing someone right.

The general election for the 16th Lok Sabha is predicted to be the mother of all events to be held this annual year. And why not? It is expected to pit the “strong man” against the “reluctant man”. The “ordinary man”, too, might roll in at the last minute; so it promises to be a more than interesting bout. Exciting battle-lines aside, one might still ask: what is so special this time round especially when both the major camps seem to believe that “good days are coming”?

This particular time the interest of the ‘great Indian Middle Class’ (very broadly defined, from the ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’-watching South Extension shopper to the aspirational small town IT worker in Gurgaon and Bangalore) in the political process is very palpable. The litmus test that demonstrated this most incisively was the Delhi Assembly election of December 2013 which saw a lot of buzz coupled with active participation by the metropolis’ middle classes. The same lot, who had a year before been water-cannoned and lathi-charged for protesting the dismal law and order situation in the city, gleefully exercised their franchise and got their fingers inked last month. Was this a result of a new-found enthusiasm in politics or the coming into court of a new entrant in the political arena? Critics differ in their reading of the affair.

The widely acknowledged apolitical middle class of the post-1991 variety which today, according to some estimates, rivals the population of the United States is suddenly enthusiastic about who might rule the country and who, bite the dust. Election Day now is more than a day off from work, it would seem. How much of this euphoria is genuine and heartfelt?

One should be careful before drawing too many conclusions from the recent display of political engagement by our middle classes. One might also be better off by understanding the nuances and graded placement of the respective socio-economic classes within the all-encompassing category called the ‘middle class’. More generally though, let us not forget that the middle class in near universal scope in our country comprises the same class of people whose blinkered nationalism and distaste for politics has never been suspect. This is best evident whenever an incident involving the armed forces at the international border with Pakistan—where Indian soldiers are at the receiving end—takes place or when our national eleven take on the same neighbour in a cricket match. In the former case, politicians face the music—mainly in television studios that serve not as centres that disseminate and analyse news but rather as opinion-airing agencies—and in the event of a loss in the latter scenario, our sportsmen, or sometimes the groundsman, had better watch out.

George Orwell got it quite right when in his essay ‘The Sporting Spirit’ he wrote: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe—at any rate for short periods—that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” Orwell wrote this before British India was partitioned and Pakistan came into being but if anyone had to capture the popular mood (chiefly middle class-cultivated) on either side of the border during a cricket contest and put it into words, the above quotation would fit most perfectly.

For India’s sake, however, we must hope that the middle-tiered class is unfeigned in its sudden show of interest in the “system”. For Mandela’s sake, don’t sacrifice his legacy at the altar of a selfie even if that managed to get more attention in our corporate-run, middle class-serving mainstream media than the man whose memorial service it was taken on.

Arko Dasgupta is a New Delhi-based researcher.

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