Monday, December 23, 2013

Campa Cola Shows the Inordinate Power of the Middle Class in India Today

First published on NewsYaps on 20 November 2013

So I’m sitting there, all of 8 years old, listening to the conversation of a gaggle of aunts and uncles at a cousin’s birthday party. The topic revolves around the perfidy of maid servants, always a popular topic at our family gatherings.

“And that’s it. She just left. Without any notice, no nothing. And after all that I’d done for her,” an aunt complained bitterly about a recent maid in much the same vein as one would about a bad break-up.

These people are like that only, baba. No matter how much you do for them, it’s not enough. They know they can just skip to a different job whenever they want. They know that and take advantage of this fact,” chimed in an uncle sympathetically

“So true. Arre, it’s only us, the middle class, which has these problems. The rich, of course, have their own lives. And the poor, they don’t care. It’s us who get our backs broken,” said another aunt, following this up with an appropriate sigh.

This middle class lament, that they’re the only class with goodness, filled to the brim with virtues such as honesty, hard-work and diligence is rather common. Apart from this, another recurring theme is a narrative of victimisation: society, as well as the government, is out to get us and it’s only us and our hard-work that keeps us afloat.

Of course, like most self-portraits, there are large inaccuracies in how the middle class sees itself.  The exaggeration starts with the name itself. The middle class (defined liberally as those with an income in excess of 3.4 lakh per annum) actually occupies the top 15% of the country in terms of income. Looking at it mathematically, “upper class” would be a far more accurate name for this class of white-collar workers.

The other untruth of course, is this narrative of victimisation. This might seem like an obvious point—after all which state can victimise its richest, most powerful citizens?  Yet this narrative exists.  This was most recently seen in the Campa Cola Compound episode. Milind Deora’s letter to Sonia Gandhi captures much of this victimisation complex. The letter starts off with describing the residents as “law abiding middle class families” and then goes on to the blame the “builder/Corporation nexus” for this whole issue.

Of course, rather than abiding by the law, the residents were well aware of the fact that they were purchasing illegal flats. In February 2013, the Supreme Court itself stated that, “Although the members of the housing societies knew that the construction had been raised in violation of the sanctioned plan and permission for occupation of the buildings had not been issued by the competent authority, a large number of them occupied the illegally constructed buildings.

Most crucially though, rather than victimising the residents, the state went out of its way to help. In spite of the obvious illegality of the compound, so strong was the political class’ support that it bordered on the surreal. The Shiv Sena threatened to hit the streets against the demolition squad of the Shiv Sena controlled BMC, the Congress MP from South Mumbai, Milind Deora threatened Congress CM Prithviraj Chavan if action was not taken to stop the demolition and, of course, the cherry on the cake, the Supreme Court, taking suo moto cognisance of media reports, stayed its own demolition order.

Victimisation? Hardly.

To further make the case, the state has been far harsher with slums in Bombay, demolishing them at will.  The names of Golibar, Sion Koliwada, Ramnagar, Ambedkar Nagar and Ambujwadi come to mind where the residents were just as guilty/innocent as those in Campa Cola. But, of course, they had no media backing and had to go.

Following Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of bias in news, the English media pushes the interests of the middle class in order to keep up its funding which comes mainly via advertisements. Since its readers and the people who consume the advertisements are middle class folks, speaking up for their interests becomes mandatory for the English media. This media, thus, acts as a massive middle class pressure group.

Campa Cola is just one example amongst many of this phenomenon. This is the same mechanism at work which raises such a huge din when LPG prices are raised. Approximately 20% of India uses LPG and they are usually the richest 20% of India. Yet, the government subsidises this upper class and every small increase in prices is met with a strong push back led again by the media.

An even more egregious instance of this is the case of the BRT in Delhi. Multiple surveys have shown that the BRT in Delhi is actually hugely popular with bus riders, an overwhelming majority of the city’s population. Yet, the ruckus created by the English media has made it appear as if the BRT is a failure when the only people who think so are the tiny number of people who own private cars (for whom the roads have become more congested). So strong is this pressure that at one time the Supreme Court even cancelled the BRT system and the Sheila Dixit government has been forced to go slow on expanding the project.

In recent years, there has been a popular narrative of the middle class disengaging from democracy because, or so they moan and complain, there is no space for them here. The system is castigated loudly for being populist and politicians berated for pandering to "vote banks" (as if politicians hankering after votes in a democracy is just the worst abomination ever). Of course, as Campa Cola has most recently shown, vote banks are not the only things which push the levers of power. Far from being the frail little things the middle class like to cast themselves as, using their megaphone, the English media, they wield enormous power and influence in India; far more than the little power vote banks wield, in fact, as the sharp contrast between the treatment meted out to Campa Cola and slums of Bombay show. And as this middle class grows in size, its political influence can only get larger—something Milind Deora and the Shiv Sena seem to have grasped in this episode. This increased clout should certainly lead to interesting changes in the way politics is conducted in our country.

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