NEW DELHI—Americans dismayed by politics in Washington might find something familiar in what’s happening in India. Here, frustration with government has turned into rage. Last month’s gruesome gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman brought tens of thousands onto the streets. And while the protests have subsided, the anger is still palpable and media attention continues to highlight the problem of violence against women. More than a year ago, millions joined in nationwide protests against corruption. “The Indian people are the best in the world,” Arvind Kejriwal, one of the chief organizers of the anti-corruption crusade, told me. “But they have the worst governance, the worst politics.” In fact, the protests and rage are signs of India’s development.
In the past, mass agitations in India have been about religious nationalism or caste identity, or they have been demands for preferential treatment from the government. The more recent protests have a different character: They ask the government to perform its basic duties. Women are not seeking government spending on female empowerment programs. They are demanding that the police and courts function properly so that rape can be prosecuted in the manner required by law.
This is all a consequence of the biggest trend coursing through India right now: the rise of a middle class. The people joining in these protests are drawn largely from cities and towns. In the past, they have tended to think of themselves as a small group, politically irrelevant in a rural nation and thus apolitical. Their usual response to India’s problems has been to expect little of government and to find private-sector solutions, from security guards to schools.
In the United States, most of the country considers itself middle class, and politicians pander to that vast group in almost every speech and policy proposal. In India, politicians have generally pandered to the villager, a view reinforced by popular culture. Village life in traditional Bollywood movies has been portrayed as simple and virtuous. Cities were centres of crime and conflict, and housed a small, insular educated elite that could fend for itself.
But the past 20 years of economic growth have changed India. Such change has been apparent in economic terms, and now change is becoming apparent politically. By some measures, the Indian middle class is now more than 250 million strong, and 35 per cent of the population of 1.2 billion lives in urban areas. These numbers are growing fast. This large and now awakened middle class has an agenda — good governance — and is beginning to push it to the centre of political life. If this becomes India’s new governing agenda, the country will finally get the governance it deserves.
Most Indian politicians still remain stuck in their old modes. One member of parliament (and the son of India’s president) dismissed the protests against rape as coming from women who were “dented and painted.” As the angry reaction to his remark demonstrated, the political class must come to realize that there is a new India out there.
Three great forces are sweeping through the country: democracy, capitalism and technology. Democracy has given Indians political rights, but the people remained dependent on political elites and the state. Market reforms of recent decades have given Indians a greater measure of prosperity as well as economic autonomy. Capitalism rewards people regardless of caste, creed, colour — or gender. Add to these a technology revolution that is transforming the entire country, from cities to remote villages.
India combines the growth of an emerging market with the openness of a freewheeling democracy. The result is an information explosion. The country has more than 300 television news channels, in dozens of languages. Three-quarters of Indians have mobile phones. This technology is having political effects. Kejriwal explained to me that at the height of the anti-corruption agitation in 2011, he and other organizers had 20 million cellphone numbers to which they could send out messages — asking people to gather in places to protest.
India is going through its own version of the Arab Spring. People are demanding more of the system. In China, the great question is whether the incoming president, Xi Jinping, is a reformer because he would need to order change, top-down for that country. Here, the question is different: Are Indians reformers? Can millions of people mobilize and petition and clamour for change? Can they persist in a way that makes reform inevitable? This is the only way change will come in a big open, raucous democracy like India. Or America.