Where are the Popular Classes and How can the Anti-Corruption Movement be Radicalized?

August 23, 2011


This portmanteau article consists of two contributions on the anti-corruption issue:

1. Where are the popular classes? – Saroj Giri

2. How the Anti-Corruption Movement can be Radicalized – Deepankar Basu


Where are the popular classes?

In Venezuela, when the right-wing upper middle classes attack the progressive government, the popular classes come out in militant defence. Why is this not the case in India?

By Saroj Giri

The ongoing anti-corruption movement is dominated by social-network yuppies, YFE kind of rightist caste-supremacist anti-reservationists and Muslim-haters, Ramdev-Ravishankar followers, people who don’t vote and want Modi’s rule. Right or wrong? Right. It has touched a deep chord with vast sections of the popular classes. Right or wrong? Right.

The thing is, unlike Left intellectuals, popular classes do not as it were check the (right-wing) credentials of a person or movement before joining it – ‘joining’ here is not ‘an intellectual decision’, a choice. So rejecting the movement by reading the CV of its leaders or checking its formal declarations and credentials, can amount to a sterile radical posturing. Don’t give up on the popular classes just because they are today running behind Anna Hazare – for if anything it is not your denunciations of the right-wing, but precisely these classes that can possibly prove the right-wing’s undoing. And news is, India’s democracy and Parliament are not the allies of the popular classes – at least not when the latter are out in the streets and are feeling political.

News is also that the government’s social justice does not inspire the popular classes to now come to its defence and confront the selfish, authoritarian upper middle classes. I was imagining a vast militant rally of Dalits, Muslims, adivasis and the working classes in defence of ‘India’s democracy’. Or maybe something like the suspension of Operation Green Hunt and a historic alliance of the government with the Maoists and all those on the left, a popular front against the right-wing upper middle class onslaught! Or is it that instead the government will ultimately reconcile with the so-called right-wing middle class mobilization – which only means so much of affective energy and agonizing over the government-Hazare conflict is contrived. There is a lot of inter-elite shadow boxing happening – so there are no sides to be taken here and the only intervention can be one of retrieving the political agency of the popular classes.

Coming back: so yes, the anti-corruption movement definitely has an upper middle class right wing core, with a cross between a Modi and a Lee Kuan Yew as inspiration. Yet, call it the constraints of seeking hegemony, this movement is nothing without the participation of the popular classes – without the involvement of the popular classes, the dabahwalas and autowallahs, the legitimacy of this movement would drastically shrink. The RSS might be mobilizing for this movement but this is an anti-corruption movement and not a movement for Ram temple. There is always a gap beyond the control of RSS functionaries. These are the constraints of what is called ‘hegemonic politics’. Team Anna has to and does speak, for their own good, in the name of the nation – and the nation includes (thankfully!) classes that might prove dangerous for any right-wing agenda (and for a left-wing agenda too if ‘the right’ successfully mobilizes).

What is clear today is that the popular classes are not with the Parliament and its democracy. The way to fight the so-called authoritarianism of the middle classes is therefore not to defend the rotten Parliament and democracy but to increase the assertion of the popular classes beyond Team Anna.


Some Dalit leaders and left activists have rightly denounced the right wing core of this movement. However we must ask why it is that Dalits and other popular sections do not feel inspired to be proactive in defending social justice, defend the Parliament and Indian democracy. Thus here you have the most decisive indictment of Indian democracy and its progressive avatar – the basic orientation of these social policies for the poor and the marginalized were to contain them and their resistance in order to ease the passage of neoliberal policies. Instead of any real politicization of the popular classes, they at best led to interest groups and pro-state factions within deprived or marginalized communities – so that even social movements were so focused on getting this or that progressive social policy passed, as is the case today where the Left is supposed to back the best version of the Lok Pal Bill.

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has an interesting way of not reducing the popular classes to mere recipients of benefits but of keeping them politicized, so that they have their own political subjectivity. Hence they fight right-wing upper middle class mobilizations, defending Chavez and the government often with great militancy.

In India, however, the popular classes have sensed that the Parliament and the political dispensation here (precisely in its democratic best) is more interested in democratic containment than any real ‘empowerment’ of the masses. Even if the democratic spaces provided by Parliament can be sometimes used to further develop the progressive movement, the government’s basic orientation is to favor a right-wing agenda. Moreover, Indian democracy has been opportunistic right since its inception in and around 1947. It can be shown for example that it was really to contain the demand for separate electorates that secularism for minorities and reservations for Depressed Classes were adopted. Today the proponents of Indian democracy talk about secularism and reservations as though they emanated from a singular and definitive commitment to these ‘values’. Similarly it is only to defuse the situation after the Telangana armed struggle that bhoodan (land redistribution) was carried out. More recently you have for example the Home Secretary saying that Forest Rights Act is necessary in order to contain the attraction adivasis have for the Maoists. So it is not entirely inexplicable that the popular classes rally behind the so-called authoritarian upper middle classes than defend the present Parliament and its democracy.


And yet, were the dangerous classes to assert themselves, the right-wing middle classes will most likely go over to gang up with the Parliament and the government – the default mode. They are extremely chummy on intensifying Operation Green Hunt, on the question of terror, privatization, relations with the US-Israel axis and so on. That is, both ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democracy’ would be on the same side – no real divide between the two.

This shows that this divide cannot be sustained in any real sense. It is only when the dangerous classes lie low that the dominant classes enter into internal conflict and disagreements even though their fundamental class interests are the same. Thus, the so-called authoritarianism of the middle classes is merely a continuation of the authoritarianism of the Parliament and the ruling classes.

This is not to deny that there is a fight for now between authoritarianism and democracy. This fight is about the hawkish middle class telling the government to shed off the democratic garb and tone down mass politics and instead usher in ‘clean governance’, technocratic rule and fast growth. Thanks to Parliament and its democracy, the dangerous classes are internalized and included enough to no longer require reservations, rights, social justice, mass democratic politics and the like. How long will inclusive democracy, reservations and so on continue? If democracy and reservations continue beyond what is necessary to contain the poor and the marginalized, then they become part of corruption: vested interests, vote banks, appeasements and so on.

Social justice is equal to corruption. That is the equation the right-wing middle class is trying to establish. Hence the best way to fight the social justice and push the free market agenda is to say merely that you are against corruption. Those opposing NREGA are not going to tell you that they are against the poor or that they are against social justice. They need only self-righteously say that they are against corruption and that will do the trick. For, isn’t it established, the argument goes, that NREGA leads to corruption, vested interests, and ultimately to vote bank politics?

The crucial upshot: the poor can not only be deprived of the benefits of social justice policies but can also be mobilized for the same, all in the name of the apparently just cause of fighting corruption! So if the popular classes are so coopted, so internalized and included in democracy, then why bother with social justice and representative democracy and so on. Bring about Modi style rule all over the country with high growth, public amenities, and a happy people about to transform India into another Hong Kong or Singapore!


To recap:

Social justice is about democratic containment (by the Parliament and the government)

Anti-corruption is about technocratic containment (pushed by the right-wing forces).

Since technocratic containment is pushed in the name of a benign sounding anti-corruption movement, the popular classes get enrolled in this right-wing agenda.

The left response cannot be to choose ‘democracy’ (read democratic containment) over ‘authoritarianism’ (read technocratic containment) since they are really two sides of the same coin, just two modalities of rule. That is, there is a link and continuity between the Parliament, the authoritarian middle classes and the present version of the anti-corruption movement. The conflict within the dominant classes (the Anna Hazare versus government stand-off) is about the hawkish upper middle class trying to push the government to bite the bullet and usher in a full-fledged technocratic regime.

Lastly, imagine: the Maoists publicly announce that they are sending (and they actually can!) one lakh adivasis (ok unarmed) to Ram Lila Maidan to join the fight against corruption. What impact will this have? Will these new ‘participants’ simply dissolve and become part of the right-wing agenda or will their intervention radically change things? For the political impact to take place, the Maoists do not even need to actually send them: only give a call and see what follows. The point is to grab the initiative instead of counting our beads and getting depressed by the right-wing character of this movement. Clearly this means we are neither for this or that so-called best version of the Lok Pal Bill. The only way forward from the viewpoint of the popular classes is to take the anti-corruption movement in new directions (the CPIML Liberation has taken a step in this direction). Anti-corruption cannot be separated from the question of social transformation. Can we take this idea forward?


Corruption As Double Surplus Extraction, or How the Anti-Corruption Movement can be Radicalized

By Deepankar Basu

What lies behind the sudden upsurge and growing strength of the anti-corruption campaign in India? Here is a hypothesis worth considering: this anti-corruption movement is the political expression of the growing economic power of the middle class.

One of the main beneficiaries of the quasi neoliberal economic reforms of the past three decades has has been a group which we can call the middle income group (the middle class, in popular parlance). Steady and high growth for two and a half decades has caused their incomes and wealth to rise substantially; in short, their economic power has increased. The anti-corruption movement is the political expression of this phenomenon. It is an attempt by this rising middle class to assert their power in the political domain, to push the State to provide services that they need. In a figurative sense, one could probably sum up the primary thrust of the movement, so far, as follows: the middle class has bought the cars, and now it wants the roads to drive the cars on. And they will push the State to build the roads. So far so good.

But there is a vast section of the population which has been more or less completely bypassed by the economic reforms. This is the working class of the country, what the late Arjun Sengupta had termed the poor and vulnerable. The slogans of the campaign have, so far, not moved to issues that concern this group, the working class, the poor, the vast majority of whom inhabit the informal sector. Their conditions of work and livelihood are marked by extreme precariousness and uncertainty. They work for very low wages, often under dangerous and unhygienic conditions. They do not, usually, have collective bargaining rights, and their employers do not provide any job security or social security. If the anti-corruption movement mimics the neoliberal growth process and bypasses the concerns of this section, the vast informal working population, then it will be ineffectual. Only if issues that concern the daily lives of this vast majority of informal sector workers are incorporated into the anti-corruption movement, is there any chance for the movement to become a peoples’ movement.

For, in the ultimate analysis, corruption is a means of siphoning off “extra” surplus from the working people. By whom? By state employees, politicians, criminals and bureaucrats. It is “extra” because the primary surplus would have already been extracted when the worker sold his labour power to the person she works for, or sold his product to the middleman (if she is a petty producer). The income of her employer already contains the surplus extracted from her labour. Within a corrupt system, now she has to pay even more from her paltry income for services that the State (using her tax revenues) needs to provide to her and her family members. That is why it is extra; it is surplus over and above the surplus that has already been extracted. To be concrete, think of a poverty stricken family which has to pay a bribe to get a BPL card, or a peasant who has to pay a bribe in a state hospital for the doctor to take a look at his ailing daughter, or has to pay a bribe to a SBI official to get his loan application reviewed. Or, think of the panwallah (or the rickshawalla, or the thelawalla), in short the petty producer, who has to regularly pay bribes, out of his already measly income, to the local police and municipal authorities and the musclemen of the local politician.

So, what are the issues that could radicalize the anti-corruption movement? Regular employment contracts for informal sector workers with collective bargaining rights, affordable housing and public transportation, health care centers which the poor can access, schools for their kids (with mid-day meals or other such provision), employment guarantee schemes for the rural and urban poor, no forcible land acquisition for corporate sector projects, a Public Distribution System that works, RTI to make state employees accountable, and similar issues. In short, to press for the creation of the rudiments of a welfare state that is responsive to the needs of the working people.

Middle class participants in this movement have often raised a valid point: the rich have no real stakes in the anti-corruption movement. The rich are not bothered too much about corruption, they can buy their way through the system. If at all, corruption is minor irritant. For a middle class person, the stakes are higher, the loss much more real. That is true. But it is a hundred fold more important to the poor. The middle class participants have so far only looked to the rich for comparison; now, they need to look towards the poor.

The same point that the middle class participant raises about the rich can be turned into a point for him to think about. The middle class household can send her kids to a school which functions like a school; the informal sector worker or the small peasant cannot. The middle class person can at least buy health care services from the private nursing homes; the poor worker cannot. If the state hospitals do not function, the worker has nowhere else to turn to during medical emergency. For the poor, in short, all the services that even a rudimentary welfare State would provide are far more costly, often impossibly so, for her to purchase in the market.

If a political force can re-orient the raging anti-corruption campaign and bring the concerns of the working poor front and center, then the campaign has the potential to develop into an important political movement. Adopting the surplus viewpoint would be helpful in radicalizing the movement.


8 Responses to “Where are the Popular Classes and How can the Anti-Corruption Movement be Radicalized?”

  1. rahul banerjee Says:
    August 24th, 2011 at 13:41

    this movement has been fanned by the media to a great extent. if the media had not covered the first fast in april things would not have built up so much. now the second fast also has been hugely covered by the media. there is no organisation to speak of its just spontaneous outburst. the moment one tries to radicalise this movement the media will move away and so will the spontaneous upsurge. there are no shortcuts. hard work has to be done at the grassroots to build up a mass movement and that is lacking.

  2. BB Says:
    August 24th, 2011 at 15:19

    Your comments are simply disgusting, bereft of any logic. Its a different issue that for a successful mass movement we dont need self-proclaimed leftists, which they simply want to ride on(just like the political right). So today the fact is hitting at their face that they are not needed as sole conscience keeper of the country! Only amusing thing is this, we have never seen a pro-establishment, pro-govt, pro-votebank pseudo-leftists like Indian left! We never need your certificate for a mass movement like janlokpal.

  3. Amitayus Says:
    August 27th, 2011 at 14:39

    The problem with the radical left or rather left idealogue is that they never care for any introspection. It’s true that media played a big role, RSS also pumped up support, but it will be extremely naivete to brand it right wing upper middle class onslaught. The fact of the matter remains that Anna inspite of being a Class VIII pass, non-English speaking grass root level worker could catch the imagination of the people which others have failed to do. Media also try to fan up so many other things, but it never raises pulic outcry in this scale.
    But I was stuck by one comment, “However we must ask why it is that Dalits and other popular sections do not feel inspired to be proactive in defending social justice, defend the Parliament and Indian democracy”. I mean when did it happen? Dalit parties and groups have special attachment to the constitution (kindly check BSP’s lecture in the RS today) as Dr Ambedkar was its architect. Even this is referred to this agitation in particular, I don’t know whether any demographic survey of this amorphous agitation was ever done. Maybe the respected writer in his extreme quest to trash the constitution and the so-called ‘pig sty’ democracy, jumped to this radical conclusion. Another stunning conclusion is ‘What is clear today is that the popular classes are not with the Parliament and its democracy’ although polling percentage in the past elections don’t support these amazing conclusions.

    There is no doubt some right wing support, RSS head Ram Madhav has openly espoused the cause. There is no doubt that anti-reservation slogans were raised inthe rally which is in poor taste. But one has to remember that it is not a structured agitation, anyone with any agenda can join in and be a part. I do not like the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ which is not secular. Yet, what led Medha Patkar, Santosh Hegde, Binayak Sen, Swami Agnivesh to support the movement? Have they too joined the Modi-Kew bandwagon? Are they too anti Dalit, anti minority, anti-reservation?

    The basics of any successful movement is understanding the wishes and aspirations of the mass. The movement in Junglemahal fizzled out once PCPA went through a spree of intimidation, killing, organizing kangaroo courts and became just a vassal of the Maoists. Hence many basic issues related to life and livelihood was never appreciated by the broader mass. On the contrary, Anna’s non-violent approach touced the hearts of millions clearly showing moral power and strong will force may be more potent than IEDs & AK 47s.

    But when the objective is “The way to fight the so-called authoritarianism of the middle classes is therefore not to defend the rotten Parliament and democracy but to increase the assertion of the popular classes beyond Team Anna.” there is no need for any objective analysis and introspection. Rather it might be one of another ‘n’th attempt to franctically increase the file of the near impending Long March (frantcially waiting for it for the past 40 years but never took off beyond butchering some constables and grass level political workers in ‘people’s court’).

  4. Biswa Says:
    August 29th, 2011 at 06:46

    Superb analysis Mr Giri…No body can put across the issue as clearly as Mr Giri.

  5. K M Venugopalan Says:
    September 2nd, 2011 at 02:47

    I am reminded of the kind of responses in many “free thinkers” like forums when I expected wide sharing and discussion of Roy’s criticism of JLP bill. Arundhati’s recent remarks in an IBN-CNN channel interview might have drawn much appreciation in silence; nevertheless,it appears to me that more vociferous were her critics who almost said like she had no right to express!
    For many who are taking the side of radical politics,
    Arundhati Roy certainly commands great respect all over the world for her much known critical engagements with the neoliberal power structre. Such people happen to be ‘skeptics’ of anti corruption fasting and the JLP draft pushed by Team Anna with some reason!.Those criticism are already put there in visuals and sound bytes and even in print..Why people supporting JLP,Team Anna etc don’t want to address directly criticism and rather want to engage in diatribes personally attacking Arundhati for the so called elitism, desire for being in limelight , ‘narcissism’ and so on?

  6. Tariq Amin-Khan Says:
    September 2nd, 2011 at 14:58

    Not being an Indian I may not have the nitty gritty details about the so-called anti-corruption ‘movement’ (which represents an amorphous and eclectic mix of people — egged on by the media — a mix that is really fed up with rampant corruption). However, I was moved to read Giri’s piece because I was favourably impressed by his earlier analysis of the Naxalite/Maoist movement — hoping to find an insightful analysis of Anna Hazare’s antics.

    Regrettably, Giri’s (as well as Basu’s) analysis was really disappointing. Roy, I feel, was much more insightful. If the left has learned any lessons from history — going all the way back to the Paris Commune to how the left in Pakistan helped propel Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to power (only to be later attacked) — is that the readymade organizations/movements of the middle and upper classes (the bourgeoisie/the petty bourgeoisie) or the readymade machinery of the bourgeois state cannot be utilized to take control of its leadership or to radicalize it. As Rahul in his comment above has already noted: there is no substitute for hard work on the part of the left to organize and capture the imagination of the peasants and the working classes. The ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of position’ as Gramsci so cogently recognizes (based on his involvement in the council movement in the Risorgimento) that resistance may be ambiguous when carrying out these ‘wars’: the subaltern may be progressive on some issues and reactionary on others. In other words, the Indian working class and the peasantry are not ‘naturally’ progressive though they will readily become progressive as they come to understand exploitation and oppression – a task currently undertaken by the Naxalites – which means that the ‘masses’ will have to become similarly aware and organized before they can be radicalized to oppose the likes of Hazare.

  7. Som Says:
    September 11th, 2011 at 02:04

    First, I want to comment on the piece by Mr. Giri. It clearly shows that Anna’s movement has created panic not only within the Govt, but section of radical Left, too. It also sheds light on the chronic problem of Radical…..the often turned into characteristically the same persons whom they are fighting against. Where from did he reach the conclusion about the character of the masses who joined Anna’s movement ? And did he forget that FB & Twitter users were in the forefront during the recent Arab Revolution ? What makes him think that only Leftists can bring revolution ? Is he worried because Anna’s movement has shown such possibility ?

    And Leftist often talk about Dalits, Muslims etc. Well my question is how many of them consider some Leftist as their leader ? How much organisational presence does the Lefts have among these people ? If Dalits have separated themselves from Anna, they’re not rallying for Maoists either !

    Certainly media had a great influence in Anna’s movement ; middle class people took the forefront ; & it was not well-organised . But the movement could never have been such a success if not people felt that Anna has credibility(a reason why Ramdev’s actions were not accepted in that largely). Also in the later stages, people from the lower class have joined the movement. And after all, can you question people’s concern about corruption ?

    Mr. Giri have mentioned Chavez & Venezuela in his article. I must remind him that Venezuela has a democratic structure, & his alliance didn’t get absolute majority in last Parliamentary election in 2010 (PSUV got 48.3%, where main opposition MUD got 47.2% & PT got 3.1%). Many of his Left allies have joined the opposition, & I doubt how the Lefts will judge some recent actions in Venezuela – like sentencing a trade union leader 7 yrs of jail for staging strike over unpaid wages (thankfully, the decision was over-ruled by Supreme Court).

    And finally, Mr. Giri seems to be over-confident about Indian Maoists. He must remember that they have little organisational presence outside forest regions, & the Adivashis are not the only poor people in India . And I would also question Adivashi affiliation with the Maoists. In recent Assembly election in WB, Chatradhar Mahato, the PCPA leader & face of famous Lalgarh Movement, contested from Jhargram seat(remember Maoists have actively supported this movement). He got 20,000 votes….below 13% of total votes casted(TMC won the seat) ! Now, why didn’t majority of the people didn’t consider him, who has been fighting for them for 2 yrs, worthy of being their representative ? Is PCPA’s organisation power much lower than it’s talked about ? Or people have lost faith in him ?

    And my final question……why isn’t there any Adivashi in Maoists’ highest decision-making committee, the Politburo ?

  8. Chepal Says:
    December 11th, 2011 at 14:32

    Saroj’s perception of anti-corruption movement is not an ‘analysis’ at all, as claimed by commentators above. It is, i think a leftist perspective of what and how the opponent(rightist force) on the other front is organising and consolidating its position to combat the growing incapacities and crises born out of its own contradictions.

Leave a comment