When Arvind Kejriwal picked up the baton from Anna Hazare unexpected a few weeks ago, India’s fight against corruption acquired a new vigor. The few past weeks have seen the exposure of Robert Vadra, the son-in law of the ruling Congress Party’s president, Sonia Gandhi; Salman Khurshid, law minister; and Nitin Gadkari, leader of the leading opposition BJP. Whether the movement against corruption succeeds or fails it is leaving behind an undying legacy—it has awakened the Indian middle class and Shashi Kumar’s story illustrates this.  

I met Shashi Kumar ten years ago. He was twenty-two and had recently joined an outsourcing call centre in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi. He came from a village in Bihar but his friends did not know that they had been so poor that on some nights they did not eat. Somehow his father found a job in a transport company in the nearby town of Darbhanga and escaped from rural bondage. But since they could not manage on his salary, his mother began to teach in an ‘informal school’. Her son held her hand as he accompanied her each morning and he was educated in the same school under her watchful eyes. Determined that he should escape the indignities of Bihar, she tutored him at night, got him into a local college, When he finished, she presented him with a railway ticket to Delhi.

Ten years later Shashi Kumar had become a success. Affable and diligent young, he had risen to a middle manager’s position, and exuded the self-assurance of a young man with a future. He taught his company’s employees to speak confidently in English to customers in America. He lived in a two-bedroom flat, which he had bought with a mortgage from a private bank. He drove a nice car and sent his daughter to a private school. What made his life different was a sense of life’s possibilities. He was a product of the new middle class, the fastest growing segment of Indian society. Had his father dared to dream of such a life in rural Bihar he would have been beaten by the landlord.

‘It’s a good time to be alive,’ said his mother, who was living with him in Gurgaon ever since her husband died.  ‘I don’t know how he managed it. I just saved a few paise each day and gave him a railway ticket. He did the rest.’

Shashi Kumar’s story goes back to 1991 when India opened its economy and  reforms in the telecom sector made it  possible for a company in America to ‘outsource’ its back office jobs to India. Engineers in information technology showed the way--they could write software at a fraction of the cost while America slept; in the morning, American companies had the IT solutions waiting for them. Gradually, outsourcing moved up the knowledge chain as accountants, lawyers, scientists, and advertising professionals began to do the same, and thus several million youngsters had found jobs in glass-enclosed towers in cities like Gurgaon across India.

I ran into Shashi Kumar last year again on the spanking new platform of the Guru Dronacharya station of the Delhi Metro. He was surrounded by friends and introduced them enthusiastically. All of them belonged to the new middle class who voted daily in the bazaar but hardly ever at election time. They had great clout in the marketplace but that did not seem to affect the nation’s political life as elections were determined by the majority in the countryside. All winners in India’s economic rise, they were waving flags and were headed for Ramlila grounds where Anna Hazare was holding an anti-corruption rally. An unlikely band of revolutionaries.
The train came and we squeezed in. A young man got up and made a place for me. I smiled, happy that some of the old courtesies of the road persisted in the razzmatazz of a rising India. The young men found places near me.

‘I hate politics and politicians,’ said Shashi Kumar. ‘They remind me of everything ugly in Bihar.’     

‘ But Anna-ji  has awakened us,’ added his friend, ‘by his dharma-centric leadership’.  To make a political revolution you had to first make a moral revolution. As my station approached, I got up to leave, but we agreed to meet the following Saturday afternoon at Cafe Coffee Day near Scindia House.

 Anna Hazare had also woken up India’s political establishment. No one can remember a time when so many powerful political figures went to jail, even if it was to await trial. Some of the credit belonged to Anna’s crusade, which had forced the government to bring the Lokpal, an anti-corruption agency, on the parliament’s agenda. In recent months the movement was in a state of confusion. But whether or not it survived, its legacy was secure—it had awakened the new middle class.

Some economists place India’s middle class at between a quarter and a third of the population. It is more or less consistent with the way the respected Economist magazine defined it in February 2009--beginning at a point where people have a third of their income left for discretionary spending after paying for basic food and shelter, and this allows for children’s education, some health care and consumer goods. It is a scooter-owning middle class, not a car-owning one—although its attitudes were probably similar. What this means is that a significant number of Indians have experienced a palpable betterment in their lives. For the first time in India’s history, dignity is being bestowed on middle class dreams.

India’s middle class upsurge is part of a global story. The fastest growing segment in the world, it is feeding on discontent generated by unfulfilled expectations. The new middle class helped to topple authoritarian governments in South Korea and Taiwan. In China, it is behind thousands of demonstrations calling for better public services. In other emerging countries, it is demanding better schools, cleaner water, and better hospitals. But in Europe and North America, the status of the middle class has fallen because of the economic crisis. Nevertheless, the anger of the middle class against corruption is universal.

Soon Shashi Kumar and his friends burst in. I heard them order lattes and cappuccinos, and marvelled at the ease with which habits changed when one entered the middle class. Many of them would not have seen coffee until a few years ago. They had grown up after 1991 without having to bribe to get a telephone or a gas connection. This also explained their impatience with corruption.

    The mood of the group was sober this week. The campaign against corruption wasn’t going well. One of the group announced that he had made a personal pledge not to bribe anymore. If everyone thought like this, he said it would lead to a dharma revolution and political change would come on its own.

‘What should we do?’ asked Shashi Kumar. ‘Yes, we want your advice,’ said another. They looked at me expectantly. I did not like this moral burden.
‘Well, you must engage with politics,’ I replied.
‘But we have jobs and families,’ wailed Shashi.
 ‘Start working for an hour every week in your neighbourhood in Gurgaon. You will learn what Tocqueville called ‘habits of the heart’, which he discovered in America’s democracy almost two hundred years ago. Make your neighbourhood corruption free and you may find your political dharma.’
There was a silence.

‘So, will you at least vote the next time?’ I asked.
Slowly one of them nodded.     

I felt injustices would continue in the world but young people like Shashi Kumar and his friends would also be there to disprove the commonly held view that the middle class was only self-absorbed, consumerist and callous. They could see life’s possibilities and therein lay dignity.