What comprises Asia’s new force?

Tags: Opinion

Arvind Kejriwal’s advent is a sign that the urbanised villager may define the continent’s future

What comprises Asia’s new force?
UPTOWN COMMONER: Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal at the NCC Republic Day Parade Camp in New Delhi on Wednesday
Last week in an upmarket part of Delhi, where ap­artments sell for millions of do­llars, I came across a ho­usehold where both the poorly paid staff and the owner had voted for Arvind Kejriwal, the former engineer-turned-politician, who is now the new chief minister of the Delhi capital region — India’s most urbanised state.

This was not an unusual sample by any means. The urban poor toiling at the lowest levels of Delhi’s economy preferred Kejriwal, as did the affluent class that longs for a technocratic government and a smoother integration into the global economy.

It does indeed seem that a fresh episode in Indian — and Asian — politics began last month with Kejriwal’s victory. Rising on a wave of disaffection with the corruption and inefficiency of established political parties, his Aam Aadmi (“common man”) Party adds an Indian dimension to a worldwide phenomenon: the emergence of external challengers — ranging from Beppe Grillo, a comedian, in Italy to Imran Khan, a sportsman in Pakistan — to entrenched political elites.

Kejriwal not only evokes the chief executives of large cities — such as Boris Johnson in London — that stand aloof from their socially and economically backward hinterlands. Calculating his chances in India’s national elections this year at present, Kejriwal may well follow the example of Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, previously mayor of Istanbul, and leapfrog into national politics.

But Kejriwal confronts many challenges as an aspiring national politician in a substantially rural country undergoing an extensive and risky urbanisation — urbanisation that as yet holds little prospect of development or prosperity for a majority of the urbanised. In that sense, his true model is not Johnson but another Asian politician from now­here who also sings the glories of decentralisation and advocates “bottom-up” gov­ernance: Joko Widodo, Jak­arta’s governor.

Widodo, better known as Jokowi, came to politics after a successful career as a businessman, and is his country’s most preferred candidate in this year’s presidential elections. Al­ong with Surabaya’s mayor, Tri Rismaharini, he is a product of the kind of decentralised governance that India is lurching toward and Indonesia has already embraced. Pitted against a heavily centralised state and elite domination of the economy, both Jokowi and Kejriwal are working against the old top-down model of economic growth that op­ens up massive disparities between the centre and the periphery and rural and urban areas.

Many of their supporters belong to the “floating mass” of workers from villages. From Thailand to Turkey, liberalised and globalised economies have created new urban middle classes, which in classical modernisation theory have been expected to democratise their countries. But we have yet to take on board the impact of a bigger, much less understood and politically more significant demographic: urban migrants connected to their homes in the hinterland through the flow of remittances, investment, culture and ideas, and steadily politicised with the help of print literacy, electronic media, job mobility and mobile phones.

In the metropolis, these first-generation migrants lack the political networks or sturdy ideological loyalties that determine their votes at home; they can be persuaded to vote for anyone who seems to promise relief from corruption and injustice. In many cases — such as the Anatolian entrepreneurs in Istanbul, rural elites from coastal Andhra Pradesh in Hyderabad or rural magnates from Karnataka in Bangalore — they have accumulated enough power to shape domestic politics, with important co­ntinuing effects.

The most famous and significant Asian representative of this demographic is, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra. His peculiar —some might say, malevolent — political genius was to forge an alliance between the rural and urban poor, who had long been ignored by traditional ruling elites, thus clearing a new space in Thai politics. With its superior voter base in rural northern Thailand, Tha­ksin’s party has, since 2006, routinely provoked an anti-democratic backlash among Bangkok’s middle class and royalists.

India has quietly undergone an even greater demographic shift than Thailand’s: The population census of 2011 revealed a faster rate of urbanisation than any of the previous decades. To take one example: mobile phone subscribers grew from 45 million in 2002 to almost a billion in 2012. The rural can no longer be seen in isolation from the urban, except in very remote areas.

The consequences of this new fluidity for many established parties have been serious. Those working with the old dichotomy of rural-versus-urban, such as the Congress Party, have been caught napping by rapid socioeconomic and demographic changes, and have declined irrevocably. The old Left’s plans to mobilise agrarian classes and the proletariat have produced diminishing returns as landless labourers move into the informal economy of urban areas. Even parties relying upon primordial caste and religious loyalties have st­ruggled, after their initial success in the 1990s, to secure a reliable base among an increasingly diverse and demanding mass of voters.

It is in this fast-altering political landscape that Kejriwal’s party has arrived. Modernisation theorists may continue to wait for a democratising middle class, and leftists are unlikely to abandon their faith in working class revolutions. But Kejriwal’s advent is one sign among many that, contrary to received wisdoms of the 20th century, the urbanised villager may turn out to define the future of Asia.


(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” a Bloomberg View columnist.)


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