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Villagers transforming Asian cities

by Pankaj Mishra

Bloomberg

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 urbanized 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. Presently calculating his chances in India’s national elections this year, 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 urbanization — urbanization that as yet holds little prospect of development or prosperity for a majority of the urbanized. In that sense, his true model is not Johnson but another Asian politician from nowhere who also sings the glories of decentralization 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 decentralized governance that India is lurching toward and Indonesia has already embraced.

Pitted against a heavily centralized state and elite domination of the economy, both Jokowi and Kejriwal are working against the old top-down model of economic growth that, as I wrote in a previous column on Jokowi, opens up “massive disparities between the center 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, liberalized and globalized economies have created new urban middle classes, which in classical modernization theory have been expected to democratize 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 politicized 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, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His peculiar — some might say, malevolent — political genius was to forge an alliance between the rural and urban poor, who had 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 urbanization 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 mobilize agrarian classes and the proletariat have produced diminishing returns as landless laborers 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. Modernization theorists may continue to wait for a democratizing 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 urbanized villager may turn out to define the future of Asia.

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