NEW YORK – Asia’s urban migration is bringing about an “explosive transformation,” the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid writes in “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”: “the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity and potential.”
The political potential of this transformation is immense across the region — first underscored three decades ago by Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries, who built a loyal constituency out of the peasantry uprooted by Shah Reza Pahlavi’s grandiose attempts at double-quick urbanization.
More recently, demographic shifts in Turkey brought to power, and then for a decade made nearly unassailable, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra made himself central to Thai politics by mobilizing Bangkok’s urban poor in conjunction with the previously unrepresented rural masses of northern Thailand.
Urban areas have more recently spurred the emergence of a new kind of charismatic politician — Jakarta’s governor, Joko Widodo, in Indonesia and New Delhi’s new chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, in India — whose unconventional backgrounds make them attractive to voters disillusioned with professional politicians. That popularity allows them to bypass old networks of patronage and vote-gathering based on caste, religion and region.
Across Asia, the authority of older political, economic and military elites is being challenged, and often overthrown. Fresh social networks, nongovernment organization-style activism and refurbished media-friendly symbols — such as the Gandhi cap worn by Kejriwal — are defining an alternative way of doing politics.
The urban working classes as well as members of the professional middle classes have managed to disrupt the balance of power among established politicians and power brokers and businessmen.
But most accounts of this Asia-wide phenomenon, which hail the triumph of “participatory democracy” or the advent of the “common man” in a post-ideological age, avoid mentioning another “potential” of this explosive transformation: explosive conflict, which a broad economic slowdown makes more rather than less likely.
The revolt of the masses, for instance, has triggered a counterrevolt of the elites, which were always unlikely to go gently into the night. Middle-class anger over Thaksin’s remote-control dominance of Thai politics has paralyzed the country and damaged its economy.
Erdogan, who once enjoyed near-Ottoman suzerainty over Turkey, confronts a coalition — of the urban middle class and business, military and bureaucratic elites — not dissimilar to the one that drove Thaksin into exile.
Kejriwal’s unexpected electoral gains in Delhi were secured by a combination of middle class and urban poor voters. But this coalition — in which the middle-class desire for transparent and efficient governance fused with the underprivileged demand for basic social welfare — is unlikely to last Kejriwal’s stint in his office, and his welfare programs are aimed at the numerically superior poor.
The ongoing protests against Thaksin’s sister in Bangkok show that a country can be paralyzed by a clash between what the Thai sociologist Anek Laothammatas calls “two democracies”: one built around formerly rural masses who favor politicians who shower them with subsidies, welfare programs and business opportunities, and the other revolving around the existing urban middle class, which hates such populism, fears the assertiveness of freshly politicized social classes, and tries to bring down what it perceives as venal and inefficient governments.
In India, of course, political loyalties are fragmented further by caste solidarities, and other forms of identity and patronage politics. These can be superseded in a place like Delhi by local issues of corruption and governance. So Kejriwal, promising equal rights of citizenship to all, doesn’t need to avidly court traditional power brokers among different caste communities just yet.
Still, it’s only a matter of time before ideological discord erupts among his left-leaning colleagues, middle-class volunteer-activists and lower-class voters.
Kejriwal’s decision last week to cancel the previous government’s decision to allow foreign direct investment in multibrand retail is likely to be supported by small-shop owners and traders, if not the more affluent residents who voted for him, or the corporations that have suddenly begun to take a close interest in his political prospects.
Establishment politicians and commentators baffled and disconcerted by his rise are already demanding clear statements by him on many divisive issues, such as the role of the army in India-ruled Kashmir. Cutting short the customary honeymoon period for elected politicians, mainstream parties have started to attack him for his apparently populist decisions.
For now, Kejriwal may seem the beneficiary of an age in which there are no left-wing parties or movements capable of nationally deploying social antagonisms and conflicts to their advantage, and even radical politicians prefer to present themselves as ideologically neutral to all.
Pitting the ruled against the rulers, he offers an attractively simple political program. Certainly, vagueness — or appearing to be all things to all men — is an undeniable asset in politics.
But he will have to reckon with, even in Delhi, let alone the rest of India, a polarized landscape — one where increasingly, the rural poor, urbanized villagers and the urban middle classes live in tense proximity, amid the inescapable and mounting contradictions and conflicts of class as well as caste.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.