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The New Indian Middle Class

By Neerja Dasani

06 April, 2010

It is the inherent insecurity that might explain the passivity of the new Indian middle class, content to watch from the sidelines the spectacle of democracy but unwilling to enter the ring for fear of losing its seat, writes Neerja Dasani

The last days of March have come with a lesson: Inequality is in the DNA of this country. While the ‘well-heeled and classy’ celebrated the return of the Victorian ballroom to the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai with a private event, 29 platoons of armed police forces, two platoons of National Security Guard commandoes and 70 ‘top’ police officers were attacking residents of Kalinga Nagar, Orissa, for daring to oppose the development of a mammoth Tata Steel plant.

It was not 26/11, so most people would have probably forgotten that this is the same place where 14 people were murdered by the state police on January 2, 2006, for fighting the same lopsided battle.

The ‘we the people’ media has always been partial to Ratan Tata. Singur was seen as a national shame but no one has directly questioned him over the damning report by the Ministry of Rural Development, which named Tata and Essar as the first financiers of the ‘Salwa Judum’, the peace hunters of Chattisgarh. The actions of the corporate-state nexus have been described in the report as the “biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus.”

Democracy today belongs to the highest bidder. But this conflict is not the creation of a single corporate house. Eighty years ago the political theorist M N Roy had railed against a class which was willing to sacrifice the country’s freedom for its self-interest. In an essay titled ‘The Indian Bourgeoisie and the National Revolution’, he reported: “On the morrow of the annual meeting of the National Congress, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce met, for the first time in its history, in the presence of the Viceroy. The Chairman of the Federation, Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas, an industrial magnate of Bombay, discoursed on the atmosphere of a threat to law and order, and appealed for legislation checking the revolutionary development of the labour movement… and indicated to the Viceroy their willingness to co-operate in the suppression of it.”

Very little has changed since then. If anything the group, now referred to as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), wields greater power than ever before. In its recent report on ‘National Security and Terrorism’, it commands the government to “shake away its socialist lethargy” and “reassure the global investor about the ‘India rising story’ ”. This it feels can be done by allowing privatisation of security, imitating the internationally condemned United States Homeland Security and even possibly employing surgical strikes on Pakistan. There is a whole section on dealing with the mineral-rich northeast region, which the corporates are vying to get their earthdiggers onto.

This would explain why there is always enough money in the coffers for defence but never enough for ‘socialist’ items such as healthcare, education and agriculture.

As human lives become increasingly privatised, the Human Poverty Index, based on 2007 data, places India 88th among 135 countries, 26 places down from the last report. The section of the population that would be watching these developments most closely is the middle class, a group rife with contradictions, but which the Greek philosopher Aristotle considered to be “the best political community.”

In post-colonial India, says the anthropologist William Mazzarella, the middle class were identified as “Nehruvian civil service-oriented salariat, short on money but long on institutional perks.” Post-liberalisation, the “new” middle class, as a social group, is seen as one capable of negotiating India’s new relationship with the global economy in both cultural and economic terms.

The mainstream media, which plays only to the gilded gallery, churns out new versions of this story on a daily basis. Global conglomerates can barely conceal their joy at the prospect of these untapped markets. An article by the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, titled, ‘Next Big Spenders: India’s Middle Class’ (Businessweek, 2007) gushed that “the country will soon become a nation of upwardly mobile middle-class households, consuming goods ranging from high-end cars to designer clothing,” adding that “companies that fail to understand the unique desires and tastes of the new Indian consumer will miss out on a half-billion-strong market that along with China ranks as one of the most important growth opportunities of the next two decades.”

According to the political scientist, Leela Fernandes, the dominant narrative of the middle class’ rise is a cultural and normative political project that helps shape the terms of national development and identity. It is marked by a set of interests that are identified with India’s embrace of a free-market-oriented approach to development.

In her book, India’s New Middle Class — Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform (2006), she argues that this social group represents a construction that operates as a proponent of economic liberalisation: “At a structural level, this group largely encompasses English-speaking, urban white-collar segments of the middle class who are benefiting from new employment opportunities (particularly in private sector employment).”

What emerges from this analysis is that the homogenised, consumerist-driven version of this group is more fiction than fact. The corporate-government coalition would like the middle class to believe that it can buy its way to the top in the same way as it has. Once the people believe in the ‘morality’ of the market, they will dismiss inequality not as a structural/systemic failure but as a natural outcome, something beyond its control.

But not everybody is buying this story. The reason is partly situational. People in this group find themselves in the privileged position of not having to worry about where their next meal will come from but do at the same time feel the pinch of skyrocketing food prices. They might not think twice about bribing the traffic policemen to waive off a driving offence but they cannot afford to buy an armed platoon to protect their business interests.

But there is also a less cynical reason, one that has an ideological basis. Having witnessed the sale of democracy and felt more keenly its day-to-day effects, the middle class is also most likely to be an ally of social resistance against oppression and in defense of democratic rights. It is often this same class that translates people’s needs into bureaucratic terms for policy advocacy. And it is often here that one finds solidarity with global struggles seen as manifestations of local battles.

This same activism though is often used to defend its own normative notion of democratic space, one that demands strict action against ‘illegal’ slums, street vendors and ‘beggars’. The philosopher Wiliam James believed that “the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilisation suffers.” This insecurity might explain the passivity of the new Indian middle class, content to watch from the sidelines the spectacle of democracy but unwilling to enter the ring for fear of losing its seat.

Perhaps, it can place its trust in George Orwell who said: “We of the sinking middle class may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose.” He should know; he was after all a prophet.

This article was first published in Sunday Herald





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