Those were stirring times. It was the time of class struggle. The two main classes, the proletariat and the capitalists, were constantly at war. The peasants were remnants of the old feudal order and had no future worth speaking of. Some of them metamorphosed into kulaks, who were promptly sent to Siberia. If you thought you were an intellectual, you called the capitalists the bourgeoisie. And if you disliked someone you called him petty bourgeois, heavily underlining the petty part. In short, it was the heyday of class analysis.
In the 70s, there were raging debates about whether Indian society was feudal or semi-feudal or bourgeois, with the comrades frequently liquidating each other for getting their analysis wrong. And what marvellous insults were traded: “paper tigers”, “running dogs of imperialism”, “capitalist roaders”. But then the Berlin Wall fell and China became a running dog of capitalism and nobody bothered about class analysis any longer. Maoists and Trotskyites turned overnight into reactionary software engineers or neo-conservative gym instructors.
In India, there was some talk about the rise of the middle class, or indeed of a consuming class. But this lacked the simplicity of the communist categories and the thrill of battle and nobody, except an MBA, is likely to get passionate about the consuming class. Like Maggie Thatcher’s society, class almost ceased to exist.
Thankfully, exciting times are back again, no thanks to the communists though. This time, as befits the more complex society that India has become, the old simplistic categories have been discarded and a completely new set of classes introduced. These are ordinary second class, sleeper class, AC chair car class, AC 3-tier class, AC 2-tier class and AC-1st class. The struggle between these new classes was amply brought out in the titanic tussle over the recent Railway Budget. Mark how the sleeper class and AC chair and 3-tier classes revolted against that flunkey of the AC 1st class Dinesh Trivedi and, under the leadership of Mukul Roy the Railway Revolutionary, succeeded in turning the tables on the oppressor classes. Clearly, power grows, not from the barrel of a gun, but out of a railway engine.
I’m not sure where railway employees fit into this new scheme, because many of them are seen travelling in 2-tier AC compartments, along with their families. Could they too be part of the AC 2-tier/AC 1st class ruling clique? Note that the old working class has now become part of the oppressors, because they sometimes go on strike and Didi does not like strikes. Also, we mustn’t forget the economy class and business class in aeroplanes. Given the lack of leg space and exorbitant prices for food, there’s little doubt that the economy class passengers are an oppressed lot, at least for the duration of the flight.
What’s more, the Union finance minister, a lackey of the taxi lobby, has exempted metered taxis from service tax, but included first class and air-conditioned class seats on trains. This is a direct attack on the exploited AC chair car class, who have just won the battle in the railway ministry. Observe how he favours the pampered taxi class, while discriminating against the AC train classes. See also his blow to the coaching classes, on whom he has levied service tax. We thus have an elaborate, if slightly mystifying, class analysis of present-day Indian society.
Nevertheless, the old slogans are back. Sleeper, AC chair car and AC 3-tier classes of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your seats.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint. Views expressed by the author are personal