In recent years, there has been a constant stream of international attention given to the Indian middle class. Thanks to the expansion of this class, India’s image has dramatically changed since the 1990s. Instead of the narrative about grinding poverty, India is now seen as the heart of new capitalism that is associated with high rates of growth as well as the consumerist elite and middle classes. The changing landscape of cities is dotted with shopping malls, multiplexes, apartment buildings, restaurants, and luxury cars even as the poor are driven to a dismal existence in the peripheries.
Notwithstanding all the attention given to India’s middle class, it is important to note that this is a comparatively small segment of the population. Economic liberalisation, education, job reservations and individual enterprise have contributed to the expansion of the middle class. Even so, the growing middle class is approximately only a fifth of 1.2 billion people. The absolute numbers are very sizeable but relative to the whole population, the middle class is small and not anywhere close to the middle in income or living; importantly, it does not constitute the majority or median category of the population.
However, alongside the elite it has had a disproportionate influence in shaping government policies as well as the values and discourses of a range of public institutions that the two classes overwhelmingly dominate.
Despite the growth of the middle class, the oppressed and exploited lower classes are numerically much larger and the majority among these live in abject poverty without basic amenities such as decent schools, health centres and sanitation — this in a country now celebrated as a global player. At the same time, the deepening of democracy and political churning at the bottom of the pyramid has changed the consciousness of oppressed groups in a large measure and produced a new sense of dignity and self-esteem. It has made these people more politically aware of their entitlements and the benefits of development denied to them.
The middle class feels insecure and resentful in response to this sense of challenge from below. This has given a sharper edge to the long-standing fracture between the “Two Indias”. There is now the “thriving” India, mainly urban, technically skilled and entrepreneurial, with close links to the globalised world. Then, there’s the “other” India, mainly rural but also growing in urban centres, left behind because it lacks assets and skills. The hiatus between the two has grown. However, this “other” India is also demanding and aspires to access opportunities available to the new middle class in urban centres.
The middle class has enjoyed a vast economic clout but has remained politically marginalised in a huge democracy in which rural masses still dictate election outcomes. It is perhaps this marginalisation that gave rise to the expanding wave of middle class activism across India in the last few years which catapulted this class to the centre-stage of politics.
The situation started to change. The middle class is now a vocal and influential political force. Further, the rapid growth of the past decade has fuelled rising aspirations and expectations; it has led the middle class to expect continuing improvements in standard of living. But after the economic meltdown, this class has become disgruntled as it fears erosion of income gains by inflation which has been fairly high in the last three years.
Recent grievances have also arisen from political dissatisfaction relating primarily to poor governance, unprecedented corruption scandals and the lack of safety for women in public places. The middle class blames politicians for everything that is wrong in the country, especially mismanagement of the economy. Whereas the previous middle class saw some politicians as heroes, idolising Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the contemporary middle class mostly regards politicians with absolute contempt, placing greater faith in business leaders or, in some cases, non-governmental organisations. That middle-class politics stood for a vision of systemic social transformation, and supported radical ideas and movements; the new middle-class politics lacks a social vision and is principally interested in issues and causes that matter to them.
Aided by the media, the burgeoning middle class is increasingly able to mobilise as a coherent group, as demonstrated by the crucial role it played in the anti-corruption campaign in 2011-12. Thousands of people took to the streets to demand a strong anti-corruption law. The campaign drew people from all classes, but it was dominated by the urban middle class whose assertiveness and political weight have, consequently, increased.
This campaign precipitated the emergence of the middle class as a politically active force. It focused its ire on government, politicians, and bureaucracy as the chief source of corruption while ignoring the complicity of the private sector in corruption associated with the privatisation of state property and transfer of resources such as land, minerals, and natural gas among others to private players. However, a spotlight on corruption appeals to everyone as it keeps other pressing questions of inequality and injustice at bay.
India has not done enough for the economic empowerment of the poor. The persistence of mass deprivation and vicious inequalities should be morally and economically unacceptable in a democratic society. An economy with sustained high growth for close to a decade could have done much more to ameliorate the condition of the majority of its people. Seen in this context, what is striking is the indifference of the middle class to the misery of others and its disinterestedness in issues of equity, social justice and economic fairness. The new middle class discourse is all about GDP growth rate, governance and delivery of services to its members.
Economic growth and human development are inextricably linked, but there is widespread scepticism about government attempts to balance the economic prosperity of the middle class with measures for social protection of the poor, even though India has enacted far fewer social policies than one would expect from such a poor democracy.
The middle class is critical of rights-based legislations such as the Right to Information (2005), Right to Employment (2006), Right to Education (2009) and Right to Food (2013) initiated and passed during the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance government. Far from supporting an entitlements-based approach and much needed welfare measures to lift the poor out of poverty and destitution, this class seems opposed to the politics of the poor.
The public debate over the Food Security Bill highlights this phenomenon. The new law aims to provide nearly 70% of the country’s population with five kg of subsidised wheat, rice and coarse grains every month. The middle class criticism on this has revolved around the idea that this is a wasteful expenditure designed to win votes in an election year; critics want the government to curtail public expenditure on food security on the premise that such spending will increase fiscal deficit and impede growth. The middle class is angry that resources are being wasted on ‘populist’ policies and subsidies, wilfully oblivious to the fact that the elite and middle classes have managed to capture public resources like fuel, food and education subsidies, often at the cost of the poor.
Numbers matter in electoral politics; yet, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are going all out to woo the relatively smaller numbers in the middle class at a time when the economy has witnessed a loss of momentum causing both a political crisis and policy paralysis. Both the parties are trying to do so because of a power shift towards the urban middle class and away from other more numerous classes that wield socio-political influence in India’s democracy.
Earlier, the struggle for power took place through political parties and the influence of any class was considered in relation to the numerical weight of others within parties. True, the leadership of parties came from the middle class but the compulsions of electoral politics meant that their influence had to be balanced against that of the numerically stronger classes in parties. As a result, the political influence of the middle class fell far short of its economic weight. This contradiction only grew after economic liberalisation, but this has changed with the greater assertiveness of the middle class which began to exercise influence even without active participation in the electoral process.
Rising middle-class protests and the importance given to them by various parties and governments signalled an important shift in Indian politics in terms of the changing balance between state and civil society, and the influence of the latter, not only in policy-making, but also in electoral politics. Now it seems the middle class is poised to play a greater role in the political narratives of the general election of 2014.
Zoya Hasan is Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her recent books include Congress After Indira: Policy, Power, Political Change (1984-2009), and Politics of Inclusion: Caste, Minority and Affirmative Action.