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Who are the middle class in India?

The idea and category of middle class is not new to India. It was in the early decades of the 19th century, during the British colonial period, that the term began to be used for a newly emergent group of people in urban centres, mostly in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, three cities founded by the colonial masters. Over time, this middle class spread its presence to other urban centres of the subcontinent as well. After Independence, with development and expansion of Indian economy, the size of the Indian middle class grew manifold. Beginning with the 1990s, the story of the Indian middle class witnessed a major shift. The pace and patterns of its growth changed with the introduction of economic reforms. By incentivizing private capital and encouraging foreign investments in India, the ‘neo-liberal’ turn helped India accelerate the pace of its growth substantially.

Popular views and academic analyses of the Indian society and its political processes have generally tended to place the differences of caste and community at the centre stage. Does the expansion of middle class imply a major shift in India’s political culture and social values? With its rise weaken and eventually end ascriptive hierarchies, based on caste, tribe and other such identities? Many analysts of the contemporary Indian scene tend to affirm this view. They see the ascendance of the middle class as evidence of a fundamental change in social relations and the mental disposition of the common Indian, the aam admi. This coming of age of the middle class is also viewed as the answer to all problems and challenges that India confronts in the 21st century. Once mobilized middle class has the capacity to dislodge the “corrupt” political elite and incompetent bureaucracy and turn the country into an efficient and modern nation-state. Individual members of this class, they argue, have already proven their worth abroad and can do so in India, provided that they are allowed to do so by the “system”.

However, the category middle class is not as simple and straight forward as it appears to be. The idea and identity of middle class is invoked in everyday life in contemporary India in a variety of different ways and contexts: urban and educated with a salaried job; qualified and independent professionals; enterprising, mobile and young women and men; consumers of luxury goods and services; a housewife of an urban family struggling to keep her domestic economy going with a limited income in times of rising prices; an agitated and angry office goer who always envies his/her neighbor for managing to keep ahead.

Even though being middle class in contemporary India is, in many ways, a matter of privilege, those located in the middle class tend to also view themselves as among those with a fragile sense of security. Along with the poor, they often complain about the manipulative and “corrupt” economic and political system controlled by the rich and the powerful, the wily elite. Middle class engagements with politics have been of crucial and critical significance in modern India; from the colonial period to present times. It is the middle class that generally produces leaders who challenge the existing power structures and provide creative directions to social movements of all kinds.

Mumbai Night City by Skye Vidur, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
Mumbai Night City by Skye Vidur. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The Indian middle class has also been accused of being a self-serving and self-obsessed category, indifferent to the poor and the marginalized. Middle class creates barriers and boundaries to keep the poor out of its sphere of privileges. On the other end, the poor aspire to join the middle class and work hard to achieve it. Even when they can’t afford to provide wholesome food to their children, they send them to private English medium schools with the hope that education would help them move out of poverty, to middle-class locations.

Besides its invocation in descriptions of social structures and spheres of inequality and power, the idea of the middle class is also invoked, positively, to describe the emerging Indian, who, through education and hard work, is trying to move upwards, with his/her own resources, and in turn, is transforming the country into a modern and developed nation. It is creative individuals from middle-class India who have been spreading themselves across the most valued and critical avenues of opportunities and expanding the Indian and global economy in neo-liberal times. Globally, mobile computer software engineers and management gurus of Indian origin, who have come to matter almost everywhere in the world today, all come from middle-class families.

The third popular invocation of the middle class is in relation to the market. As an economic agent, the middle-class person is a consumer par excellence. It is the middle class that sustains the modern bourgeois economy through its purchasing power. Given its location, middle class is presumed to be obsessed with consumption. Consumption for the middle class is not simply an act of economic rationality but also a source of identity. The shopping malls, mobile phones and growing reach of media are symbolic evidences of the growing significance of the middle class in India. Much of the advertising industry is directed at the middle-class consumer.

Identifying who belongs to the middle class appears to be quite simple: those in the middle, in-between the poor on one end and the rich on the other are all middle-class. Interestingly, this is how most of the contemporary discourse, shaped and shared by economists and policy makers, has been framed. Perhaps the only source of contention for mainstream economists has been the choice of objective criteria, income, consumption or something else, for drawing the boundaries on the two ends of the middle.

However, such a statistical view is limited and flawed because it tells us very little about the substantive social processes that unfold themselves through the emergence of middle-class social formations and how in turn middle classes in countries like India shape social, cultural and political life. Middle-class should thus be seen as a historical and sociological category. It emerges with the development of modern capitalist society, with markets and cities. Its rise implies the emergence of a new kind of social order: a system of ranking and social classification. It transforms the nature of social relations within communities and households; between men and women; and between young and old.

Given that it emerges historically within a given social context it does not necessarily transform everything in the pre-existing social structures of social inequality. Even when the rise of middle class transforms the way people think, behave and relate to each other, the process does not do away with inequalities of caste and community. Those trying to move up in the new social and economic order use their available resources and networks, including those of caste and kinship to stabilize and improve their positions in the emerging social order, with a new framework of inequality.

This is also the reason why the middle class is not as homogenous as it may appear at the first instance. Diversities within the middle class are many, of income and wealth as also of status and privilege. Middle classes are often sub-classified into the “upper”, the “lower” and “those in-between” segments, depending upon income, education, occupation, residence and life-style. As mentioned above, those who call themselves ‘middle-class’ or are classified as such, also do not abandon their other identities; particularly those that have been sources of privilege; of caste, community/religion and region/ethnicity. Thus, we have notions such as the “Bengali middle-class” or the “Muslim middle-class” or the “Dalit middle-class”. The rise and consolidation of a middle class within an “ethnic” or cultural group could work to sharpen those identities, rather than weakening or ending them.

Featured image credit: Colorful Goddess by Harsha K R. CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

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