ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Political Economy of India’s New Middle Class

Beyond Consumption: India’s New Middle Class in the Neo-Liberal Times edited by Manish K Jha and Pushpendra, London: Routledge, 2022; pp xviii + 205, `995.

There has been much academic focus on the expansion of the middle class in India even as there does not seem to be much concurrence about the various segments of this grouping, especi­ally the ones that actually constitute/represent this social cate­gory. Sifting through the scholarly literature on the middle class, it comes across as a “notoriously loose”/“indeterminate social cate­gory” with a “questionable explanatory value” (Deshpande 2003: 129; Joshi 2010: 1; Saavala 2010). The post-1990s India has witnessed the ­entry of a range of new social categories divi­ded broadly in social/spatial terms and also in terms of their orientations and choices. This may be attributed to several factors like the spread of education in ­Indian languages, growing urbanisation and industrialisation, affirmative action policies, and vast expansion of public sector jobs under a developmental welfare state. This explains why unlike the usage of rich or poor class in a singular form, the middle class is often refe­rred to in a plural form.

Essays in this edited volume, as the ­title itself suggests, focuses on the “new” middle class situated in the urban spaces, mostly big metropolitan cities, across the geographical regions of India and belonging to different communities. The editors suggest that the members of the “new” middle class are those

who have entered the middle-class post-liberalisation period, are beneficiaries of the liberalisation, have some disposable surplus income and are also inclined to consumerism and lifestyle enhancement, and ideologically who see the growth of their career and wealth in the success of liberalisation. (p 1)

Consistent economic growth over the last three decades foll­owing the economic transition that has witnessed “technological advancement … the increasing role of knowledge in the production process, and unprecedented expansion of the service sector” (p 1) has led to the emergence of the new middle class. What connects the members of this class is their shared “contempt for the public sector and state welf­arism” (p 2). Also, in political–ideological terms, the members show a “right-ward” orientation towards cultural nationalism and prefer a pro-business regime. However, in economic terms, the editors concede that the “new middle class,” like broader middle “classes,” also remain “internally differentiated” (p 2) into “lower-middle,” “middle–middle,” and “upper-middle” categories, and this is reflected in the varying degree of enthusiasm they have for the neo-liberal reforms.

These essays are mostly a product of meticulous field-based res­earch using mixed methods to analyse the social world of middle class belonging to different social categories like Nairs living near the Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, Dalits in Surat, upper-caste “old” middle-class families living in the two cities of Kolkata and Durgapur. There are essays that focus on the middle-middle and upper-middle segment based in the metropolitan cities like the “neo-liberal” Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai and also in the capital cities of the north-eastern states. The people/families studied/­interviewed are either employ­ed in the burgeoning private sector, including the information technology and services sector or are still in the traditional white-collar jobs. However, such classes are also getting affected by the economic transition as is discussed by Ibrahim Wani and Saima Farhad in their chapter on the Kashmiri middle class based in Srinagar.

Though the focus of most essays is on the newly emergent middle class, one also comes across a distinction in some chapters, including the introduction bet­ween the private services sector-driven “new” middle class and the predominantly public sector-employed “old” middle class. Shaoni Shabnam refers to it in her case study of the “Bengali” middle-class families (bhadralok) located in Kolkata and Durgapur. She suggests that the distinction between the “old” and the “new” is to be made mainly in terms of the choices they make related to acq­uisition and consumption. Sunil Santha, in his study of the changing social world of Nair families located near the corporate hub, observes how new mobile phone models and video games seem to them “more important than any other matters in their social world” (p 30). Kaustubh Deka in his paper on the “heg­emonic” middle class in the north-east observes how it has turned aspirational in the wake of new economic reforms. He refers to the newly found fascination for expensive cars and imported sports utility vehicles among the upper–upper middle class. There is a pronounced ­apathy and insensitivity among the new middle class as Manish K Jha and Pushpendra observe referring to its callous treatment of the migrant labour classes during the pandemic in Mumbai. They also refer to the general contempt the middle class has for the very people who serve them as living an “un-aesthetic, unhygienic, and chaotic” (p 12) lives in an “unintended” city space.

The “old” middle class, whose existence can be traced to the late colonial India and which inherited political power and influence after independence from the British, was relatively more modest and had a keen awareness about the social world around them that inhabited the underclasses (Joshi 2010). Flaunting/pursuing wealth was frowned upon in older times. It was also much more homogeneous—consisting of upper-caste Hindus, aristocratic Muslims, and other high-status professional/service communities like the Parsis.

As reading the essays in this book ­reveals that important commonalities appear between the old and the new middle class. First, like the new segment, the old middle class inhabited the urban spaces that had come up in the colonial era. Second, the new middle class has also retained its inherited caste and community- and gender-based privileges even as it seeks to delegitimise the language of caste (not religion of late) in the realm of politics as described in the chapter on the Dalit middle class by Sadan Jha. Third, the upper and middle–middle segments of the “new” middle class also remain the progeny of the “old” left-leaning liberal middle class, which benefited immensely from the developmental welfare state of Nehruvian “socialist” India. The important difference between the two is that the new segment has changed its social stance, now vouching for the benefits of the rolling back of the state from the social and economic sectors. By adopting a consu­merist culture aided by having disposable income, the “self-serving” new middle class has also made a major cultural shift from the old-world “modesty and understatement” in the way they go for a sort of reckless consumerism (Saavala 2010; Fernandes and Heller 2006: 3).

The embedded argument in the essays in this book is that it is the “new” middle classes’ concerns and choices that have increasingly influenced the country’s “policies, practices, and official discourse” (p 2) and have also been instrumental in the discernible ideological and cultural shifts associated with the ascen­dance of neo-liberalism in recent India. That the “new” middle class closely identifies as well as represents the significant ideological and cultural shifts that characterises contemporary India is an argument reiterated by many analysts. The argument, however, still rem­ains somewhat contentious, given the relative lack of the presence of the “new” middle class along with its perceived electoral apathy; a distinct disadvantage in what is primarily an electoral democracy. Measured on the criteria of the possession of income, occupation, consumption, education, lifestyle, taste, and values, the middle class as a whole does not constitute more than 20%–30% of the population in the assessment of the analysts like Sridharan (2004). Also, since there are “several self-definitions of what it is to be middle class,” it becomes difficult to grasp its numbers and to quantify it (Srivastava 2009). A counterargument can be that the Indian middle class—a product of colonial modernity—has always carried much more influence than its demographic weight. After all, a much smaller “old” middle class virtually “created Indian nationalism,” led the nationalist movement, and contributed immensely in the process of shaping important ideas and practices of modern India (Deshpande 2003: 143; Fernandes 2007: 18; Joshi 2010: xv).

However, a sizeable number of new entrants in the new middle class, especially the ones coming from the underprivileged social background, remain perpetually in a precarious situation as the editors of this volume observe. There is always a lurking fear among the lower-middle class of getting relegated to the lower-class status as the market fluctuates downswing. The less privileged segment of the middle class favours moderate reforms as opposed to “hard reforms” like relentless privatisation, as it still needs state employment as well as state-supported public institutions and services. The recent economic setbacks, following demonetisation and the COVID-19 pandemic, have made it evidently clear as even the middle–middle class did not ­remain unaffected.

Moreover, the deeply hierarchical and divided social structure and age-old cultural prejudices also come in the way of upward social mobility of underprivileged castes and minorities as Sadan Jha shows in his study of Mahyavanshi Dalits in Surat. Abdul Shaban and Sanjukta Sattar in their co-authored essay bring in both social and geographical variables. Using empirical data, they show that Muslims—especially in the northern, eastern, and north-eastern states—have a significantly lower share in the middle-class category in India.

The volume is an important contribution to the body of academic literature on the Indian middle class. The essays bring in a multidisciplinary approach to the subject. The contributors, mostly in the early stage of their academic careers, have used a variety of methods ranging from ethnography to survey-based case study method. Reading the essays makes one acquainted with the seminal contributions by academics on the subject in India, as the essays are full of references and citations. The volume, however, could be more valuable if the lower segment of the middle class living in smaller towns was also subjected to a study. There is also no single study of the “vernacular” middle class belonging to the peasant castes settled in rural/semi-urban India, which has benefited from the introduction of capital and technology in agriculture. Though the interface between the new and old middle classes comes up for discussion in a few chapters, the “old” middle class as it originated historically and evolved in colonial India is not ­taken up for deeper analysis. Also, the essays are more concerned about the ­social and economic world of the middle class and not so much on the visible shifts in political–cultural terms from the earlier deeply held secular liberal democratic ideas and values.

This edited volume is a good read for those who are interested in the fastest growing segment of India’s population— the one that carries far more weight than its number suggests.

References

Deshpande, Satish (2003): Contemporary IndiaA Sociological View, New Delhi: Penguin.

Joshi, Sanjay (2010): The Middle Class in Colonial India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Fernandes, Leela and Patrick Heller (2006): “Hegemonic Aspirations: New Middle Class Politics and India’s Democracy in Comparative Perspective,” Critical Asian Studies, Vol 38, No 4, pp 495–522.

Fernandes, Leela (2007): India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Saavala, Minna (2010): Middle Class Moralities: Everyday Struggles Over Belongings and Prestige in India, Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan.

Sridharan, E (2004): “The Growth and Sectoral Composition of India’s Middle Class: Its Impact on the Politics of Economic Liberalization,” India Review, Vol 3, No 4, pp 405–28.

Srivastava, Sanjay (2009): “Urban Spaces, Disney-Divinity and Moral Middle Classes in Delhi,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 44, Nos 26–27, pp 338–45.

 

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Updated On : 10th Jul, 2022
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