The Congress had its “aam aadmi”, the BJP has its “neo middle class”. Defined by the BJP as those who have risen from the category of the poor but are yet to stabilise in the middle class, the “neo middle class” figured prominently in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s maiden Budget speech on Thursday.
Another visible shift was the decision to name various schemes and programmes after RSS ideologues — the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission and Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. The New Teachers Training Programme was named after Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, who used to shuttle between the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha.
Jaitley, who was imprisoned during Emergency, also proposed a Jai Prakash Narayan National Centre for Excellence in Humanities in Madhya Pradesh, thus paying tribute to a leader who spearheaded the mass movement that led to Indira Gandhi’s ouster. An allocation of Rs 200 crore has been set aside for the Statue of Unity of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
The replacement of the “aam aadmi” by the “neo middle class” marks a definite shift in the NDA government’s approach. Even as Jaitley announced a slew of measures targeted at poverty reduction, the acknowledgement of the new aspirational class, a product of the post-liberalisation era, indicated that the politics of freebies, hailed as welfare schemes by the previous governments, may have come to an end.
It was in December 2012 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Gujarat Chief Minister, first coined this term in the BJP’s manifesto for the Assembly elections. In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP pledged to “meet the aspirations” of this “neo middle class”, saying they need “proactive hand-holding”. They formed a vital part of Modi’s social media strategy to reach out to the youth.
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“Those living below the poverty line are anxious to free themselves from the curse of poverty. Those who have got an opportunity to emerge from the difficult challenges have become aspirational. They now want to be a part of the neo middle class,” said Jaitley in his Budget speech.
Announcing the allocation of Rs 7,060 crore for Modi’s vision of 100 smart cities, Jaitley noted that the “neo middle class” has aspirations of better living standards. While setting aside Rs 200 crore for credit enhancement facility for young start-up entrepreneurs belonging to the Scheduled Castes, he again referred to their aspiration “to be a part of the neo middle class”.
While Modi has never given any specific estimates of the numerical strength of this “neo middle class”, the BJP, conscious of the section’s electoral clout, seeks to engage them through policy prescriptions to address their aspirations.