Saturday, Feb 04, 2023

The New Middle Class

Ahead of Independence Day,a look at the new entrants to this growing stratum.

Who is the middle class? what defines it? Ahead of Independence Day,a look at the new entrants to this growing stratum,and what its politics could mean for the country

Rustom Ansari (39),the son of landless tillers from Motihari,Bihar,still remembers how his parents would keep aside whatever food they had for him,and how they ate only after he had had his fill. After graduating from high school,with some initial support from a family for whom his father worked as a cook,Ansari hopped across several cities — Delhi,Agra and Muzaffarnagar (both in UP) and Siddhpur (Gujarat) — learning a variety of skills,from spinning cloth to threshing wheat,to working in a sugar mill. Having worked as a small contractor for a few years in Siddhpur,he set out on his own as a sub-contractor for Buhler,a Swiss flour mill company. Now based in Indore,he is the owner of a company that assembles machines used by flour mills and has an annual turnover of Rs 12 crore.

Santosh Yadav (28) is an advocate in a village off Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. He runs Elite Speaking,an institute that teaches spoken English,with the sole aim,he says,of giving the educated the confidence they need to get jobs. “In cities,even the uneducated get good jobs because they are confident. But people from rural backgrounds,despite degrees,can barely speak. I started the academy to change that,” says Yadav,who prefers to speak in English. “Confidence” is built by getting students to converse in English. Students include children of farmers,truck drivers and other residents.

Raj,a safai karamchari (sweeper) from Outer Delhi,has seen her daughter breach a divide that once seemed unthinkable. The 56-year-old woman from the Valmiki (Dalit) caste is filled with quiet pride every time she speaks about her daughter,who teaches in a Delhi college. There is one regret though — she chose to marry someone outside her caste. Though it may signal the fall of another wall,for Raj,it’s a betrayal.

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Much has been said and written about the great Indian middle class. But people like Ansari,Yadav and Raj,who are stepping out of their old boundaries to define new ones,are,say experts,the new middle class. Several factors have come together in this story of social mobility — the opening of the economy,support from the state,job reservations,the need for the young to secure jobs,cheap telephony,growing literacy,deepening democracy and individual enterprise. Their stories go beyond the story of grit and individual brilliance overcoming an insensitive “system”,or the Shining India of call centres and Silicon Valleys,both narratives loved by urban India. They reveal that a new,distinct “middle” India is breaking through. It comprises people who have been ignored so far,heard but not heeded,spoken but not talked to — who are now more articulate than ever.

While the debate on the number of poor in India and the rate of decline of poverty will continue for longer,what is uncontested is the rise in the number of people above this line in the last 30 years.

The UN,in a recent report called The Rise of the South (2013),says the middle class is increasing in number across the world,a rise unparallelled in the last 150 years,and it is being fuelled not by the West but by Asia,Latin America and Africa. In 1990,the global middle class — defined as earning between $10 to $100 a day — comprised 1.8 billion people,and a clear majority lived in Europe and North America. By 2020,projections say the global middle class will have expanded to 3.2 billion people,with more than half living in the Asia-Pacific region.


Unlike in the US or Europe,where the development of the middle class was slower and more homogenous through the 20th century,in India it was more diverse and harder to define. Among the earliest benchmarks was changing consumption habits. A McKinsey report in 2006 estimated that by 2025,the Indian middle class “would rise 10-fold,and from 50 million amount to 583 million”. Another estimate by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in 2011,said that by 2016-17,this “consuming segment” would be around 267 million.

But as management and marketing consultant Rama Bijapurkar points out,there are several layers within this large segment. “It could include all those who shop for expensive brands at big malls; those who are on cheap tickets to Bangkok,complete with elderly parents and babies; or all the second-class travellers on a Janshatabdi train; and it extends all the way to those for whom haute couture is China-made accessories available in local markets,who consider pizza a gourmet meal,” she says.

For sociologist Andre Beteille,the key to differentiating the middle class from the working class is simple: to look at “whether they work with their hands or not”. Citing a study in Bhilai by anthropologist Jonathan P Parry,which spoke of people distinguishing kaam (work) from naukri (job),Beteille says,“In India,how we define the ‘middle’ is a composite of many factors,like wealth,income,occupation and education. Our pre-occupation with hierarchy,perhaps because of the caste system,makes it even more elaborate. What binds the ‘middle’ together could be disdain for manual labour.” By this definition,Ansari,Yadav and Raj’s daughter are new entrants to the middle class. For the purpose of this essay,we look at those whose economic circumstances have changed dramatically within their own lifetime,or those who have watched the change closely affect their children. Beteille also adds a significant point: that while in the UK and Europe,the “middle class has expanded so much so as to become coterminous with society,this has not happened here”.


Economist and sociologist E Sridharan,who has written extensively on the nature of the middle class,points out the wide variations within the middle class,depending upon the criteria picked. “While several scholars say it’s the middle class that has pushed the state to go for economic reforms,I see a contradiction. More than 58 per cent of the middle class has its origins in the public sector. So while it wants market goodies,it also wants free or subsidised water,power,fertilisers or credit,” he says.

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta,who authored a book on the middle class called Mistaken Modernity (2000),believes that identifying the middle class only by looking at what and how much they consume is problematic. “In most modern societies,the middle class is not about acquisitions,but the extent to which the ethic of modernity is internalised. In a modern society there is a built in,un-thought-out,un-self-conscious acceptance of the ‘other’ as equal to you in the most basic respects. In India,we confuse modernity with things or with habits (like drinking,driving or using machine guns or nuclear-tipped missiles). Even slums and urbanisation do not define modernisation. At best,they give indications of it. This is because urbanisation signifies a release from rural India and the cultures of the past where a person was not known by achievements but by birth,and so on. Yet,unless relations between people do not change fundamentally,urbanisation can co-exist with patron-client relationships,where the privileged and the underprivileged are programmed from the start to lead separate lives,” he says.

Satish Deshpande,dean of sociology at Delhi University,argues that the term “middle class” is “too elastic to be coherent as yet” in India,and there isn’t a particular social behaviour you can ascribe to it. What the middle class expects is fuelled by rising aspirations and ambitions,but it is still not very clear what they want. “We sense an incoherence in the contradictory statements about what this class wants. But we must realise that this is what it is exactly,a work in progress,struggling to be clear about what it is leading up to.”

The politics of the new middle

Suresh Kumar,the 30-year-old son of a factory hand from Almora in Uttarakhand,taught himself English and is now the first point of contact for a reputed travel agency when their foreign clients land at the New Delhi airport. His priority is the education of his children so that they “are able to lead a better life”. The eldest studies at a Navodaya School in Delhi. Kumar owns a fridge,an LCD TV and a cooler,and is waiting to get his passport. He has no fixed views on politics and prefers to stay away. However,he does hope politics would soon mean “more work done for people in my village and ordinary people in the city”. His political choices,unlike his father’s,he says,are not dependent on his neighbours or kinsmen. He doesn’t exhibit any overt loyalty to any party and makes up his mind closer to an election.

Vinod Kumar,28,works in Mumbai as an art director. From Ranikhet in Uttarakhand,his father did several odd jobs,including working at a gun store,to provide for his children and to ensure that they studied. Vinod started to earn money when he was in Class VIII,as a tutor to younger children,till he cleared school. After a course in mass communications,and a lucky break in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as an intern,he got a chance to be a production designer for Vicky Donor. Kumar says his views on politics have changed,but it is unclear if that can be attributed to his improved financial status. “We initially knew of just one Rajiv Gandhi and one Doordarshan. Now we know the names of chief ministers of Bihar,Tamil Nadu and others. There are at least 22 news channels I can think of… there is so much choice and things have changed,” he says. For politicians,he has little but contempt. “The Congress and BJP seem to be collaborating to obstruct genuine development of people or cities. How is it that China has developed so many cities,and India has been in the business of developing Delhi since 1982 and even that is still not complete?”


Khalid Mansoori (36) is an engineer and a senior manager with a leading multinational company in the National Capital Region. His father,who lived in Bareilly,was a tailor. He ensured that his children got a good education and understood its value. Now married and with three children,Mansoori’s economic situation is completely different. He doesn’t think that he is less careful about his vote now that he is visibly middle class. “We know the value of our vote and we make sure we vote whenever it’s time. I am just more aware of how it will not change my circumstances as much as I used to think it would.”

While it is even more contentious to generalise about the politics of the middle class,there appears to be a divide between the angrier views of an older elite,who identify themselves as “middle class”,and the emerging set.


The Federation of Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) in East Delhi boasts of being the first to have brought RWAs of Delhi’s middle-class colonies together—it is an association of 71 RWAs. Sitting at a property dealer’s small but air-conditioned office,spokesperson VN Bali lays out a blueprint for “fixing” the system. “The MLA fund should go to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi,where we will tell them how and where to utilise it,” he says. He is contemptuous of the mass voter,“these jhuggi-jhopdi walas whom I feel sorry for,but who are all bought over by the lure of alcohol and free meals”. The president of the federation,Anil Bajpai,who came to Delhi in the mid-1980s from Uttar Pradesh,says they had approached MPs with their solutions on everything from black money to bad roads. “Very few got back to us. We don’t have any political representative who hears us.”

It is perhaps anger at being sidelined that one saw during the Lokpal agitation or the Delhi gangrape protests. “The mid-80s saw the RWAs emerge as a player in local politics. In Delhi,especially,the Asiad 1984 saw a large number of migrant labourers move to the city to build infrastructure and you saw the evolution of gated colonies,which marked a particular moment in urban life in India… While earlier,the middle class in the national movement led causes and spoke for the poor,now it’s for causes it feels deeply about,” says Dr Sanjay Srivastava at the Institute of Economic Growth,Delhi. The Delhi government has helped in this,he says,by pampering the middle class through the Bhagidari system,“hearing their voice,trying to draw them into politics via the RWAs”. “When this middle class felt that it was the politics of the poor that was preponderant and it was no longer working for them,RWAs and PILs became a mode of this particular type of politics they practised.”


Satish Deshpande,head of the sociology department,University of Delhi,also sees the common refrain of “justice for the tax-payer” in political terms. “This group came together in the 1990s,across regions. They paid taxes and wondered why there should be politics of the poor. Having acquired a critical mass,they wanted their affluence to be ‘hassle-free’ and to acquire political power commensurate with their economic heft.”

Despite being derisive about politics and politicians,the middle class should not be thought of as apolitical only because they may not vote as enthusiastically,says Prof Leela Fernandes,from the University of Michigan and author of India’s New Middle Classes: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform (2006). “The media and public sphere are key avenues for the expression of the voice of the middle class. The public sphere has an impact on policy in nuanced ways that are not contingent on elections. Thus,the middle class may have other avenues of pursuing its interests.”

But while this is the story of a middle class that was a product of the 1980s and later,more people have claimed membership of this club after the 2000s. Many of those entering the ranks of the middle classes,has shifted,within one generation or less,from kaam to naukri.

Its numbers,though not yet calculated as a set different from the old middle class,are huge and its political views are less easy to classify. Described often as aspirational,it appears hungrier to establish itself economically first. Anger against the state is also not so visible or articulated as in the entrenched middle class,whose politics seem to reflect an insecurity about this new assertiveness — seen in the surge of migrants who are claiming a better life through education and jobs in India’s cities. The older middle class,which has so far claimed that label,with all its moral weight,is arguably the elite —and possibly a much thinner slice of a larger middle it wants to represent.

Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen sees a marked gulf between the politics of the more established middle classes today and a time when a new middle class was born,in Bengal in the 19th century or during the national movement in the early 20th century. “Then the middle class was not seen as middle class because of economic criteria,but because they were better educated,read newspapers and had other elitist qualities. Radical thoughts came from this group and they gave voice to the voiceless,that is,the poor,and did not speak for themselves as a class. Today,to call somebody middle class,the economic criteria is important. It is different now.”

In the coming year,it will be interesting to see what kind of a specific appeal political parties make to this “middle class”.

First published on: 11-08-2013 at 23:21 IST
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