Name of the book: The New Indian Middle Class: The challenge of 2014 and Beyond
Author: Pavan K. Varma
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
Place of Publication: Noida, Uttar Pradesh
Year of Publication: 2014
Reviewed by: J.N. Manokaran
This book is a good analytical and insightful book on contemporary Indian middle class. “The young republic of India is in crisis, and the Indian middle class is both an eloquent participant and a marginal spectator. “ The author provides: Seven reasons why the role of the middle class has transformed:Has a reached a numerical size of significance; Identified as class and can transcend other loyalties; has acquired inspirational footprint that is pan-Indian; Young middle class; revolution in terms of information and communication; and tentatively and selectively is getting involved in issues. Reason seven: “And lastly, never before has the Indian middle class been angrier at the failure of government, the mismanagement of the economy, and the corruption, cynicism, lack of idealism and the moral bankruptcy of the political class and those who are in the collusion with it.”
The author also writes about the ‘Bullock capitalists’ … who benefited from subsidies of agriculture and beneficiaries of Mandal Commission. He likes to define middle class as one ‘who has a home to live in and can afford three meals a day for the family, with access to basic health care, public transport and schooling and some disposable income to buy such basics as a fan or watch or cycle, has already climbed on to the lowest level of the middle class bandwagon. By these parameters, the middle class could well be more than half of our total population of over a billion, below the two per cent of the very rich and above those below the poverty line, or those not destitute but still very poor.”
The author states that the stranglehold of caste on the middle class has loosened. I am not sure if that is true?
“The revolution in the ‘physical mobility’ has been accompanied by the emergence of pan-Indian symbols which are more a part of a national identity rather than merely state affiliations. This has been a slow process, but radio, films, television, media, fashion, internal tourism and supra-regional lifestyle trends have been a pivotal contributing factor.” The pan-India middle class is a new phenomenon and needs more academic studies.
“As importantly, all of the middle class is caught in the thrall of a consumerist surge that values material success for more than the preservation of caste purities. People want to buy an apartment irrespective of who lives next door; they aee willing to work to earn more whatever be the caste of employee they manufacture what cells, and buy what the market has on offer without a thought about hitherto sacrosanct caste taboos.” The author simply forgets how Muslims were not sold homes in apartments where only families that preferred vegetarian lived. The author claims that the salad bowl has become melting pot. This is also not acceptable, hence debatable.
“This newly empowered class is, for the first time, showing signs of stirring out of its insular social burrow.” The middle class is upset with: 1) slowdown of economy; 2) price rice; 3) governance is not optimal; 4) cynicism against political class for lack of ideology and ethics; 5) corruption in public life and 6) public safety and law and order. “The fact of the matter is that the middle class, far from robustly opposing the visible debasement of public life, both withdraw from it and, by its very absence compromised with it.” (Page 30)
The author admonishes to learn from history. Mrs. Gandhi declaration of Emergency was meekly accepted by the middle class. Mrs. Gandhi politics – ’that ideology could be made to serve narrow, personal ends, and that to do so was both justified and effective.” Middle class accepted the suspension of democracy with an unbecoming readiness. So, Sanjay Gandhi cleaning of cities were welcomed. “They were the poor, who – in the general estimation of the middle class-defiled the aesthetics of the neighbourhood, spread disease, fostered criminals, and laid claim illegally to already scarce municipal resources.” Middle class thought that poor multiple like rats. The Middle Class during emergency were more interested in immediate like correct time of trains but complicit in the curtailment of fundamental rights. “The inability to forge a larger and more informed perspective on national issues, and view them beyond the prism of immediate and narrow self-interest, has been a weakness illustrated by the other development as well.” They did not think about people below, so opposed Mandal Commission report implementation.
Contemporary middle class is interested in economic progress alone. “The obsession with consumerist gratification was matched by a near total indifference to the millions still wallowing in the most unspeakable poverty.” The obsession of middle class is well said: “The general approach was to get on with one’s life by any means, to carve out a tiny island of well-being in a sea of deprivation.” It excludes masses. “The end product was the acceptance of a certain kind of lifestyle insular, aggressive, selfish, obsessed with material gain, and socially callous.
Middle class is also indifferent to the well-to-do towards civic responsibility. Middle class is also hypocrite. “This gulf between public protestation and personal ethics is part of a debilitating hypocrisy the middle class live with – and ignores – in everyday life. Payment of bribe is bad when we don’t want to; it is good if it gets us what we want.” The author fails to bring to focus the “Honour and Shame” culture verses “Truth and Justice” culture. “The immorality associated with it is subsumed by an ingrained inclination to be worldly wise.”
“The ability of the middle class to work for what it may genuinely believe to be a good cause will be greatly diluted by its inability to comprehend between personal malfeasance and the larger public good. This lack of introspective and courageous interrogation will, unless reminded, continue to keep it ideologically rudderless, impatient for change but unable to accept the mandatory moral investment required at the personal level.” Middle class is indifferent or unconcerned about those outside, especially poor.
The author clearly warns: “The middle class cannot pursue its dream of greater prosperity for itself if the bulk of India is in unacceptable poverty. Except in fantasy, one cannot build a first floor of upward mobility and wellness without a ground floor and basement to rest it upon. A nation is much like a house, where even if floors constitute in some respects a separate entity, the building itself is functionally an integrated whole.”
The underlying reasons for protest seems to be constructive, change oriented and pro-reform. The author is worried about: Money and muscle power still pervasive in politics. Middle class is reactive and not proactive. Cerebral laziness is the identifiable reason. A middle class person by watching 24/7 tv thinks he understands all issues. Actually he knows little about every thing. “The explosion of information through cyber space, newsprint, social media and television as created a saturation level which can now only handle ‘speed news’”. “I have always been struck by the high decibel level of their indignation and the low level of their knowledge of underlying causes or solutions. They are usually articulate, accurate and eloquent about what is visibly wrong, but hazy, ill-read, superficial, or plain blank about what can concretely be done about it.”
The author brings out clearly the focus of middle class that could be a disaster. First is: Magic wand syndrome. Angry impatient middle class seeks magic wand that bring immediate solution. One key that opens all locks. For example Lokpal bill is one such magic wand.
Second, they also look for messiah to outsource sacrifice. Anna Hazare is one such example. This herd finds a new shepherd. The result would be strong autocratic leaders
Third, When the middle class seeks simplistic solutions. A leader will emerge who would promise simplification of problems. The middle class assumes development as the solution. “A class permanently on the escalator of upward mobility considers economic growth to be of paramount importance. Economic growth for in essentially means more jobs , more income, less taxation, and more consumer goods.”
Four: Another issue would be nationalism: supra nationalism, chauvinistic, macho and even xenophobic. The author reminds that: Hilter came to power on the planks of development and nationalism.
Communal polarization is dangerous for India. “In a country like India, endemic communal violence will affect every body, everywhere.” The author exhorts: “The middle class in making its political choices, must make the fundamental transition from being an educated and upward mobile class to a concerned and socially sensitive one. It must shed its social insularity to embrace the wider realities of India as a whole.” There is no question about the need for economic progress of India. “India needs economic growth, but not one which further increases the divide between ‘India Shining’ and ‘India Sinking’.
The author is also concerned about dynastic politics that devalues vibrant democracy.
The Indian middle class is devoid of moral reference point, rudderless, direction less, lacking ethical compass. Sadly, the middle class India looks economic prosperity for itself is the only worthy goal. To gain that, it would compromise. Unless the middle class reforms, there seems to be chaos in the horizon. All concerned Indians should read this book.