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Independent India at 60
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Independent India at 60
The onward march of the new ‘Great Indian middle class’
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JOHN HARRISS It is important to reflect on the implications for democracy of middle class activism outside the political realm
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Get Cheap AirFares to India Only With MakeMyTrip™. Book Now & Save! Just two or three years ago in a survey conducted in some of the poorest parts of Bangalore, the question was asked about how people defined their social positions. Was it as members of the ‘working class,’ for instance, or as part of ‘the poor’? Rather to us.makemytrip.com/Special-Fares the surprise of the researchers the great majority responded that they considered themselves to be ‘middle class.’ The researchers’ puzzlement can perhaps best be resolved by tak ing their finding Tickets To India as a marker of the extent to which middle class values and aspirations have penetrated Indian society in the 60 years since US to India Sale Independence. Book online Save Since 1990 Call While a good deal of classical social science focusses on the 888 247 1314 CheapFareGuru.com/India conflict between ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ as the principal dynamic of change in modern societies, it seems evident that in practice the middle classes have often played a central role. Certainly this has been so in India. It was a distinctly middle class, commonly English-educated and mainly professional elite that led the freedom struggle, and recent historical research has shown the extent to which this elite was concerned to control popular movements from below whenever they threatened the claims of property ownership. Subsequently the same elite decided upon the shape that independent India should take — that it should be a parliamentary democracy, rather than, as the Gandhians wished, being based on village assemblies; that it should be a secular state of a particular kind in which the state itself would treat all religions equally; that it should be only a weakly federal polity; and that it should be ‘socialist’ in intent while guaranteeing the foundations for capitalism in the institution of private property. Then the dominant members of the middle class, supported by many others who occupied positions of some authority in state and private sector institutions, set about building the modern Indian state. It was a time, as Pavan Varma argued in his book, The Great Indian Middle Class, of idealism and of commitment to service to the nation. Idealism and service were combined, however, with the same sort of paternalism towards lower classes that characterised the great social service societies of the later colonial period, and the political elite of the Nehruvian era signally failed to develop and to communicate a common set of values running through society as a whole. The gap that persisted between middle class elites and the mass of the people gradually came to be filled by political leaders of a different, more plebeian stamp. Politics became less and less a sphere of service to the nation and more and more an arena for the pursuit of private gain. Gradually the middle class elites lost confidence in the project of the Nehruvian state, and in the 1990s they were very largely instrumental in bringing about a kind of reinvention of India. They were the principal architects and supporters of the shift towards economic liberalism at the beginning of the 1990s, and at around the same time they turned in larger numbers to the Bharatiya Janata Party, because it promised to restore greater order and discipline to the polity, in opposition to the kind of anarchy that threatened from below. I say ‘larger numbers’ here because, as Ramachandra Guha has reminded us in his recent, magisterial book, India After Gandhi, some members of the middle classes had long been sympathetic to the claims of Hindu nationalism.
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and very largely as a consequence of it. people from historically subordinated groups in Indian society are struggling ultimately for values that constitute stable civil society — but they do so by means that are not ‘civil’ and ‘reasonable.’ and though many of them are employees they depend upon more than just their ‘labour power’ in the way that is characteristic of the members of the ‘working class. too. increasing numbers of people with professional. One civil society activist in Chennai. the aspirations of the working poor of a city like Bangalore notwithstanding. therefore. that austere ways of life came to be replaced by consumerism. What it is most important to reflect upon. Their endowment with ‘cultural capital’ is markedly lower than is that of the middle class elite — which works to ensure that its distinction is maintained. Income levels amongst the more than 80 per cent of Indians who are in informal. In essence the term refers to people who. as I have defined it? This is a great guessing game amongst experts. and especially the middle class elite. colour television sets. with a shift in their values. How big. as a result of the pressures to which it has been subject from the Left. or between 300 million and 400 million people. It was Pavan Varma’s lament that ideals of service gave way to ruthless individualism. when many will rightly celebrate the durability of India’s democracy. This figure is pretty certainly exaggerated. The middle class is very diverse in its composition. who constitute (in my view) the middle class elite. now plays in politics.’ Notably people who can be described as ‘middle class’ command professional. There are strong commercial interests in representing the Indian middle class as the greatest potential consumer market in the world. They have tended to turn away from representative democratic politics towards what may be described as ‘new politics’. two-wheelers. and their disaffection with the party political process. in the jargon of the social scientists.’ Though they often do own small properties they are not ‘capitalists.The Hindu : The onward march of the new ‘Great Indian middle class’ http://www. on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Independence. in the context of what the political philosopher Javeed Alam has described as “the politics of din. technical. too. When so many of the working poor of Bangalore responded to researchers that they considered themselves to be ‘middle class’ they were perhaps above all laying claim to increased levels and new standards of consumption. The Indian middle class includes. then.hindu. ‘occupy a contradictory class location. were associated. India is still quite a long way. Pavan Varma overstated his case. and that the values of the middle class. rather than political parties or trades unions. greatly increased consumption — if not actual ‘consumerism’ — and distinctive patterns of consumption that actually help define ‘the middle class’ — have become a prominent aspect of Indian society over the last 15 years or so. is the middle class in India. notably.’ and who depend heavily on what may be described as ‘cultural capital’ such. ironically. and washing machines show that significantly less than 30 per cent of households do in fact own them. is the role that the middle class. and there is widespread support for the NGO movement and more generally for the work of civil society organisations. and managerial skills. and then large numbers of salaried workers whose positions demand some education but do not involve significant authority over others. it is also the case that social activism remains greatly valued amongst middle class people. are understandable. or employ small numbers of other people — this is the fraction sometimes described as the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. centred around the organisations in civil society in which they are active.’ Alongside this trend. in which the middle classes were such significant actors. those middle class elites who most strongly uphold values of civil society have become alienated from democratic processes. The frustrations of the middle class elite. for while the ideal subject of India’s liberal market economy is the individual ‘consumer-citizen’ (in the terminology preferred by one Chennai policy research organisation).com/af/india60/stories/2007081550681800. as Satish Deshpande at the Delhi School of Economics has argued. or what some writers now refer to as ‘the new middle class.” Through noisy assertion in electoral politics. from having a really ‘liberal’ market economy and the present government has stronger social democratic leanings than perhaps its leaders would like. Still. and it has quite often been claimed that the ‘consumer class’ constitutes as much as 30 per cent of the population. speaks of politics as a ‘dirty river’ that has 2 of 3 9/27/2011 1:48 PM . unorganised employment — even after a good many years of high rates of economic growth — are not such as to be allowing middle class consumption patterns to penetrate very deeply. he argues. came to resemble those reflected in the self-seeking actions of the politicians they so much despised. like those who are involved in this policy research organisation. It is quite well known that surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi have shown that India stands out amongst the major democracies because there is an inverse relationship between socio-economic status and electoral participation. when data on the possession of such basic consumer durables as refrigerators.htm The social and political changes of the 1980s and 1990s. India is unusual in that those of lower socio-economic status are much more actively involved in electoral politics than are wealthier people of higher social status. large numbers of owners of small businesses in which they are self-employed. as good command of English and of the cosmopolitan manners associated historically with the upper castes. technical or managerial skills that set them apart from regular workers and frequently give them authority over others. for example.
it is still the case that it is often exclusive in regard to the urban poor. There are grounds for serious concern.com Copyright © 2007. Others devote their efforts to political reform.hindu. Vancouver. Dr.htm to be diverted by the work of organisations such as his own. such as those aimed at the ‘beautification’ of the city that involve relocation of poor people. The Hindu Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu 3 of 3 9/27/2011 1:48 PM . Admirably constructive though middle class activism in civil society may be. Canada. The work of the small number of organisations in Chennai in which poor people are active participants — such as the Unorganised Workers’ Federation — shows that the issues of greatest concern to them are the linked matters of rights to living space. John Harriss is Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has done extensive research in Tamil Nadu and is a frequent visitor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. the rights of women. which are actually in conflict with the needs of the urban poor. therefore. These are not issues that are taken up by leading civil society organisations in which members of the middle class elite are active. for democracy. and rights to livelihood. and there are occasions when this elite supports measures. about the implications of middle class activism outside the arena of party politics. however.The Hindu : The onward march of the new ‘Great Indian middle class’ http://www. for instance by working for the extension of panchayat democracy into the cities — from which it is still notably absent in spite of the lip-service that is paid to the 74th Amendment.com/af/india60/stories/2007081550681800. and for questioning the claims of those like Pratap Bhanu Mehta who argue that the middle class is “struggling to articulate new conceptions of social justice” — when middle class activism denies poor people political agency. Independent India at 60 Features: Magazine | Literary Review | Life | Metro Plus | Open Page | Education Plus | Book Review | Business | SciTech | Friday Review | Young World | Property Plus | Quest | Folio | The Hindu Group: Home | About Us | Copyright | Archives | Contacts | Subscription Group Sites: The Hindu | Business Line | The Sportstar | Frontline | Publications | eBooks | Images | Home | Comments to : thehindu@vsnl.
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