The Great Indian Middle Class
By Pavan K. Varma
Rs. 295, pages 232
THE absence of a moral code, binding on all, reinforced the doctrinal bias in Hinduism for the individual over the community. There were, of course, the loyalties of kin, clan and caste. At first glance it would appear that these could provide a transcending framework for the individual to acquire a wider and collective vision. But, paradoxically, these were too narrow categories, while blurring a sense of obligation to the community as a whole. The fact of the matter is that whether as a result of his religious inheritance, or the rigidities of the social structure to which he belonged, or the absence of a moral imperative which stressed collective values, the average Hindu middle-class person had a very undeveloped sense of social sensitivity to the overall good of his community. He attached little priority to an altruistic interface with society. His motivation to contribute to its betterment, without the notion of personal gain, was weak. He saw no great reason why he should identify his personal welfare with the well-being of even his immediate environment. His concerns were restricted to himself, his family, and, at a lower scale, his clan or caste. His cosmic view held an individual to be a microcosm unto himself. There was no need for his path to meander into the needs of others, who, even if they were obviously in need of succour, were only suffering the consequences of their own karmas.
...The issue here is not of poverty alone. Obviously, India is a poor country, and poverty cannot be pushed under the carpet. The issue here is the approach of the more well-to-do citizens of Indian society to this all-pervasive poverty. For the burgeoning and upwardly mobile middle class of India, such poverty has ceased to exist. It has ceased to exist because it does not create in most of its members the slightest motivation to do something about it. Its existence is taken for granted. Its symptoms, which would revolt even the most sympathetic foreign observer, do not even register any more. The general approach is to get on with one's life, to carve out a tiny island of well-being in a sea of deprivation. The utter obsession with individual survival and betterment and the complete absence of a sense of social obligation is not unlike a system of apartheid, rendered more insidious because the perpetuators no longer even notice the conditions of those they have banished. The concern with personal salvation at the spiritual plane had assumed, at the temporal
level, a Frankenstein form: the almost complete inability to see or identify with anything beyond the narrowest definition of self-interest. The absence of a strong moral imperative for social altruism had resulted, under the tutelage of unethical leaders and opportunistic politics, in a horribly bloated unconcern for society itself. The end product was the acceptance of a certain kind of lifestyle: insular, aggressive, selfish, obsessed with material gain and socially callous.
...The attempt to escape the external milieu, to build fences as a substitute for civic responsibility, nurtured its own sense of a siege mentality; if the unwashed masses seem to be climbing up the garden wall, raise the height of the wall; if there is not enough supply of water, dig a tube well, or add a water tank, or, best of all, siphon off the supply with a pump on the municipal line itself, irrespective of the consequences to the others; if the electricity is deficient, instal a general, or illegally increase the sanctioned load by bribing the electrical sub-station. The emphasis was on finding a short-cut, a quick-fix solution, which had to be efficacious even if unethical. In fact the siege mentality had little of the innocence or valour of those wrongfully besieged. Its origins lay in a cynical and deliberate withdrawal from a constructive interface with society; its motivations were based on an unyielding conviction that there could be no interest higher than one's own. Such a conviction was not restricted to a theoretical narcissism; it was easily identifiable in action. Contrary to the popular notion, most popular with the middle class itself, that it is the urban poor who are the least concerned about municipal rectitudes, the biggest offenders in the massive theft of electricity all over urban India belong to the 'affluent yuppie middle-class'. Vehicles owned by the middle class are the largest cause of pollution in metropolitan India. If Delhi has 1,500 tons of uncollected garbage every day, much of it is not generated in the squatters' colonies: a low-income-group colony produces only 0.3 kg waste per head, whereas a middle-class or rich colony produces upward of 1.5 kg per head. Moreover, the lower income dumps have ninety-six per cent bio-degradable matter, whereas the garbage from the more affluent neighbourhoods have only forty per cent bio-degradable refuse. A typical middle-class colony of one thousand homes can generate an average of 5,200 plastic bags a day, and these do not include the hundreds left scattered in public parks after a weekend of picnicking.
One reason for the 'predatory prowess' was the perceived inefficiency of the system: it could not deliver in accordance with expectations, not even such basics as electricity and water, or such essential services as garbage removal. But this resentment at the State's limitations led to no desire to address the root causes of the problem. There was no introspection; it did not occur to the average middle-class Indian that in a country where scores of millions did not have even enough to eat, the State could, perhaps, have priorities other than only catering efficiently to the increasing demands of a vocal minority. Middle-class criticism of the State for its inefficiencies and rampant corruption was certainly valid. But this criticism was flawed, emphatically limited only to "why can't the State do more for us?"; and it provoked no desire for organised action to rectify this state of affairs. The demands and the indignation displayed an acute sense of dependency: the State should deliver; it should deliver more of what we want; and if it cannot do so, we have the freedom to criticise, but no obligation to think or act beyond the articulation of our requirements.
Mindless imitations: The seeking of approbation from the West may have become a noticeable trait in Nehru, but it did not diminish him as an Indian. His formidable intellect and his genuine pride in being an Indian combined to make him more than an equal to those whose approbation he sought. But as a role model for lesser mortals, such as the average middle-class Indian, this 'looking up to' the West only strengthened the deep sense of racial inferiority bequeathed by the colonial experience. This inferiority manifested itself in more ways than one. First, it reinforced the tendency to seek solace in an idealised past whose achievements, imagined or otherwise, could reduce the erosion of self-worth. Secondly, it fostered an excessive sensitivity to any criticism or praise emanating from the West: the one was countered with disproportionate aggression, the other projected with unbecoming effusiveness. And thirdly, and this was by far its more debilitating consequence, it spawned a vast imitativeness which dulled the pursuit of excellence and creativity, and made most educated Indians—in their lifestyles and aspirations and cultural idiom—persistent and unthinking apes of anything Western.
There is hardly any area of achievement, aesthetics or lifestyle where this imitativeness, and the accommodation with mediocrity which it legitimises, is not evident. The world of academia is littered with doctoral theses which have nothing more to contribute than extensive quotations from 'foreign' experts. The best works on India are still the monopoly of Western experts, or of Indians who have suddenly discovered their brilliance in institutions abroad. Scientists are judged by their 'foreign' degrees. The general impression of the middle class is that 'science and technology in India is second rate'.
Institutions of excellence have been patterned on those of the West, with little thought to curriculum and content as relevant to India. Some of the best and brightest students study here but their dominant interest is to go West, to somehow enhance their marketability by acquiring a Western degree. Most faculty members in such premier institutions have the 'mandatory' doctorate from the US, but that is probably the last time they did any worthwhile research.
...Lutyen's Delhi, even as a statement of imperial power, imaginatively incorporated Indian motifs and construction materials. But since then architecture in India has become a showcase of some of the most rootless—and ugly—imitations of Western design and concepts, a pathetic, tasteless hybrid that has prompted such clever appellations as "Chandni Chowk Chippendale, Tamil Tiffany, Bania Gothic, Punjabi Baroque", etc. Incredibly enough, even today new housing colonies in the capital of the country proudly give themselves names such as Beverly Park, Regency Park, May Fair Gardens and Malibu Towne! The melody and lilt of Indian film music, with its roots in the classical and folk traditions, has gradually given place to the simplistic obsession with the fast-paced beat of Western popular music. The beat can be catchy, but there is often a soullessness that bespeaks a mechanical grafting and an unthinking neglect of the possibilities and appeal of the indigenous tradition. If an earlier generation of upper-middle-class children came of age on the entertaining stories of Enid Blyton set in small-town England, ignorant of the extensive repertoire of folk tales and mythological stories in their own country, a new generation is being weaned on Barbie and Cindy dolls, completely clueless about the rich Indian doll-making tradition.
Artistic talent has scandalously languished in India until recognition and acclaim has come from abroad. Once recognised in the West, all discrimination is thrown to the winds in lauding the new find. There is no balance, no equilibrium, that comes from a confidence in one's own worth irrespective of the certificates from others. The fashion conscious adopt the fads or the labels of the West with lightning speed. Women who still pronounce lingerie as 'linger here' flaunt designer wear from the West as their most treasured possessions. "The Indian woman whose individualism was such that it used to be said that no two women wore a saree or a sal-war-kameez the same way" can now be seen "squeezing, squirming, pulling and punishing (her body) to fit into undergarments made with the Western woman, with one and a half children and an active sex life, in mind". If Victoria's Secrets is still spelt correctly in the marquees of the bigger cities, the middle class in small-town India is not half that fussy: Western designer labels that look like the original and roughly spell the same way will also do quite well.
Consumer neuroses: Driven by the twin engines of material desire and the ceaseless competition to fulfil these wants, the Indian middle class appears to be close to a collective neurosis. The symptoms of this neurosis are increasingly discernible. Between 1984 and 1994 the number of people who committed suicide in the country almost doubled. This statistic does not take into account those who failed in their attempt, estimated to be ten times the number of those who succeeded. Divorces have increased dramatically. Stress-related diseases have become commonplace. And worst of all, children are showing signs of stress-related symptoms that were till recently the exclusive preserve of adults.
What has gone wrong? There are visible signs of greater material success. The average middle-class family today has, for instance, many more consumer durables than that of a generation ago. But the possession of more seems to have fuelled the desire for more, in an endless rat race of want multiplying want. The problem is compounded because this race must be pursued amidst an avalanche of municipal concerns—about housing, transport, education, and even such basic amenities as adequate water and electricity supply. Moreover, the new ethos of acquisition and competition does not seem to have obliterated a hankering for the easy-paced securities and assurances of the past. In order to enhance the family income, more and more men now seek out working brides; "and yet, after mar riage, (they) miss their non-working mothers' single-minded dedication to the family. The contradiction afflicts women too: much as they desire economic independence, they long for the securities their mothers enjoyed within the confines of the home." The institution which is under ceaseless pressure is the home. The demise of the joint family has given place to the nuclear family, where traditional family values of support and a sense of belonging and togetherness have often given way to individual pursuits and ambitions. Economic independence and education have made women more assertive, mostly for the right reasons. But this has also meant the destabilisation of the traditional equilibrium of middle-class homes. If the mores of a male-dominated society are—ever so slowly—being eclipsed, so are the virtues of compromise and adjustment long considered an intrinsic part of marriage. Divorce has become a real middle-class alternative. Twenty divorce petitions are filed in the courts of Delhi every day, and the trend is the same in all the bigger cities; even in Bangalore, where the pace is less frenetic than in the big four metropolises, the number of divorce cases has doubled in the last three years. One of the reasons for the spectacular success of two recent films, Ham Aapke Hain Kaun and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, was that they recreated an idealised world of the happy joint family and the slightly aimless but settled pleasures of a bourgeois existence, but without the strife and tension that have become their adjuncts in real life.
Liberated from guilt: In mid-1991, the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, ably guided by his erudite Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, announced a series of economic reforms which would help dismantle some of the inefficient State controls on the Indian economy and facilitate its greater integration with the world economy. This 'liberalisation' package, tailored to make India a player in the 'globalised' economy, suddenly put the spotlight on the middle class for an entirely new reason: its ability to consume. If India was to open up to the world markets, it was essential to know how much it could buy. The segment with the largest concentration of purchasing power in India was the middle class. Its consumerist prowess had therefore to be accurately gauged.
This exercise was important not only for the Indian government, which wished to advertise the strength of the untapped Indian market to woo the economies of the developed world, but also for the latter, always sensitive to newer pastures for the sale of their goods and technologies. The logic of economic reform, therefore, dictated that the middle class now be analysed, not for its lack of ideological moorings, or its lack of commitment to anything but its own material well-being, or for its utter insensitivity to social and moral causes, but for its craving for and ability to buy what the developed countries could sell to it.
In this process the size of the Indian middle class became, for the first time, a matter of crucial importance. Several figures were bandied about, ranging from 200 million to 500 million. Overnight the consumerist thirst of the middle class became an asset, a sign of the dynamism of the Indian market. Learned proponents of the New Economic Policy (NEP) exulted in the revelation that "urban India itself is the world's third largest country".Several systematic surveys were carried out to reinforce perception with facts.
...The great Indian 'liberalised' economic machine was all set to roll with the middle class as its engine, but, unfortunately, many of these very surveys revealed that the power of the engine was hardly in conformity with the wishful thinking of the enthusiasts. According to (an) NCAER survey, households with incomes restricted to between Rs 12,500 and Rs 40,000 per year account for as many as 331 million people. Only 4.1 per cent of the population, or 37 million people, have an income of over Rs 40,000 a year. And the rich, with an income of over five lakh rupees a year, do not number more than 1.4 million. Other indices are equally sobering...."People who wake up in the morning thinking that they have no history, no ancestors, are simply uncultured." This was a comment made by a leading Russian politician to
. Newsweek in March 1996, and should have been profoundly sobering for those in his country who thought that post-communist Russia could at one stroke forget the legacies of the past and, much in the nature of a quick-change artist, emerge totally at ease in the new attire presented to it by its Western benefactors. Some such perspective is perhaps of relevance in the Indian context as well. The NEP may have put a new focus on the middle class, primarily as a consumer, but the middle class was not suddenly conjured out of thin air the day the policies were announced. The middle class had 'ancestors', and a 'history' before policy makers began to carefully assess its buying capacity and size. Its origins and evolution, its behavioral traits, and the nature of its interaction with other elements in society, should have been as relevant to the architects of the liberalisation policy as putting an accurate fix on its consumer choices or purchasing power. Such an approach would have made immediately clear that in a country where the destitute are numbered at over 200 million by the same surveys that mapped the predilections of the consuming classes, the middle class could not be expected to achieve an economic miracle in isolation; the Indian middle class could not be an entity unto itself, defined solely by its material desires, and autonomous to the economic realities of the country as a whole.
The error, born out of historical myopia, was two-fold: first, it gave to the middle class an economic clout that it could not possibly possess in a country as poor as India; and second, and with far more serious consequences, it failed to take into account what the policies of liberalisation would do to a class which was already morally rudderless, obsessively materialistic, socially insensitive to the point of being unconcerned with anything but its own narrow self-interest.
...Its economic prowess may have been limited, but there was no ceiling now on the middle class' aspiration to the good life. "The lifestyle of the Indian elite is amazing," commented Noam Chomsky during a visit to India in 1996. "I've never seen such opulence even in America." It was this lifestyle, replete with expensive cars, the latest consumer gadgets, designer clothes and accessories, and five-star living, which became the role model for the middle class in the heady hedonism unleashed by the liberalisation process. The urge to move up the consumption ladder, to somehow put an unbridgeable gap between the squalor of the poor and the plush material insularities of the rich, was always there. But now this urge had the stamp of 'official' acceptance, the justification of an ideology. "We should all get this clear," wrote an ideologue of the new school of thought on the editorial page of a national newspaper, "that a country of the size and importance of India has no choice but to clamber to its new tryst with destiny inside shiny buildings of chrome and glass at the free market. There is no mileage in looking wistfully at quaint mud huts rushing by the car windows because they, and their ilk, cannot meet
our burgeoning needs, and if truth be told never have." ...Is the middle class capable of pausing to think, of seeing what is good for its own enduring interests? Can it for a moment see beyond immediate self-interest, and think seriously about what the problem is and how best it can achieve on a more secure basis its goals for a better life, not just for tomorrow but for the next generation and the foreseeable future? Can middle-class Indians transcend the sound and fury of their myriad little worlds of desires and pursuits to forge a vision that is sustainable in the long run?
Can they somehow escape the clutches of the illusion that their upwardly mobile aspirations can remain insulated from the basic deprivations that are the lot of most of their countrymen? The odds certainly appear to be stacked against their undertaking such a fundamental reappraisal. There is a total absence of any credible appeal to social commitment or a moral imperative that can counter the obsession with personal gain and promotion. The shrinking of the moral domain in national life cannot but destroy the resolve of even the most well intentioned. "Moral losses are like radiation, colourless and odourless and the more terrifying for that." Greed—the desire to possess more and more irrespective of the means or the consequences—is a fertilizer that accelerates the growth of particularities; it can hardly be expected to produce a harvest of restraint or re-evaluation. The buoyant media messages of consumer nirvana crowd out the need for sobering introspection. The removal of any stigma associated with making money has ended hypocrisy but also the need to be concerned about anything else. "When a long-suppressed desire becomes realisable, it drives the fortunate few unscrupulous." Unscrupulous in the single-minded pursuit of their own betterment to the exclusion of any other cause or concern. In such a milieu, the loss of one kind of restraint quickly leads to the unravelling of the whole system. A young fashion designer holds a 'loo' theme party at a disco in the countryside on the outskirts of Delhi. All the guests have to come dressed in apparel worn normally in the loo, and the decor is done up to resemble a loo. Is this great party idea just a frivolous, juvenile ripple of the affluent class? Or is there just the hint of the vulgar and the perverse? Not in moral terms at the choice of the theme, but in what the evening demonstrates: the unthinking acceptance of the enormous gulf that separates the tiny group of people living out in the middle of a semi-rural setting from the thousands of people only a few yards away who still use the fields to defecate and walk a kilometre or more to obtain something as basic as drinking water. The comment is not on the event per se: that is of no consequence. It is on the sensibilities of a westernised affluent fringe, increasingly a role model for many in the middle class, that can find such ingenious, flamboyant ways to party, oblivious to the revulsion such a lifestyle creates when juxtaposed to the backdrop for its shenanigans.
Judgement hour: For the Indian middle class, the moment has come for some very critical decisions. Either it must pause, in its own interest, and take a hard look at what needs to be done to ensure its well-being in the long run, or persist with its current short-sighted obsession only with what can be had, by any and all means, in the here and now. Either it must curb its frenetic preoccupation with immediate material gain, or contribute to enduring material progress by preoccupying itself a little more with the good of the nation as a whole. Either it must inculcate in itself a greater social sensitivity, or accept the fact that all that it is seeking to acquire can be set aside by forces beyond its control. India may not see, for a variety of reasons, a violent revolution by the dispossessed. But if their needs are not addressed in a more concerned and interventionist manner by those who are in a better position to do so, there is likely to be great political instability, which could be as inimical to economic growth and prosperity as violent upheaval. A functioning democracy—and there is no reason to assume that India will not remain one—renders illusory the prospect of the secession of the successful. The time has come to definitively bury that illusion.