The Indian middle class is suffering horribly in varying degrees, depending on whether they are first generation middle class or have been there for a while. This is pain that has turned to anger against the government, who they feel should ‘do something to reduce prices’. For 15 years, between 1995 and 2008, their incomes had steadily gone up, prices had steadily come down, quality had improved (due to competition, duty reductions, a flood of foreign goods, a strengthening rupee), borrowing had become easier and cheaper, and it was possible to have the instant gratification of buying a house or a car or a foreign holiday, confident that one would not notice the pinch of future repayment on a steadily increasing income.
To quote author and cultural analyst Santosh Desai, to them “life had become a product to be experienced, not a condition to be endured”. And experience it they did—whether it was air-conditioned public spaces for the first time, or air travel for the first time, acquiring four wheels or the latest styles of jeans and matching accessories, or family trips to amusement parks and arcades or upgrading things in their homes. The list is endless. Now, they feel the same government that had put the lollipop in their mouth and egged them on to consume harder, all the while assuring them there were more goodies to follow, is changing the rules of the game unilaterally. They feel the government is saying, “We can’t make it affordable any more, and you need to share the store with your poorer brethren, because they have had none so far”.
While the lower income group can go to the middle class and say, “Pay me more, I cannot survive in the money that you pay me”, the middle class cannot say the same to anyone, for they form the majority of well-off Indians. Also, unlike their preceding generations, they are not the accepting, contented products of comfortable public sector and government jobs, or simple salaried employees assured of their monthly pay cheques. They are different. They are the striving, aspiring children of India’s post-liberalisation love affair with market economy. They were convinced by the gilded promise—that being smart, self-reliant and enterprising would get them and their children the promised life; that one had to dare to dream and work hard towards it to realise the dream. The work ethic in self-employed middle class India had improved noticeably, there was a striving to upgrade skills in order to earn more. And all this is coming undone. They are angry and bewildered and taken aback.
Are they so self-obsessed that they don’t care about macro economic realities, the country’s future and their responsibility to share with their poorer countrymen? Perhaps the more appropriate phrase is ‘ignorant of’ or ‘not sensitised’. Because no one is communicating and explaining the situation to them. Not the government and not the media. Not the opposition. There are no takers for the opposition’s call for a bandh, because, for the self-employed, that is a day away from earning, and times are bad enough.
Is this middle-class anger justified? It is, because the truth is that the economic policy choices and the conduct of the central government, ruling party and opposition have got us into this mess. Whether the anger laced with despair and frustration turns into disappointment, acceptance and adjustment or into a positive “let’s build a better India and this too shall pass” attitude depends entirely on how truthfully, sincerely and persuasively the government communicates to them, and how shrewdly it manages what prices go up and by how much. Make telecom unaffordable, and you step on the wind pipe of the middle class. Reduce tax on entertainment and insist that it gets passed on to customers and life may be a bit better.
Of what value is the middle class to politicians? The Indian middle class comprises the upper half of urban India and the top 20 per cent or so of rural India. It is about 60 million households out of about 250 million households in India. Their success stories are a role model to the rest, they are ambassadors of a new India, a symbol to weaker sections that the country is fair, and that hard work can give you what you dream of. They aren’t political. All they want is to work hard, consume hard and dream big. Surely they will listen if you talk to them.
(Rama Bijapurkur is an independent market strategy consultant and author of We are Like that Only, Understanding the logic of Consumer India.)