December 10, 2019
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The Middle Comes First. It Happens, Hota Hai

For the Indian middle class, at last it's time to eye the rewards

The Middle Comes First. It Happens, Hota Hai
Sandeep Adhwaryu
The Middle Comes First. It Happens, Hota Hai
My book on the Indian middle class was first published ten years ago as India celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of Independence. Now, a decade later, it is perhaps time to refocus our attention on a class that has continued to play a pivotal role in the making of modern India. India is a nation in transition. There is a great degree of tumult and jostling as a country of a billion people and great complexities makes this transition. The middle class has been a key player in this process. Some of its defining characteristics are still the same. Yet, there is evidence of change too. What are these changes?

Today, one of the most visible attributes of the middle class is a great deal of compressed energy, at the core of which is a talent for entrepreneurship and ability for hard work that must have few parallels anywhere. The overwhelming majority is self-employed, squeezing out an income in conditions of work that can hardly be imagined by a businessman in the developed world.

Education was something the middle class always valued but its importance has only grown in these last years. At the turn of the new millennium, computer firms began to sprout almost overnight and, for once, the government too was quick on its feet, investing in computer schools, training institutions, introducing and upgrading IT-related courses. Sensing the monetary possibilities, private training institutes began to proliferate. Overall, today there are well over a thousand engineering colleges and as many institutes providing a Master of Computer Application degree. The country's nearly 300 universities and their affiliated colleges produce more than two million degree holders a year.

The middle class has put in a great deal of hard work to be a part of—and benefit from—this unfolding educational boom. In 2007, nearly 3,00,000 students sat for the combined entrance exams for admissions to the IITs; only around 2,000 were selected. This kind of competition could be daunting; but in fact, the competition has only accentuated the middle-class desire to succeed.

Not surprisingly, middle-class heroes are self-made and successful. Narayana Murthy, who could not join the IIT because his father did not have Rs 150 a month for his hostel fee, went on to found Infosys and is today one of the richest men in India. The middle class likes these rags-to-riches stories but has little time for those who remain in rags. Today, the real curb to this callous insularity is the democratic empowerment of the poor. Six decades of the working of democracy has given voice and power to the unwashed masses; but for this, the successful would have seceded long ago in India to form their own republic. Reluctantly and against its own wishes, the middle class is beginning to understand that in the India of today, priorities other than its own have acquired clout. For a class that has since 1947 played—disproportionate to its size—an exceptionally influential role, this is a new phenomenon. Of course, the middle class is still powerful, but it realises now that in order to get what it wants, it has to compete with other erstwhile more quiescent constituencies. It is this realisation that is forcing some of its more percipient members to begin to engage with society in their own self-interest. When a judge acquitted Manu Sharma, the son of an influential politician, who in a fit of inebriated rage allegedly pumped a bullet into model Jessica Lall's head in the presence of countless people, the middle class—perhaps for the first time in such an intense and pervasive manner—gave public expression to its outrage. The communications revolution—SMSes, a very potent tool, and especially the electronic media—proved to be a valuable ally in conveying its anger. Finally, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of the case. The middle class had undoubtedly scored an important victory.

However, it is important not to lose a sense of perspective. Even today, for every one Jessica Lall—for whom the middle class so laudably organised itself into action—there are thousands of smaller acts of injustice, corruption and unethical behaviour to which it is a party and mostly a beneficiary. In fact, where corruption is concerned, the middle-class proclivity to express moral outrage about its existence in 'high' places and be a party to its practice in its own world continues unchanged. The only antidote to this scourge in our country is, therefore, the neutral intervention of technology and associated policy reforms that take away, to the extent possible, the role of human discretion.

One area where the middle class does seem to have changed is in its response to communal provocation. When the agitation against the Babri Masjid was at its peak in the early 1990s, a great many middle-class Indians were effortless recruits to communal forces. Today, Gujarat notwithstanding, this class seems to have largely seen through the use of religion by political parties. The difference in the way the middle class reacted in Mumbai to the bomb blasts in 1993 and in 2003 illustrates my point. In 1993, the explosions militantly polarised the two communities and the social gulf persisted for years. In 2003, both Hindu and Muslim organisations strongly—and immediately—condemned the dastardly provocations and Hindus and Muslims could be seen standing in line together to donate blood for the injured. The truth is that lesser middle-class Indians are joining the RSS or the Bajrang Dal and more Muslims at the conservative Darul Uloom at Deoband are studying computers and English than ever before. Instability caused by religious strife militates against middle India's unwavering focus on upward mobility. Political parties have been forced to contest the secular ground to woo middle-class Indians and this is all for the good.

In fact, the expansion of the secular arena has spawned a pan-Indianness that has the entire middle class in its embrace. In the gradual conversion of India's salad bowl into the melting pot that it has become today, the middle class has undoubtedly been in the vanguard.

And yet, no one can be entirely sure what is cooking in this melting pot below what is visible on the surface. The kaleidoscope is full of colours, but the pace is so fast that a definitive pattern is difficult to trace. In an urban scenario, where new townships with giant malls and offices come up almost overnight and youngsters tired of imitating western accents stagger out at dawn from call centres spread across the country, the personal world of the middle class is in a phase of transition where the past and the present coalesce in strange and unpredictable ways. If films and the media are one indicator, there is a much greater acceptance of sexual permissiveness; yet lifestyles are still conservative and the tolerance of hypocrisy commensurately greater.

The average middle-class person is, in more ways than one, a good example of a harmonious schizophrenic. In fact, the Indian mind is not a cupboard, but a chest of drawers: pull out one and it could have a keyboard with a 21st century person's fingers on it; pull out another and it could be a ring for the same person by a quack claiming to be an expert on horoscopes.

As India appears to be finally emerging as a global power, one overriding sentiment that infuses the middle-class world-view is a new sense of pride. As the chief beneficiary of the economic changes since 1991, it is convinced that India's destiny is about to change, and that the country is at last set to get its due in the international arena. Unfortunately, this euphoria often tends to make it even less concerned about the plight of the poor and the deprived. The suicides of farmers, or the squalor of the slums or the unsightly sight of malnourished children, have no presence in the neon lights of oversize malls and the glitter of new job opportunities. For this class, what matters is that the economy is growing at a pace never seen before, that in many areas India's achievements command a new respect in world forums and that the country is a nuclear power.

To be fair, the middle class believes it has contributed its share in India's turnaround and deserves to celebrate. The average middle-class person has, indeed, slogged to move up the ladder in circumstances where nothing can be taken for granted and everything is a struggle. The tribulations of today are tolerated for the rewards of tomorrow. And, the average middle-class person, cocooned in the preoccupation of his or her world, deals with them with an insouciance, resilience and stoicism that is best summed up in a scrawl I once saw written behind a three-wheeler in Delhi. The words of wisdom, remarkable for their brevity, simply said: 'Hota Hai: It Happens'.

(Excerpted from the introduction to the new revised edition of Varma's book, The Great Indian Middle Class.)

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