Another landmark in the life of democracy is celebrated today. Pre-poll freebies have fallen like gentle rain on vote-rich bastis, as if presaging the showers of gold promised in election manifestos. Loudspeakers, hoarse from garibi hatao slogans, have fallen silent. It’s that time in the election cycle, when the middle-class may tend to feel a little left out.
Pundits make it a point to bring the middle-class to a sense of its own irrelevance, dismissing it as numerically-challenged and simultaneously deriding it for failing to vote. Politicians know how their electoral bread is buttered, so garibi hatao holds sway; GDP badao will be addressed another day.
Lest the hapless ‘middle’ protest against the prospect of more taxes and cesses to fund freebies, they are rapped on the knuckles by the likes of Sam Pitroda and adjured not to be “selfish”. Nor does the ‘middle’ dare suggest that wealthy farmers who enjoy vast tax-free agricultural incomes, like NCP MP Supriya Sule and Telegana chief minister K Chandreshekhar Rao, do their bit for garibi, for fear of being dubbed anti-farmer.
Left-wing intellectuals and politicians are particularly bourgeoisie-averse, characterising the great Indian middle-class as terribly lowbrow. The ‘middle’ is demonised for preferring Bollywood to Innaritu, shopping and temple-hopping to classical music and literature and a car in the garage to clearing garbage on the street. Greedy for goodies as opposed to essentials, the middle-class is castigated for being comfortable with corruption.
In the Leftist view, the intellectually bankrupt and apathetic ‘middle’ fails to contribute to the public discourse or engage with new ideas. Self-important, status-quoist and arrogant vis-a-vis the poor, they are afflicted with a misplaced passion for authoritarian figures and a marked preference for Hindutva-spouting demagogues over statesmen. Driven by consumerism rather than ideology, they are fickle in their political loyalties.
Centrists are kinder to the middle class. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor goes so far as to laud its commitment to “an idea of India that is growth-driven” and regret its alienation from the electoral process. Smart politicians know the ‘middle’ has as big a stake as anyone in a stable and effective government. It is less prone to divisions of caste and community and more concerned with development, heathcare and education.
What it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in disseminating values and opinions. Thanks to its access to the media and digital platforms, it can influence the public discourse. The middle-class shed its wallflower status and became more than a mere spectator to electoral politics ten years ago, when the India Against Corruption movement flared up and set the agenda for the 2014 Lok Sabha.
The Aam Aadmi Party was powered as much by the middle class as the economically underprivileged sections. It played a role in 2009 as well, rewarding the UPA I for rapid economic growth. From time to time, civil society movements have put pressure on the state to act, but tend to die down as soon as the issue at hand has been resolved.
Lacking pride of place on any party’s agenda, because it does not have the numerical clout to directly influence electoral outcomes, the middle class nonetheless engages with the state through various avenues, formal and informal. Increasingly, voting is seen as a civic duty and fingers marked with indelible ink are displayed with pride. Conversely, those who haven’t voted invite censorious looks and sheepishly hide guilty, unmarked fingers.
In cities, middle class activism is often expressed through residents’ associations, which in turn put pressure on politicians to deliver. After all, the middle class depends on the state for services. Poor governance and non-delivery of services are most likely to contribute to middle class mobilisation.
That said, estimates of the size and characteristics of the middle class vary. Economists and market-hungry multi-national corporations have long struggled to come up with an adequate definition. Depending on the criteria, it is said to account for anything from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the population.
Despite an abysmal tax to GDP ratio, there has been a bump in filing of tax returns (currently around 70 million) and this is seen as evidence of a burgeoning middle class. The fact is that the Indian ‘middle’ is famously heterogenous and not strictly a middle income class; it is only a matter of time before it seeks a more proactive role in distribution and utilisation of public resources.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.