The middle class has never really featured in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans; the latest evidence of this is in his Independence Day speech which went on for a record 90 minutes, of which just three minutes were devoted to the middle class.
The PM listed cheap internet, the information highway and affordable smartphones as the 'ease of living’ factors for the middle class. While it is true that mobile data in India is many times cheaper than elsewhere, it is because operators fought for new customers and this transient phase will end with the winner, evidently a crony capitalist, hiking charges. (`Inka labh Zindabad!’ social commentator Aakar Patel tweeted in brilliant sarcasm.) As for service, one only has to ask those who have MTNL broadband connections; Mera Telephone Nahin Lagta remains a bitter reality for them.
The PM also mentioned cheap flight tickets and the UDAN scheme for regional connectivity as a boon for the middle class. Again, cheap flight tickets are the result of competition between airlines, which also use dynamic pricing, resulting in a Delhi-Patna one-way ticket costing as much as Rs 25,000.
The well-intentioned Udega Desh ka Aam Nagrik or UDAN scheme enables people to fly to smaller airports but it has not taken off as expected. The lack of a proper ecosystem for smaller players meant that the operational costs went so high that the government subsidy failed to compensate for the losses, resulting in the closure of many routes.
Falling home loan rates were harped upon, which again has more to do with the market than with a government mechanism. The PM also mentioned the special fund of Rs 25,000cr in the last budget to complete stalled housing projects. It was to target 4.58 lakh residential units pending in 1,600 housing projects but the PM gave no update on how many houses had been delivered. However, the Real Estate Regulation Act or RERA, which the PM perhaps forgot to mention, is a welcome legislation although it has been diluted by the grant of several exemptions.
Another benefit for the middle class the PM touted was the reduced rates of GST and income tax. In the first place the government had made a mess of GST by hastily implementing it. And the marginal reduction in income tax for the salaried was just a sleight of hand. It is insulting no doubt but why should anyone bother about the middle class when less than 10 per cent of voters pay income tax.
The PM cited the inclusion of urban co-operative banks and multi-state cooperative banks under the ambit of RBI as a guarantee for the safety of the money of middle-class families. The fact is that urban cooperative banks were already under the supervisory control of the RBI and that did not prevent some of them from going bust.
Businessmen, entrepreneurs and small farmers, the PM said, would benefit from the reforms in the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) and agriculture sectors. The reforms were long overdue and it will be some time before their effects are felt. What these people need is a life jacket to keep them afloat.
Now, what are the issues of the middle class? Affordable housing, health, education, quality of life...but as of now, there is only one issue, saving their jobs. The PM did not even acknowledge their pain although it is his demonetisation, GST and inept handling of the Covid lockdown that has brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. Just demonetisation shaved off two percentage points from the GDP growth rate; every one per cent growth in GDP takes two million Indians out of poverty.
But who cares about all this when the priority is to topple non-BJP governments by hook or by crook. In any case, the `bhakts’ maintain that India is going through short-term pain because Modi is trying to clean the mess created by the Congress in the last 60 years. They believe that it is because of Modi that Indian economy has not gone the way of Venezuela and Brazil.
Instead of softening the blow for it, the middle class is being hit with humongous bills; in Maharashtra it is the electricity bills. The state’s minister for power even offered to provide loans to consumers to pay their electricity bills when he should have been questioning the bills. No wonder jesters say that the GDP is increasing; prices of Gas, Diesel and Power!
The middle class, especially pensioners, rely on their savings and fixed deposits but interest rates have hit rock-bottom. And there’s nothing by way of social security for the Indian middle class, which has no parallel anywhere in the world as a skilled but vastly exploited workforce.
Where in the world, except in metros like Mumbai, do you see ten people dying each day in the effort to reach their workplaces, either falling off crowded local trains or being run over by trucks and buses after falling into potholes. The proletariat can only pray to Lord Ram for divine intervention.
Economists are already talking of permanent damage to the Indian economy. The self-congratulatory tone and tenor of the PM’s speech though suggests that we are in the middle of Ram rajya, not recession. It is pertinent here to ask why the PM is so optimistic when the Centre has not even paid the states their share of the GST.
The skilful orator that he is, Modi transferred the onus of reviving the economy on the citizens. He peppered his speech with praise for the middle class and for the people of India who have 'risen to every occasion’. Sample this: "The strength and energy of the common Indian is the foundation of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Relentless work is going on at every level to maintain this strength.’’ It resonates with the Emergency-era slogan, 'There is no substitute for hard work’. What is this if not a social version of the truism of Indian economy that 'profits are privatised and losses are nationalised’.
Nowhere is the hypocrisy more evident than in taxation. Corporate income tax was reduced after a shrill media campaign; yes, money speaks, even when the media is gagged; but the tax hounds have been let loose on small-scale industrialists, entrepreneurs and the middle class.
Stiff targets have been set for I-T officials. Tax terror, which Modi promised to end as opposition leader, is back. Draconian steps are being taken with strange demand notices with retrospective effect... Even Modi fan Mohandas Pai, former chief financial officer of Infosys, was provoked to say that his firm had "filed returns in over 30 countries but no country treats taxpayers as badly as India does.’’
Forget Modi and Pai, look at the look at the role of the middle class and the working class in the freedom struggle, in fighting the Emergency, in opposing the ongoing undeclared Emergency despite the risk of being locked up for years without trial under charges of sedition or anti-national activities and last but not the least, in the fight against the deadly Covid pandemic.
Perhaps the closest the PM came to the truth in his I-day speech was when he admitted that professionals from the middle class had made a name for themselves in the world today. "Whatever opportunities that the middle class gets, they make the most out of it and therefore the middle class needs freedom from government interference."
Modi said that the middle class wants to do away with governmental intrusion and red tape. To quote him verbatim: "They want opportunities and an open playing field. Our government is working towards helping the middle class achieve their dreams. The middle class can make miracles happen."
The politicians may intone it but Mr Prime Minister the Indian masses are saying it from their hearts and through their deeds, `Vande mataram!’
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai