India’s middle class still has to abide by the state’s rules. Yet there is a danger that they will find ways to completely extricate themselves
Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s article on the Indian middle classes is important. There is a danger that the hype about India’s economic rise will begin to obscure the social and economic problems that still affect most Indians. Selective use of figures can distort or mask the realities of acute poverty. The widening gulf between rich and poor in India is made ever more obvious by the conspicuous consumption of western designer goods. All this is reinforced by historic patterns of development, which have skewed certain aspects of India in favour of the better off—the development of higher education at the expense of primary education is a good example—and the use of caste identities to underpin discrimination. As Ram-Prasad says, it needs reiterating that 300m Indians live on less than a dollar a day.
At the heart of Ram-Prasad’s article is the question of whether India’s middle class will become less introverted over time. Optimists and neoliberal economists would reply that the answer lies in trickle-down and the ever-widening circle of people who gain access to the ranks of the middle class. As the middle class grows, the theory goes, economic benefits will become dispersed more evenly, which will in turn radically alter the nature of politics. Earlier this year, the management consultants McKinsey suggested that by 2025, the Indian middle class will have expanded to nearly 600m, leaving only one fifth of Indians in the very lowest income band.
This view seems too convenient. The reality will more likely be one of contested, fractious development, with pockets of ethnic, caste and political violence and widening disparities between the rich west and south and the poorer east and north. Will this force the middle class into political engagement? There are more middle-class Indians at the cutting edge of politics in India than Ram-Prasad allows: in environmental movements, in NGOs and other charities. Bombay was brought to a standstill in 2004 by an anti-globalisation summit made up of hundreds of thousands of local and foreign demonstrators. Middle-class Indians use communication technology to link up like-minded people across international boundaries. Women have proved exceptionally influential in this respect; and not just in the middle class.
The strength of the Indian state is still palpable—for good and bad—and although the middle class may be suspicious of lower-caste politicians, they still, for now, have to abide by the state’s rules. The red tape—which foreign investors despair of—has meant that India’s exposure to the global market has been slower and more contested than elsewhere, probably a good thing for social cohesion. The danger will come when the middle class finds more efficient ways of evading tax collection, or extricates itself, as it already does in many places, from needing the state at all by living in self-sufficient gated communities and tower blocks in places such as Gurgaon, just outside Delhi.
The alternative vision would be one where the middle classes are forced to participate in politics because the declining infrastructure of the state begins to come undone: it is no use having a new fast car if all the roads are potholed, and no number of air-conditioning units will work if there is no power supply. The middle class may be able to turn to private provision for healthcare and education, but in other ways, all Indians are still very much embedded in the political system.
The middle class will not be able to have its cake and eat it. For example, middle-class people have organised movements in recent years to avoid paying electricity bills, which have been rising as state subsidies have been withdrawn. In the long run, though, it will be the middle class that will be most hurt by the failure to make the system more equitable, as power cuts will increase if the reforms fail.
Scepticism about the state tends to be about rotten politicians rather than political institutions. The Indian middle class, whenever polled, certainly have much pride in the constitution, democracy and the electoral system, but perceive that they have gone wrong because politicians cannot be trusted. The fact that democracy has preceded economic growth gives India a particular trajectory. The political structures are already in place: richer parts of society can engage with a more ethically sound and constructive politics if, and when, they decide to do so.
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