Thanks to modern communications, most citizens of the globe can observe each other’s lives in real time, even though they may be separated by many centuries in terms of political and economic development. This often leads to impatience and resentment in the developing world, and a revulsion at the brutality and backwardness of the poor world in the eyes of the rich. To accuse the new Indian middle class of being complacent and antisocial, as our cover does, might seem like an extraordinary example of the latter—judging the whole world by the social standards of 21st-century Europe. Even allowing for journalistic hyperbole, it is, strictly speaking, unfair. Per-capita income is still only $750 in India, and 300m of India’s 1bn population live on less than $1 a day; the sheer scale of such poverty makes any sort of national welfare provision an almost impossible task. Moreover, the Indian middle-class expansion—it is now easily the biggest in the world—is only a couple of decades old, having been held back first by colonialism and then by the bureaucratic post-independence economy.
Nonetheless, there are aspects of Indian history that have helped to shape a middle class that is less politically engaged and has a less developed sense of social obligation than its equivalents in many other parts of the world. India’s linguistic, ethnic, social and religious diversity, compounded by the caste system, is one reason for this. The country’s patchy social provision and a culture of tax evasion among the better off reinforces the idea that highly diverse societies, like India, find it hard to institutionalise fellow-feeling. Another reason for the introverted world of the Indian middle class, argues Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad in our cover story, arises from the great achievement of India: democracy. Whereas fighting for political representation was an important part of western middle-class experience in the 19th century, in India, political rights existed before the creation of a big middle class, and are now taken for granted by those who see their prosperity as entirely their own making. In fact, India’s middle class, says Ram-Prasad, behaves in a similar manner to the apathetic consuming classes of today’s west, “concentrating on expanding its choice of lifestyles while taking political parties to be as bad as each other and non-party politics as hopelessly idealistic.”
This issue also has a special supplement, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, offering a guide to Wellcome Collection—a new…