Middle Classes: A Central Path for Social Development

Dr. Rao VBJ Chelikani

Today’s India is a country of middle classes run by the middle classes for the middle classes. In the past, the situation was different. A chief or a king or a dictator or a religious head used to promise to take charge of the welfare of the whole society. In independent India, we have vaguely envisaged a strategy ofsarvodaya i.e. welfare of all, which, in reality, proved well-nigh impossible. Similarly, the strategy of development from the bottom, antyodaya, traditionally considered to be Gandhian approach, too turned out to be a romantic idea. The Marxists of all schools have chosen the ‘avant-garde’ proletariat class to be such an agent of change. We have also tried, till recently, a welfare state, wherein, we wanted the elected representatives (reps) to play such an ‘avant-garde’ role.

  1. Who can Change the Society? Such a role of avant-garde mission of social transformations can be played only by the emerging and expanding modern urban middle classes.  They are more than agents; they are actors or stake-holders. Now, in the 21stcentury, we understand social development as a permanent and integral process. The middle classes spear-head the social movement by their very way of life which is contagious. The OECD survey of global perspectives in 2012, the Human Development Report of the UNDP in 2013 and many other reports that came later, stressed the need to strengthen the emerging middle classes in the developing countries. They recognized that more equitable and sustainable development can be achieved only with the help of the new mcs (middle classes), particularly in emerging market economies. We are, undoubtedly, living in a century of the middle classes and our civilisation itself can be called a civilisation of the middle classes.

  1. Origins: In the 19thcentury, the triumphant European bourgeoisie made it to the centre-stage of history due to their industrial and technical revolutions. They have forged a manifesto of common aspirations for higher quality of life in terms of social, economical and political rights. The phenomenon continued with a second industrial revolution during 1940 to 1970. Ever since, till today, the ongoing scientific and technological revolution is entirely manned by them. Along with the expanding urbanization of the entire human habitat, there is a parallel process of conversion of the populations into mc social status and mindset. Depending upon the definitions, their number in the world could go upto 70% of the population. After decolonization and the Maoist revolution, the Chinese society has been a melting pot and it is being spear-headed by the mcs only. The Latin American countries are, no doubt, mostly composed of the mcs with common life-styles, even though there are deep economic inequalities. The development of the African continent has been slow, so far, precisely, due to the absence of home-grown mcs.

A similar class was borne and thrived in India during the early days of the East India Company. Their native employees can be considered as the first generation of the Indian middle class. We can include among them many communities of the Brahmins, Ashrafis and Panjabi traders in Delhi, the Kayasth clerks or teachers from Calcutta, the Chettiyars of Chennai, Calicut, the Guptas of the U.P., etc. It is they who formed the earlier ranks of the company clerks, interpreters, teachers, traders, exporters, bankers, journalists, military officers, etc.   Later, the princely states like Mysore, Baroda, Jaipur, Patiala too, started providing education for the common people and recruited them, later to man the state-apparatus. By the end of the 2nd world war, the urban areas in India were, already, filled by people with middle class mentalities. We have, by then, a distinct urban economy and a private sector whose rank and file belonged to the middle classes. It is they who could understand the Gandhian mode of dialogue with the Authorities at the time of the freedom movement. It is through Gandhi, again that the rural elite from all castes are brought into the vortex of political churning and, it is they that formed the early rural middle classes.

  1. Some Common Traits: All those who live in the urban space for more than a generation demonstrate, clearly, many common traits. They radiate with self- respect, self-confidence and sociability. Their identity is not based on genes or religion but on common cultural practices, like styles of speech, and shared aesthetic sensibilities in food, clothing and other matters of taste. They dare to marry among themselves, since they understand each other, defying the practice of marrying within one’s own caste. They have, recently, started showing their concern for ecological balance. In matters of education, science, arts, music and literature, they think fresh and innovate, defying mainstream cultural values. They cultivate aesthetic sense: to be artistic, passionate, adventurous, explorative and inquisitive. Under the neo-liberal subjectivism, the body care has become a channel for pursuit of happiness. Their wellness conceptions are holistic with traditional spirituality, including the practice of yoga.

Even the new rich, in spite of the fact that they possess bulging bank accounts do not separate themselves from the middle class social strata. The Asian Development Bank has classified them on the basis of income that they earn, anywhere from US $ 2 to 20 a day, as per the purchasing power parity in 2005. The estimation of their numbers is difficult in India, where people voluntarily claim to be poor for cultural, religious and other reasons. It is true both in the Western and American societies that quantity of earnings would not make any difference in the social status.  Particularly, in matter of transmission of property to the family, the mcs would not find it meaningful or worth sacrificing immediate consumption. It has been a socially-inclusive class accumulating social capital that invests itself on more and more people for producing goods and services for increasing number of consumers. Nevertheless, to-day, we can call the middle class culture as an entrepreneurial culture. One of the burning aspirations of young people today is to achieve or accomplish something with themselves as investment. Their ideas are their capital. Accomplishment gives them satisfaction.

Challenging Life: The middle class individuals, both men and women are more susceptible to fall victims to social evils, deviations or adventures, as they are not bound by any rules set by the former patriarchal authorities. Evidently, their aspirations, their expectations and their demands upon themselves put them under constant mental stresses and strains. Their mental health gets fragilised more easily than their physical health. Higher aspirations lead to higher frustrations and dissatisfaction. However, by giving more attention, in future, to skill acquisition and demonstration, better ergonomics and more aesthetic satisfaction, one can help the sub-conscious mind to relieve itself of such stresses and strains. Beauty is particularly therapeutic.

  1. Some Common Prejudices:Sentiments of comradery are best promoted only through the middle classes unlike the rich and the poor who look at others only to compare themselves. Their purpose-oriented approach, their emotional requirements and their expressions and behavioural patterns, often, do give the impression that they are self-centred.  Are they politically Apathetic? Lack of enthusiasm on the part of an urban resident to go and vote is itself a statement on his part. It happens, sometimes, that the youth show a generous sympathy towards social justice and they are inclined to use leftist vocabulary to convey their leanings. On the other hand, in their daily life, they are involved in many governance issues in family, in local bodies, in self-governing resident welfare associations, in school, in office and in professional bodies. They are, constantly, increasing or renewing human relations through formal and informal networks and new social media. They have scruples about corruption, even though, it is they who largely indulge in it as a matter of pragmatism; whereas, the rich accept it as an affordable extra cost and the poor yield to it as speed money.

Though many of the post-independent generation of politicians belong to the middle-classes, in the course of their political training and experience, they upgraded themselves into a new class. Mr. Narendra Modi has been the only prime minister who claimed his belongingness to the middle class. He acknowledged that this class bears the greatest burden of taxes, of rules and regulations, observes social norms and that the quantum of economic burden on them is the most.  Consequently, the impact of the mcs on the current national policies is not as much as it should be, whereas in the Western Europe most of the political parties are, essentially, manned by them. On the other hand, in India, an increasing number of the urban middle classes are joining the civil society organizations and not political parties.

  1. The Two Extreme Ends:Being in the centre of the society, they are the engines of transformation towards an egalitarian and equitable society; whereas those who are at the fag-ends of the spectrum i.e. the poor and the rich by themselves have neither the inclination nor the capacity to change the society.

The middle classes expand themselves from the bottom i.e. from the below poverty line people. With increasing income and expenditure, the poor are joining the ranks of the lower middle classes. This up-gradation, usually, does not reflect in the statistics quickly, as most of them still consider themselves as poor. There is a povertarian complex in the minds of many in the Indian society, due to which calling themselves poor has no social stigma attached to it. During the heydays of the ‘welfare state,’ people insisted on retaining their status of being poor for the sake of various welfare schemes. They changed even castes.

All those living in the slums are not poor, as it is confirmed in a survey carried out in Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi by a Lancet, a science magazine. While working for or with the middleclass families, the poor pick up very quickly the urban life styles, like the use of smart phones, the social media, etc. This new lower middle class is almost one-fifth of the present urban population and we should relate them more closely to the surrounding resident welfare associations, so as to integrate them into the neighbouring communities.

In the modern economy, the fact that some people are becoming richer and richer does not, automatically, make others poorer and poorer. The very rich would fall into the category of the higher middle class. Leaving aside the extreme poor and the extreme rich, all the rest of the vast majority belong to one and the same class. At best, one can, further, identify and stratify those who are in the extreme ends as lower and higher middle classes. A well-developed and universal social security system can prevent anybody from falling into extreme poverty. In any case, the middle is becoming central, gaining mass by inclusion from both ends.

  1. Cosmopolitan and World Class: The middle classes are forging a global Indian with a cosmopolitan culture. To-day’s generations are the harbingers of an urban culture with higher aspirations, new lifestyles, new forms of work culture, higher incomes and transnational affinities defying distances.Some of them are trusted professionals in different walks of life in different parts of the world. Their remittances are keeping India away from foreign exchange deficits. They possess many nationalities but the culture is the same. Some are assuming political responsibilities in other advanced countries. They believe in science and technology for improving the quality of life, while some may, still break the coconut before launching a scientific project. In the decades to come, unlike in the centuries in the past, the middle class person would emerge as a universal person building better human relations through communications.

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