India’s new middle classes – friends of progress or apolitical mall-rats?

November 13, 2012 5 By admin

One of the topics that kept coming up during my recent trip with Oxfam India was the role of the rising middle classes. We had a great debate with Aseem Prakash from Jindal University, who is in the middle of a paper on this (I’ll link when it’s published). According to Aseem, different definitions yield numbers for India’s middle classes ranging from 5 million ($10-$20 per day) to 214 million ($2-$4 a day). What’s not disputed, however, is that the numbers are rising rapidly as India’s economy continues to boom.

Behind the numbers are some increasingly complex dynamics, as a new commercial middle class, including rising numbers of so-called india consumers‘lower caste’ entrepreneurs, joins the post-independence middle class of mainly dominant-caste government technocrats who placed their faith in the power of the state to lead India’s rise.

But there is very little agreement over what this means for progressive movements. While Oxfam is beginning to explore working with middle class youth on sustainable consumption and other areas of cooperation, the default position among many civil society organizations seems to be that the middle classes are pretty much a lost cause – consumerist mall rats with no capacity to identify with the plight and struggles of poor people. And it may be true that the middle classes have largely given up on politics – as one slum activist put it ‘Only poor people vote – no middle class people bother’.

According to Paul Divakar, of the National Dalit Campaign for Human Rights. ‘We have not made attempts to ally with the middle classes.’ Paul claims their numbers are insignificant (5%). ‘There may be potential allies within the elites, but either they’re hiding or we just haven’t found them’.

This despite the obvious signs of rising middle class activism in the shape of a burgeoning anti-corruption movement, led by activist Anna Hazare (below left). According to Aseem and his colleagues, Hazare’s movement is build on a lower middle class that feels excluded by the state and angry at its withdrawal as part of India’s gradual liberalization process. Economic mobility has not ended vulnerability  – the Lower Middle Class are in a state of constant stress, and are more politically active than the richer strata: their voter turnout is higher than for the rich.

For Oxfam India and its partners, this frustrated lower middle class seems the most promising ally (as well as donor – more on that to follow), so what’s the best way to overcome the current level of polarization and start constructing alliances with progressive fractions of India’s rising middle class?

First, I think we need to get a better picture of both the many fractions of the middle class, and the world views of each. A decade ago, Elisa Reis and Mick Moore did a really obvious, but innovative piece of work – they went to ask elites in a number of developing countries what they thought about poverty and inequality. They found, for example, that elites care much more about the educational standards among their poor compatriots than they do about their health. Could we do something similar among the emerging middle classes?

Anna hazare protestWhen I asked people about this, the view was that the middle class (a lot of people still talk in the singular) is happy to take a stance on universal issues – ‘violence is bad’, or (as with Anna Hazare) ‘the political class is corrupt’. But when it comes to specific issues that affect their lives, (paying taxes, accepting dalit kids in their children’s classrooms) they are much less likely to be sympathetic.

In practice, this means building alliances by finding a way to ‘secularize’ poverty away from its Indian reality of being interwoven with class, ethnicity, caste and religion. Finding such a secular, cross class narrative means understanding where the lower middle classes are hurting the most. For example health care, via out of pocket expenditure, and unregulated private schools, which are often no better than their state equivalent.

Other strong candidates for cross class alliance-building are dealing with pollution and congestion (rich people and poor still have to breathe the same air). Ditto access to justice and judicial reform. The best way to engage with the anti-corruption movement could be to focus on corruption on pro-poor issues, eg health, nutrition – areas that ‘lift poor people up without directly threatening the Middle Class’, as one activist suggested.

But developing this approach seems like uphill work. The default model of change for most popular organizations and NGOs in India seems to be one of mass mobilization to put pressure on the state, backed up by judicial activism, with little room for building ‘vertical alliances’ with progressive fractions of the emerging middle class.

But what do I know? These reflections are based on a handful of visits and conversations. I’d really welcome the insights of Indian readers on this, as well as comparisons with other emerging powers like Brazil, South Africa or China.

Tomorrow: an Oxfam India blogger’s view of the middle class, and why they often don’t trust NGOs