The Indian Middle Class

This post was written and sent to us by V Santhakumar, an Economics Professor at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India.


There is an expectation that it is the middle class which stands for liberal democracy and for the dignity and freedom of individuals irrespective of their religion, class, caste, gender, race and so on[i]. The poor may tend to develop a dependency relationship with powerful people including politicians. Capitalists may prefer to have a certain level of monopoly, and one source of such monopoly power is a non-transparent link with specific politicians.


On the other hand, the middle class is supposed to have incentives and the character to get out of these dependency relationships and to work towards a social order wherein everybody becomes equal before the law. However, we do not see the Indian middle class performing this role adequately. One reason could be that the size of this class in the country is small. The share of what can be called global middle class in India could be around 5 percent of its population[ii]. If we keep out the population which can be called poor and vulnerable, the remaining is only around 25 percent[iii] Moreover this population is spread out in different cities/parts of the country and thinly in its rural areas.


Moreover, this middle class does not seem to have acquired those features which are needed to encourage them to work towards a liberal democracy or to argue for the freedom of individuals. They are neither liberal nor modern. One becomes `modern’ when she or he gets out of pre-modern values. Since those people with a liberal orientation reckon that the rule of law is valid equally for all, they may start accepting such a rule of law voluntarily.


An important pre-modern framework that has influenced Indians is the caste system. It is somewhat obvious that the caste continues to influence not only the poor but also the middle-class. One may be tempted to use the persistence of intra-caste marriage as an indicator of the influence of the caste, but I am not doing so since there are other social and economic factors which may influence the choices related to marriage and these may be beyond the control of an individual. Hence I am using a minimal indicator for this purpose.


What one eats in a modern society is, by and large, an outcome of a personal choice. People may eat vegetarian food or avoid specific types of non-vegetarian food due to tastes, ideas, prices, or other factors. However, my impression is that a substantial share of Indians including its middle class take specific kinds of food and avoid other items because they are born in one or other caste. This is a clear indication of the continued influence of pre-modern values.


What is the approach of the Indian middle-class towards the rule of law? I have another proxy indicator in this regard. One can stand near a busy road when there is no police constable to control the traffic. Those who drive own private cars is a sample of Indian middle-class (in terms of income). How many of these drivers of own (private) cars follow traffic rules voluntarily?

The share of such people is very low, based on my experience in a number of Indian cities (including Bangalore which may have the highest share of educated middle-class.) Those persons who own expensive cars behave as if they have the right to violate the law. They behave like the feudal landlord or the Raja whose privileges have included certain exemptions from following rules. On the other hand, one can see most people following such rules voluntarily not only in the developed world but also in a number of developing countries.


The purpose of this essay is not to list down these limitations of the Indian middle-class. It is to speculate on probable reasons behind the illiberal and pre-modern character of these people. The basic argument here is the following: The source of higher income or affluence of the majority of middle-class people in the country is `rent’ from different kinds of `assets’. Such a rent-dependent class does not acquire those traits that make them modern or liberal. This is especially so when their access to `assets’ and privileges are rooted in a pre-modern framework.


It is easy to understand this argument in the case of one section of Indian society. Those who own land in urban or suburban localities have witnessed a phenomenal increase in its price, and that have made many of them affluent. Hence they may acquire/own higher levels of wealth without participating in a modern economy through their skill or merit. One cannot expect such people to become either modern or liberal.


There is another section of Indian society which has got higher incomes by migrating to, and working in, developed economies. A significant share of these migrants is well educated and they work in industrial and service sectors. They should have become modern and liberal. However the migration and associated identity crisis in their destinations have influenced their character. They get into the following traps due to their identity crisis: They tend to glamorise the pre-modern cultural frameworks of their country of origin and become their defenders. They may also depend excessively on the networks of Indians in their destination. These two factors decelerate their transition to modernity.

However, there are educated Indians who work in the modern sectors of the economy within the country. How do we explain their slow pace of transition? Education, to a great extent, and employment (to a lesser extent) of a person depend not only on his/her inherent capabilities as an individual but also on assets, social capital and networks. The access to (quality) education of different levels depends on parental wealth and education, relationships, information-networks, and so on.

Though this is so in most countries, it is much more so in India which has not enforced a mandatory schooling policy, and where upper caste groups have acquired education for generations whereas other social groups continue to be marginalised in the process of schooling and learning. It is also due to the imperfections in capital markets. Or family-owned assets including social capital are important for education and entrepreneurial activities. Other institutional weaknesses and the possibilities of non-transparent appointments in jobs aggravate the situation.


What determines the nature of social capital of a person in India? This is one’s own caste due to the persistence of intra-caste marriage, and the limited social interaction across castes. Even when friends and acquaintances become part of the social capital, one should not be surprised if it retains certain caste-homogeneity in character due to the limited social interaction between people belonging to castes of different levels or to different religions.

The social capital of upper-caste Indians is dense and resourceful (or highly productive) but with a narrower social base. Well educated people too interact within (and depend on) closed circles and one should not be surprised if a major share of their accomplices are from own caste. The dependence on `cliques’ is very high among academic and literary circles in India.

Hence, the social capital, as an asset, in India is much more rooted in the pre-modern framework that have determined the allocation of resources and privileges. The dependence on such social capital discourages people from getting out of pre-modern structures and values. Or the beneficiaries of this social capital do not want to disengage with its roots. This makes them closer to a class which depends on `rents’.


There is also a demonstration effect. When the upper castes thrive on the basis of a social capital with a narrower social base, the lesson that the so-called lower castes get is that they should also build their social networks along these lines. Hence the caste becomes an important identity and source of mobilisation for them too.

I feel sometimes that there are only two categories of people in India: Those who have some feudal baggage and those who are feudal aspirants. The continued use of feudal networks by some people encourages others, who are excluded from such networks historically, to hanker to have a similar situation. The under-privileged in India desires to have access to feudal power and associated privileges. Nobody wants to get out of feudalism. There is no sizable constituency that wants a rule of law which treats all equally.


[i] Aristotle predicted a somewhat similar role for a section of the society which can be called the middle-class. The following quote of Aristotle given in a number of references could be an indication in this regard. “In all states there are three sections of the community – the very well off, the very badly-off, and those in between. Seeing therefore that it is agreed that moderation and a middle position are best, it is clear that in the matter of possessions to own a middling amount is best of all. This condition is most obedient to reason, and following reason is just what is difficult both for the exceedingly rich, handsome, strong, and well-born, and for the opposite, the extremely poor, the weak, and the downtrodden. Aristotle, Politics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1962), pp.171-173; A well-known modern proponent of a similar idea is Harrington Moore. According to him, “a vigorous and independent class of town dwellers has been an indispensable element in the growth of parliamentary democracy. No bourgeois, no democracy” Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modem World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), p. 418.

[ii] Brandi, C. and Buge, M. (2014) A Cartography of the New Middle Classes in Developing and Emerging Countries, Discussion Paper No. 35/2014, German Development Institute, Bonn

[iii] Such an assessment is made by NCEUS (National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector) (2007), Report of Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector, Government of India, New Delhi


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