Opinion | New Middle India’s pushback and the Big Indian Dream4 min read . Updated: 29 Mar 2019, 12:31 AM IST
The new Middle Indian is angry with the old elite who, he believes, have failed the nation
I am signing copies of my book in Mumbai. The store manager and I are sitting in an alcove and doing the signing ceremony, where he hands me the book and I sign while he cracks open the next one before handing it over. Two native European (for want of a better term in trying not to say “white") customers are watching from the other end of the shop and begin taking pictures of this book gig. We get chatting and I learn that they are colleagues from a North European country and are in Mumbai as consultants to some infrastructure project. Three minutes into a conversation with a stranger, an Indian in Mumbai, and they are shaking their heads and tut-tutting over the Indian bureaucracy and general state of things. Back from a longish visit to their part of the world and having seen their super slothful bureaucracy, weird processes and long waiting periods for service, I am in no mood to hear this. I retort. Maybe a little too loudly. Or a little too harshly. They seem to melt away into the interior of the shop. Then I notice choking noises coming from my neighbour, the book store manager. He saw the exchange and my pushback, and then just cracked up. He was recovering, he said, from an episode where a British guest of an author made racially degrading comments because one book was not in the store, but the Indian author just stood by and allowed the colonial rant to continue.
The manager does not come from that closed club of elite Indians who boast of correct English pronunciation, the right accent, similar higher education institutions, the correct home address, a common reading list, non-Bollywood movies, similar music playlists and foreign brands, but is a newly emerged middle-class Indian.
His point to me was this: Those in these privileged places behave like outsiders and join the berating of India. Worse, they actually lead the conversation globally in showing us down. His annoyance was real. His anger palpable. His yearning for respect where it’s due was sharp. Meet the new emerging Middle India.
A paper by Sandhya Krishnan and Neeraj Hatekar, titled Rise Of The New Middle Class In India And Its Changing Structure, defines the middle class as those with a per capita daily spend of $2-10 in 1993 purchasing power parity terms and says that the new middle class rose from 30% of the population to more than 50% over a seven-year period till the end of 2011-12. In numbers, this means that India acquired 300 million newly minted middle-class people over this period and the largest bump up, more than 200 million people, was in the lower middle class, or those exiting poverty.
This new Middle Indian is beginning to slowly understand his place in the new Indian arithmetic, where his purchasing power collectively counts for a lot. This power shows up when new English novel readers push sales of authors such as Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh, and Savi Sharma, who the old elite publicly sniff at, into lakhs of copies and counting (not heard of some of these names? Well, you know who you are now).
The new Middle Indian is unafraid of his accent or his background. His phone is as good as that of the old elite. He can travel now by air or the Metro. He goes to the same malls as the old elite, banks with similar banks, and can use Paytm and BHIM faster than the country’s Aadhaar-wary-privacy-protecting elite.
However, the new Middle Indian is angry. He is angry with the old elite who, he believes, have failed the nation, failed to notice the big changes in the country over the past 20 years and are still clinging on to the vestiges of their post-colonial privileges—where, say, a flyover would change course in return for a plum MNC posting for the son of the bureaucrat approving blueprints. The currency of trading favours and networks is now at its strained limit, as millions pour into their next economic slab. The tribal barter of favours is now under increased scrutiny. The desire and push for the elite’s inner circle to be placed under the rule of law is palpable. The new Middle India smells the change and is beginning to flex its muscle.
Two unconnected events are propelling this coming of age—technology and Narendra Modi. Cheap data, cheap phones and a billion views have taken the national discourse out of the hands of the old elite who framed the conversation in TV studios and English newspapers, to WhatsApp forwards, Facebook posts and Twitter comments. The tightly-controlled narratives are now openly challenged by citizens empowered by a phone with a camera. The make-up is off, the scars are showing. Real life has caught up with the air-brushed reality of India that was so carefully constructed. The second factor is undoubtedly Modi. Others with humble backgrounds have risen to this position of power, but were either compromise candidates or part of the same old social elite. However, the rise of a popular outsider whose pronunciation was mocked during his early years in Lutyens’ Delhi, whose background has nothing in common with the old elite’s, gives the new Middle Indian a glimpse of what can only be called the Big Indian Dream.
The old elite have a choice to open their eyes and acknowledge this new Indian’s aspirations, or become irrelevant.
Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation.