The quiet influencers: How the poor have shaped India

India’s elite in every field are deeply influenced, affected and shaped by the poor.
India’s elite in every field are deeply influenced, affected and shaped by the poor.


  • Almost every concrete and abstract thing in India, from public discourse to social norms, is influenced by the country’s poverty.

Was there ever a possibility that the first thing Narendra Modi would do after taking office again as Prime Minister was declare that his government would make air-conditioning a fundamental right? It may not have moved most Indians, even though it has been a scorching summer. 

Most of India is hot most of the year, yet most offices and modes of public transport are not air-conditioned. India is not protecting the environment; just that it perceives air-conditioning a luxury, and its unspoken policy is that Indians need not be treated with luxuries. That is how India has trained the poor to think, and this is how the poor have shaped India to treat them.

The first order Modi signed after taking over will give away cash—about 20,000 crore to about 100 million farmers. This was probably a way to convey to India’s poor that contrary to what they may have thought, they were his priority.

Indian elections are often the revenge of the poor.

In past years, whenever the educated middle-class grew cynical of democracy, India’s poor have shown their faith in it by turning up to vote. They have forced governments at all levels to be compassionate alms-givers. And this year, the poor intervened again and diminished the might of the ruling party. But this is only the obvious way in which the poor have shaped India.

Also read: Poverty in India: Tracking it mustn’t become a casualty of politics

India’s public character comes from its poor. India is the way it is chiefly because of its poor. Almost every concrete and abstract thing in India is influenced by the poor. India’s elite in every field are deeply influenced, affected and shaped by the poor.

India’s poverty gives Indians a clear moral direction. Every affluent Indian may or may not have a moral compass, but certainly has one for India, and it directs the country to end poverty. How to go about it is at the heart of our economic, social and political debates. Many powerful emotional issues like religion are secondary to the wound of poverty. 

People who do not consider this the priority cannot hope for a career in public life. When India wants to invest in technology, it must first make it dreary by invoking the tech’s uses for the poor. This is what India did at the advent of space exploration, the internet and mobile phone—it was all meant for the poor, especially poor farmers, as though India’s poor have no other profession. 

Satellites would save farmers from nature; the internet would tell farmers crop prices and mobile phones would save their children in emergencies. Eventually, digital connectivity spread across the country because of entertainment like music, films and porn, but the notion that even the poor want fun does not seem to strike us. We are shaped by the gravitas of poverty. Even when the poor try to tell us that not everything about them is grave all the time, we are unable to fully understand that dimension of life.

Also read: When democracy fails the poor

The Indian middle-class may not always realize it, but its sense of well-being emerges from the poor, from being privileged in a sea of poverty. Many of them may realize it when they go West and do not feel special anymore. When at home, Indians are so habituated to their privilege that they seem to start believing in the foolish notion that the poor are poor because they are lazy or not smart. 

Actually, a typical middle-class person is a great beneficiary of poverty. India may appear to be a very competitive place because of the sheer number of people who turn up for a seat, but the fact is that most Indians do not have a chance at a fair shot. Their role is to make up the vast numbers and make the winners look distinguished.

But look at what happened to the profile of the Indian cricket team when more Indians found the nutrition, opportunity and equipment to train for this sport. The straight-bat middle-class city boys who could speak well at press conferences have vanished. In the same way, the make-up of prestigious colleges has changed. But there are reminders of many things that have not changed. The nation is still rigged in favour of people from affluent homes.

Also, it is very cheap to be middle-class in India because the poor subsidize us all. The poor serve us for almost nothing. They also force the government keep the prices of many basic necessities low.

The price we pay for it is that India treats everyone as though they are poor. India, in plain sight, looks poorer than it really is. If you do not count airports. Some of our airports are so swanky, I am tempted to follow foreign passengers who are visiting India for the first time—just to see the shock on their face when they hit the actual town they came to visit. India assumes that airports are for the rich and that they deserve spaces that are beautiful, while the rest of the nation need not pretend to be aesthetic.

Also read: India’s poverty debate needs to move on: Let’s adopt new norms

There is not much street joy in our cities because the good life cannot just spill onto the streets. To eat a large meal in public is somehow vulgar. Any sign of affluence in plain sight is vulgar. That is why it is amusing when upper-middle-class people condemn billionaire weddings. Just about any middle-class wedding, or even a typical five-star buffet in India, is an insult of the poor.

India’s civic ugliness does have an unsung social benefit: it does not alienate the poor. Unlike in Europe where the poor live in great contrast to the spectacular urban beauty all around, India’s poor belong more easily in our public spaces. As a result, the affluent almost never interact with public spaces. They live in little islands of private spaces, like zoo animals that own their own zoos.

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