The Middle Class Myth

In the last post, I said that middle class voter apathy was a myth. In fact the problem is worse. Where India is concerned, the middle class is itself a myth, which is why I used the scare quotes. It’s neither middle, nor a class.

Let’s look at ‘middle’ first. What Barkha Dutt and similar luminaries call a ‘middle class Delhi audience’ is by no means in the middle of anything – it’s probably in the top 20% of all income earners, if not top 10% or even top 5%. Considering at least 15% of the population is below a poverty line which is drawn incredibly low, and another 20% is struggling above it, people with five figure salaries and cars are very very far above the middle.

Next, ‘class’. Using the word class implies that there are mostly shared characteristics. But how shared the characteristics are depend on how flexible or granular you go. They’re split mostly evenly between the Congress and the BJP. You could call it a preference for national parties, but isn’t that a bit of a stretch?

Occupationally – the middle class includes salaried people working for MNCs, salaried people working in Indian family owned businesses or publicly listed professionaly managed IT firms, family business owners, traders, successful artists and performers, and SME owners. They all have different incomes and different agendas. One single middle class. Really?

The middle class has social liberals who send pink chaddis to Muthalik and social conservatives who go on Rediff and abuse the liberals for supporting drunkenness and immorality. It has vocal supporters of karza maafis and vocal opponents of government waste. One single middle class?

The middle class includes IAS officers who set up the Sanskriti school so that their kids don’t have to go to Kendriya Vidyalayas and people who do dharnas to protest school fee hikes. More pertinently, it includes people who have government employees in their family and can tap on a network of government servants, and people who don’t have that access and have to either spend huge amounts of time or money or both when they need to get anything done. One middle class, eh?

So speaking or writing about the middle class is not terribly productive. There are many middle classes, and unless you talk about which one you mean – salary-earners in IT companies and MNCs, SME or public sector employees with much smaller earnings, the self-employed – you’ll trip up. If you don’t control for regional and caste differences you’ll trip up again.

What classification you do chose is up to you. You can flatter me by using my hippie-yuppie-lala behavioural categorisation. You can go with the NCAER’s classification of people along consumption patterns – Destitute, Aspirants, Climbers, Consuming Class, and Rich. You can invent your own. But as long as you talk about the middle class, your argument will be muddled.

0 Responses to The Middle Class Myth

  1. skimpy says:

    i think one generation ago when everyone worked for the sarkaar there existed a middle class. that was the time when there were no yuppies. lalas were usually rich while most of their employees were poor. or at best “lower middle class”.

    because of sarkari domination, variation of pay was minimal. so by default anyone with a graduate degree and who was not a lala became middle class

    • Aadisht says:

      No, no, I’m talking about the middle of the income distribution. One generation ago the number of people under the poverty line was even higher – so the term middle class made even less sense back then. We will not have a well-off middle for another ten or fifteen years to come.

  2. Mohan says:

    There are 10 million cars in India and 300 million or so households. So anyone with a car is in the top 3-4% of the population. And, as I keep telling my wife whenever she brings up the topic of changing her old Zen, any family with two cars is right up there, probably in the top 0.1%.

    But it is not necessary that the barking lady is talking about people with cars when she says middle class. If you consider middle class as anyone with education and a 9-5 job, with say family income of around 10k+ in the metros and 8k+ in the smaller cities, then I am sure about 20% of the population falls into that category. Sure, it is still not middle, but close enough. As for whether it forms a class, sure, there are bound to be different views when you are talking about a demography larger than population of most countries. But compared to the rest of 70-80% of the population, this class tends to have similar views, similar aspirations, concerns, issues, etc. The other 70% has just one major concern – can we get two square meals a day. This class has issues beyond that. Education for their kids, higher paying jobs, urban infrastructure, religion, terrorism, national security, relationship with US (because it affects their jobs) and what have you. The very fact that they even have the time to debate about pubs and Muthalik is what sets this class apart from the other 70%.

  3. Kunal says:

    Middle class = English speaking. That simple.

  4. Aadisht says:

    Mohan that’s my point – talking about middle class concerns as a set of everything the poor and ultra rich are not is not useful.

    Kunal, you’ve just kicked about half the Marwari wholesale trading community out of the middle class. I hope you’re happy, you monster, you.

  5. Prasenjit Dasgupta says:

    Indian Socio Economic Classification is perhaps the most complex in the World ! The plain Occupation & Education segregation does provide the variable quota to a certain extent, but the MFI that plays another major role in segregation, is very confusing. Say, a so called professional PG is earning say 1.80 Lacs PA, whereas a Below SSC may be earning over 3.0 Lacs. The varibale is most complex in the top A & B Class towns. Data segregation thus becomes quite confusing.

  6. Amazing article, its true, im sure that you have really really true…

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