The Middle Class Myth

May 29, 2009

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.

The Middle Class Apathy Myth

May 11, 2009

It’s pretty much an article of faith in India that the educated middle class doesn’t vote. (Some recent blogposts and articles that touch on this: SainathThe Acorn and Great Bong) But this election is beginning to shake up that assumption.

Yes, the super-rich South Bombay had a 44% turnout rate, the lowest in Bombay. But Delhi’s most “middle” “class” constituency, New Delhi managed 56%, the highest in any Delhi constituency. But forget that. Patna had a turnout of 37%. Lucknow had 35%. Are Lucknow and Patna really full of middle class Barista-visiting dilettantes? According to Google’s Lok Sabha portal, New Delhi’s poverty rate is 15%, Lucknow’s is 18% and Patna Saheb’s is 49%. That means that at least half of New Delhi’s richer-than-poor voted, and at least a third of Patna’s poor didn’t.

I don’t think middle class apathy is a complete myth, but the Patna and New Delhi counterfactuals seem to show that blaming all low voter turnout on middle class apathy is not feasible. If someone ran the numbers, it could show that the urban poor too are disinclined to vote, or that middle class apathy is true in some constituencies or circumstances but not all of them. Just breaking the cliche would be a very worthwhile activity.

I think the cliche has two origins – the first is that middle class apathy is much more visible than the apathy of the poor simply because the middle class is much more visible. The second is that condescension and sanctimony are definitive Indian middle class traits, and talking about how you vote but everyone else in your class doesn’t allows you to express this very effectively.

By the way, I didn’t vote. But that was because my name wasn’t on the list even though I registered in time. How apathetic does that make me according to Sainath?

Bombay to Bangkok

January 20, 2008

I saw the 2130 show at Rex on Friday night because I didn’t want to endure the traffic on the way home. It turned out to be well worth it.

The hero of the movie is a cook who is on the run from a gangsta-rapper mafioso. He gives him the slip by impersonating a urologist in a medical relief camp in Thailand. He then falls in love with a Prostitute with a Heart of Gold who tells him to keep his morality off her body. Such joy. Oh, and the sidekick is a sardar called Rash.

While I am delighted that the fabulosity of urologist-based humour is being recognised by mainstream storytellers, I am also miffed at losing the first-mover advantage. A month ago, Kodhi and me had decided that it was essential to have a urologist as a recurring character in our sitcom when we got down to making it. Now we’ve been pipped to the post by Nagesh Kukunoor.

The really worrying bit is that fundaes cascade in Indian entertainment. One guy uses a funda, and two months later it pops up in five different movies and TV serials. The most painful example has to be when J-First started calling The Consultant Formerly Known As Gandyman Jignesh. For a year nothing happened. Then Jigneshes started popping up everywhere. There was a Jignesh in Guru. There was a Jignesh in Honeymoon Travels. And while Jignesh did get established as the archetypal Gujew name, J-First lost its exclusive ownership of the Jignesh concept. I fear a similar thing may happen to urologist jokes.

That aside, the movie is to be commended for faithfully sticking to the standard romantic comedy framework. The lead pair makes out after being imperiled, they fight at the eighty-percent point of the movie, and they make up at the climax. The only minor deviation is that the moment of truth and not the make up happens at an airport terminal, but that is okay.

What is saddening is that the movie failed to make use of all possible Thai stereotypes. It brought in massage parlour workers, Buddhist monks, laughing Buddha statues, tuk tuks, and fried locusts, but mysteriously left out ladyboys. Tragic. It came so close to perfection.

The best part of the movie, though, came after actually watching it. An IMDb search for Lena Christensen eventually led to the Wiki page for SARS Wars. Now this is a movie that I have to watch:

Thailand’s leading health official, Public Health Minister Ratsuda, declares Thailand free of the SARS virus and that Thailand’s superior technology and medical research will prevent the disease from occurring in the kingdom.

However, far away in Africa, there has been an outbreak of a mutant Type 4 strain of the SARS virus, which causes sufferers to turn into bloodthirsty zombies when they die. A hornet carrying the virus from Africa is hit by an airliner and lands in Thailand. It flies into the open window of a farang driving a Volvo and stings the man on the back of his neck. The man becomes patient zero in the outbreak of SARS 4. He returns to his apartment building and infects others in his building. Among the zombified creatures is a giant Burmese python named Albert.

Meanwhile, Catholic schoolgirl Liu is kidnapped by a gang led by a transvestite named Yai, who dressed as a sexy woman in a bikini and used a furry as a distraction. Liu’s father, an influential businessman, does not wish to involve the police, so he turns to his old friend Master Thep. Thep, injured from his last outing, assigns his stop student swordsman, Khun Krabii, to rescue Liu.

I love foreign cinema.