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.