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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 12, New Delhi, March 6, 2021

Indian middle class urging the opposition to protest rise in oil prices | Arun Srivastava

Friday 5 March 2021


by Arun Srivastava

The Indian "middle class" is usually classified in three categories– the "aspirational middle-class", the "affluent middle class", and the "middle-middle class". Notwithstanding differences in their sectoral approach the fact remains that the middle class in general is the most selfish and self-centred section of the society. This class is generally viewed as the vanguard for the economic development and growth of the country, but an analysis of their class character would reveal that they are not more than creepers. They thrive on the support of rich and bourgeoise, the corporates.

They cannot think anything beyond their self-interest. Obviously their accusing the opposition and holding them responsible for not protesting against the abnormal rise in the petroleum and diesel prices have not come as surprises. They always expect some body speak on their behalf and also perform on their behalf.

It is an open secret that they have been the ultimate beneficiaries of the schemes and economic programmes launched by Dr Manmohan Singh led UPA government. They turned against UPA government the moment they came to perceive that his government was undertaking some economic programmes for ameliorating poor’s economic condition.

The BJP leader L K Advani who was waiting in the wings to become the prime minister grabbed the opportunity, exploited the anger of the middle class and maligned the image of Dr Singh by resorting to jibes and tirades against him. Issue of corruption at high places became a major concern. Anna Hazare at the instigation of the RSS and BJP took to indefinite hunger strike. An impression was created that secular forces have let down the country and the Congress government patronised the corrupt.

The entire exercise was to win over the middle class. The RSS-BJP succeeded in their mission. But unfortunately for Advani he lost the game to Narendra Modi. He could not comprehend that the entire rank and file of the BJP and RSS does not like him and do not endorse his aspiration to become the prime minister. In fact Modi exploited his efforts which he had invested to become the prime minister. Modi snatched the opportunity from him. The decision of the party at Goa executive meet clearly underlined that it was working on the design to win over the middle class and to accomplish this, Modi was the best bet.

It is a historical fact that the middle class prospered and grew beyond comprehension during the rule of Dr Singh. But the middle class did not dither in betraying him once he made known his intentions to create a Rs 1.24 lakh crore food support package for the poor. The Congress was projecting its image of being a party opposed to corruption.

These people were also against the launching of the NREGA scheme. At that point of time, they had accused the Congress of showing too much concern for the poor. It was this perception of theirs about the UPA government that they became enemy of the Congress and started finding fault with Dr Singh’s functioning who was primarily responsible for elevating their economic condition and stature.

It is worth mentioning that the middle class often resort to duality. While in public domain he shows his aversion to corruption, he feels quite cozy and comfortable with the corrupt people and practices. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the babudom survives on the pyramid of corruption. It is an open secret that the middle class babus have been building the edifice of their economic empire on the base of the corruption. If they rallied behind Jay Prakash Narayan during famous Bihar movement, they projected Anna Hazare as the hero.

In spite of presenting a weeping face, the fact remains that middle class has benefitted maximum from the government plans. It used the education loan to send its sons and daughters abroad to acquire higher education which still continues to be denied to a student from the poor and dalit family. The middle class people always lament their poor economic condition. But find it humiliating to become and articulate the vice of the poor and dalit. For them any action of this nature is below their dignity.

It is usually said that the middle class has played valuable role in the country’s economic development. But a closer look would make it explicit that they have served their class interest and used the benefits for their empowerment. The poor always remained at the periphery. They never became the partner of the development projects and programmes. The general notion is middle class is often being squeezed between the wealthy, who own a disproportionately large share of the nation’s assets, and the very poor who can fall back on government aid. But it is not true. There is one idiosyncrasy. While they extend moral support to the wealthy people and are not opposed to their looting the wealth of the country, they are vehemently opposed to providing any financial help or benefits to the poor.

Three recent developments are suffice to prove this fact. Baring a miniscule segment of the middle class, the entire class maintained an indifferent attitude towards the labourers during the corona pandemic. After Modi announced the lockdown in the most abrupt and whimsical manner, the world has been witness what kind of miseries the labourers had to face. They had to walk thousands of kilometres to reach their villages. Not less than 400 died on the streets of the metros and other cities. But the middle class did not come out even to console them.

The second was their apathy towards the Shaheen Bagh movement. The women and Muslims protested against the CAA and Citizenship law. But these middle class czars did not oppose these laws. If the Muslims and poor were scared of proving their nationality, the brute fact is a large number of the middle class people do not have papers to establish the nationality of their parents. They were only dependent on their loyalty to Modi and his idea of Hindutva.

The third is the classic case of farmers’ agitation for scrapping of the three black farm laws and legalising the MSP. The averseness of the middle class towards this movement has been the main issue of talk in the social and political circle. Often questions are asked why is the middle class averse to the farmers’ movement? Forget about their active participation they have even not been extending their moral support. While the fact of the matter is the Indian middle class owes its birth and genesis to the farmers’ community.

The farmers have been protesting for their survival. The Modi government forcing them to surrender their class interest before the corporate sector. The farmers have been on Satyagrah for three months but the Modi government is reluctant to accept their demand for scrapping of the three laws. An analysis of the laws would make it explicit that all the laws would turn the farmers into a band of paupers. Unfortunately instead of conceding their demand the government is using its might to prove that the farmers are wrong and have been misled.

The most shocking has been the passive support of the middle class to its insinuation campaign against the farmers. Modi and his ministers and bureaucrats have been maligning them as Khaklistanis, terrorists and anti-nationals but the middle class has not been protesting this insinuation drive of the government. Around 240 farmers died during the movement, but these deaths have also failed to move this class.

The primary reason for their not supporting the farmers is, they perceive this movement as a design of the opposition to remove Modi from power and abort the move of the RSS-BJP to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra. It is irony that they have turned Hindu fanatics to such an extent where rationale and rational argument has lost its relevance and value. There is no denying the fact that the urban middle class has turned mercenaries and lost their sensibility.

While they were getting swayed away by the Hindutva slogan of RSS and BJP, the opposition parties, especially the Congress had cautioned them against walking into the Sangh trap. But they lampooned the opposition, blamed the secular forces and the Congress for all the malaise that was afflicting the country. They found the modern day saviour of their class interest in Narandra Modi. They not only voted for Modi, but preferred to get into Hindutva frankstine. Through out the country, particularly in the Hindi belt, they preferred to become the mercenary face of the Hindutva religious-political philosophy. The middle class youths were criminalised by the whatsup institute of the saffron brigade. . Their support to the BJP and Modi is more ideological than economic.

Even though the "aspirational middle class", could not match the wealth power of their superior middle class people, they nurse a typical averse attitude towards the poor and labourers. Their line of differentiation with the poor is quite thin, they still practice the primordial practices of the poor, they have transformed their approach and thought process. Although economically weak and facing considerable uncertainty in daily life, they aspire to a better standard of living which is heavily influenced by social media and the consumption patterns of higher-income classes.

The "affluent middle class" owns financial assets, bank deposits, and real estate, constitutes of salaried employees, professionals, the accountants, doctors, and lawyers. The rise of the affluent middle class has coincided with an increase in foreign and domestic travel, greater numbers of Indian students in foreign universities. This class has traditionally seen education as a way to maintain its status or rise to the affluent middle class, but the rising cost of both public and private education threatens its tenuous grip on its way of life.

A well-known characteristic of millennials is its desire to have everything at their fingertips, on their smartphones. Everything from grocery shopping and dinner planning is at their disposal through the click of a button. Digital and branchless banks are replacing traditional bank structures and payments happen at lightning speed through digital payments. Millennials are also embracing the ‘digital currency’. More than 66% of millennials have more faith in cryptocurrency than the stock market. It is a digital asset and is used as a means of exchange and a store of value.

One development is quite significant. This middle class is least concerned of the decline in the economy; India facing the worst economic crisis. Nearly 30m crore people have lost their livelihood during the last one year of the pandemic. The lower section of the middle class is faced with the threat of their relegation to the rank of daily wage earners. But the middle class is unmoved.

Yet another important feature has been; economically, India’s growth is worse off that it has even been during its seven decades as an independent country. For the first quarter of 2020-2021, the Indian gross domestic product contracted by a never-before-seen nearly 24%. And even that might be an understatement, with the shrinkage in the informal sector not being properly measured. Former chief statistician of India, Pronab Sen projects that economic shrinkage could go up to 35%. For the past two decades, India appeared on the top of global GDP growth

In fact, research by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that middle-class jobs have taken the biggest hit due to Covid-19 shutdown. From April to July, as many as 18.9 million salaried jobs were lost. Moreover, this pain is expected to last for some time. “While salaried jobs are not lost easily, once lost they are also far more difficult to retrieve,” explained CMIE. But this has failed to anger the middle class.

The Indian middle class loves Modi and more broadly the Bharatiya Janata Party. As many as 38% of the middle class and 44% of the upper middle class voted BJP in 2019, post-poll surveys suggest. Around 61% of Hindu upper-caste voters picked the BJP in 2019 with the caste group’s allegiance to the saffron party forming India’s most stable vote bank. Given the close relationship between caste and class in India, the vast majority of the Hindu middle class would be upper caste. This sort of stable relationship points to a deep ideological commitment to the BJP – rather than a transactional once that would be quickly shaken up by the economic crash.

No doubt Modi is under fire as middle-class India still awaits ‘Achhe din’ and has also become restless over rise in education and healthcare costs during the last two years. It has hit India’s burgeoning middle class hard, denting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity among the relatively well-off ahead of a series of state elections. Probably this is the reason that a section of the middle class has started blaming the opposition parties for their inaction. Already the election campaign promising of “good days” of lower costs, better health care and livelihood opportunities have started seems to be hounding the common man of India.

Sharp rises in education and healthcare costs in the last two years have hit India’s burgeoning middle class hard, denting Modi’s popularity among the relatively well-off ahead of a series of state elections. Ebbing of support among the huge agriculture sector has made Modi use all type of gimmicks to appease the middle class, which accounts for about a quarter of the 1.3 billion population. This was manifest in the budget speechof the finance minister.

Owners of motorcycles and cars are further upset that the government took away some windfall gains from falling oil prices in the form of taxes, and people across the country are cutting back on discretionary spending as expenses outstrip earnings. One things is nevertheless significant unlike the torrent of petrol price jokes in 2012 and 2013, there is little criticism of the failure of the Modi government in containing the oil price. The Congress on Friday said domestic crude oil production had reduced under Narendra Modi’s rule, confronting the Prime Minister’s claim that consumers had been saddled with skyrocketing prices because previous governments had not remedied India’s dependence on imports.

The fact of the matter is India’s crude oil production has fallen by 53.66 lakh metric tonnes in Modi’s regime. During the Congress-led UPA regime, domestic production of crude oil was 23.4 per cent of total consumption. Between 2014 and 2020, the domestic share of crude oil consumption is 15.3 per cent. In fact, domestic production in 2020 was the lowest in the last 18 years. The Modi government has reduced the budget of ONGC, the company that produces crude oil, from Rs 32,501 crore in 2020-21 to Rs 29,800 crore in 2021-22. There is no denying that the Modi government has destroyed ONGC by compelling it to buy the sinking Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, saddling ONGC with a debt of Rs 24,881 crore. Even the oil exploration budget, which was Rs 11,687 crore in 2014, was Rs 4,330 crore in 2020.

On the day when petrol price crossed Rs 100 a litre for the first time in the history of independent India a few days ago, Prime Minister Modi had said: “India imported over 85 per cent of its oil needs in the 2019-20 financial year. Can a diverse and talented nation like ours be so energy import dependent? Modi blames UPA for flare up in petrol and diesel prices. To keep the middle class in humour he said the middle-class would not have been burdened if the previous governments had focussed on reducing India’s energy import dependence

Modi blamed the UPA regime for the dramatic flare up in petrol and diesel prices while trying to hide his government’s colossal failure in handling a burning issue that could ignite inflation.

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