Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > The Missing Bridge between Two Volatile Classes | Papri Sri (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 49 December 2, 2023

The Missing Bridge between Two Volatile Classes | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 2 December 2023, by Papri Sri Raman



Liberalised India, Politicised Middle Class and Software Professionals

by Anshu Srivastava

Pages: 148
Price Rs 995 (hardback)

Routledge, an imprint of Francis & Taylor
ISBN: 978-1-032-05489-6 (pbk)

The title is interesting, any study of a ‘politicised’ middle class is always fascinating, though political labeling is changing rapidly. Who is Middle Class, who Upper Class or Lower can no longer be defined categorically, it is no longer a classically sacrosanct definition. Such categorisation can no longer be measured in terms of ‘richness’, one can say.

A July report in the newspapers this year names one Bharat Jain as the richest beggar in the world, who begs on the streets of Mumbai. Due to poverty, Jain was unable to pursue formal education. The media says, the term ’beggar’ often evokes the thoughts of the individuals associated with poverty, facing financial instability, wearing worn-torn attire, and having unkempt hair.

Anyone with such a description would traditionally be classified as one belonging to the ‘poorer class’. Jain’s monthly earnings from begging range between ₹60,000 and 75,000; he owns a 2BHK flat in Mumbai worth ₹1.2 crore; and owns two shops in Thane that rent for ₹30,000 per month. His net worth is ₹7.5 crore. So, would one classify him as a ‘Middle-Class’ citizen?

Jain is not a Software Professional. There are millions of people in India who contribute to what is the ‘Middle-Class’ at a time when economist Yanis Varoufakis has coined a new class, ‘Technofeudals’. Out old definitions of class and the political class. Two kinds of people dwell in this realm.

Developers and sellers of technology and users of technology. In this changing landscape of more than 5 billion users of the Internet, can one leave out the Gig worker using a software from the middle class, or the housewife using the Smartphone? Can they be called Software Professionals? If not, then the middle class, defined only as a small group of people who are called Software Professionals, can constrain the study.

Author Anshu Srivastava rightly calls this middle class as the class ‘in-between’. She describes a ‘new middle class’ in India, brought in by the economic reforms of the 1990s as ‘an otherwise internally differentiated and heterogeneous group’, and says, ‘the new Indian middle class often unifies itself to shape socio-political discourse that affects politics and policymaking, from domestic to international affairs….’

She defines the Indian middle class ‘as a class created as the interpreters between the colonial rulers and the millions whom they governed in the pre-Independence era, the Indian middle class has existed in congruence with the state, occupying vital positions in state administration’.

The author quotes Chakravarty (1989), to note that: Nehru’s adoption of a planned pattern of economic and social development for India was deep and pervasive. But it was not based on a doctrinaire philosophy of history. What he understood by a planned economy was a regime where things could be made to happen through foresight, goodwill and cooperation. In contrast, in a market economy, things just happen. It may be that sometimes in a market economy, things go very well indeed but then there come large periods when things stagnate and misery grows.

The sociologist author then goes on to say, ‘Since Independence, this middle class underwent major sociological change as they live independent of the state, which affected their social, economic and political position, reaping benefits of liberalisation and globalisation through education and employment’.

She quotes Kharas (2017), who, in his study on ‘The Unprecedented Expansion of the Global Middle Class: An Update’, concluded that the middle class was expanding, and by the end of 2016, 3.2 billion people would be middle class – almost majority of the world’s population would become middle class. Every year nearly 140 million people are joining the middle class, which can grow to 170 million people in five years’ time, majority of which will live in Asia – that is India and China.

A report by the People Research on India’s Consumer Economy (PRICE) and India’s Citizen Environment, a not-for-profit think tank, said in 2022 that the size of India’s middle class will nearly double to 61 per cent of its total population by 2047, from 31 per cent in 2020-21. The strength of the middle class is expected to rise to 715 million (47 per cent) in 2030-31 to 1.02 billion of India’s projected population of 1.66 billion in 2047. Since there is no universal definition of who falls in the Middle Class, the think tank defines a ‘middle-class Indian’ as one earning between Rs 1.09 lakh and Rs 6.46 lakh per year based on 2020-21 prices, or Rs 5 lakh to Rs. 30 lakh annually in household terms, said the Business Standard.

As such, the politics of this middle class is becoming increasingly important. In that sense, Anshu Srivastava’s book can be called an early study of one section of this rapidly-growing middle class and how it has responded from 2011 to 2021, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Srivastava is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. In the past few years, her research engagement has been with the politics of the ‘new middle class’ in contemporary India, focusing on software professionals and this book explores the emergence, evolution and definition of the Middle Class in India, which is in its evolutionary phase still.

The book analyses this class phenomenon through a close study of a new metropolitan middle class in India – the software professionals, emblematic of the ‘new India’. The question here in a post-Covid 19 India of 2025 would be, are software professionals (who can afford 4 BHK homes) alone representatives of this ‘new India’? Or of even the middle-class, when the government and it finance and planning departments every decade come up with a revised or new definition of the Middle Class, contested regularly by both politicians and economists?

Post Liberalisation, the author points out: India as an emerging economy was fuelled by tech-savvy manpower and a world class information technology (IT) industry. The Indian IT industry has been a remarkable success story. In the boom years of the mid- and late 1990s, software exports grew 50–60 percent annually, reaching $6 billion in 2001. The IT share of overall GDP in 2004–2005 was 4.1 percent, which was likely to grow to 7 percent by 2008 (with software and services alone accounting for 2 percentage points). Even during the infamous dot-com1 bust, software exports continued to grow by about 25 percent annually, which significantly outpaced growth and catapulted to a healthy 33 percent rate with a projection of export close to $60 billion in the year 2008 (Bhatnagar and Madon (1997)). In the year 2014–2015, software exports stood at $75 billion. [India’s software exports reached a record high of US$ 320 billion in FY23, increasing its share in global computer services exports to about 11%, according to a report from DBS Group]

Srivastava contextualises class politics, saying, ‘Class politics in general refers to the political articulation of interests ⎯ in a behavioural sense it presupposes a class identity and shares with other political identities the fundamental problems of variable recognition, salience and stability’. She quotes R J Herring (2013) to note, ‘At the opposite end of the class spectrum, getting what one wants may require no overtly political behaviour at all, since the structural power of capital exerts great force on politicians and the state, independently of class mobilisation. Likewise, in some class positions, special entitlements and political connections are a result of a penetrating network amongst class groups’.

The book then goes on to discuss this emerging class as a political category and its engagements with the state, democracy, political parties, issues of gender, basic necessities and social justice. Further, it discusses its social action and ‘middle class activism’ for issues such as environment, cleanliness and corruption, particularly highlighting its presence in the private sector and electronic media.

It discusses the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement (2011) which ‘gripped the Indian masses and its middle class in particular. This movement rose to prominence because of the angst of Indians who were suffering from issues like administrative failure and corruption. The movement demanded transparency and accountability in government dealings as a result of which the Lokpal Bill of 2011 was drafted. In this movement one saw students, social activists, environmentalists, farmers etc. participating equally’.

She says, ‘One of the most novel participants who belong to what has been termed as the ‘‘new middle class’’ in India were software professionals. Their presence in the movement bewildered my imagination as they are stereotypically known to be a consuming class (Upadhya, 2016; Brosius, 2010; Saavala, 2012) with very little inclination towards politics. This contradiction raised my curiosity to inquire whether the new middle class has a political identity, role and relevance. The initial inquiry demanded a conceptual and theoretical clarity on ‘‘class’’ configuration in India’.

She strengthens her study by a number of interviews, some of which, gives the reader a perspective of how much is the software professional’s involvement with activism. She also gives examples of several social activisms in the previous decade that ushered in huge political change in the country. One very interesting interview is where the Respondent says: ‘I think it is a sign of evolving Indian society and a social system as a whole. People now have become more demanding of their rights and freedom. This also shows that the rise of strength of Indian middle class which has been silenced for a long time since independence. Earlier they were not protesting against all the injustice and government apathy towards them. They are coming forward and demanding their rights.’

Srivastava notes, ‘in response to the question on interest in ‘‘politics’’, 75.4 percent of respondents showed positive inclination towards it’.

‘When it comes to modalities of social action, there are a number of shifts that deserve flagging given their far-reaching implications. The ‘sign of evolving Indian society and a social system as a whole’ is noted by Singh1 (2014) in her study. The new middle class is striving for directness – direct action, direct democracy, direct contact, without intermediaries, and direct voicing of opinions – which is unlike the traditional ways of organisation through petitions and delegations. The new middle class wants to interact with the power structures directly and this communication is mediated through new media channels like social media.’

One Respondent says: In a country like India, where everybody is entitled with fundamental rights and duties, social movements become a mode of expressing their anger or putting up their demand to government. Social movements have a great impact over the society. It helps in bringing necessary changes.

Another Respondent says: There should be a driver to change, we should understand that it is no one person’s responsibility to bring change; each person has to contribute equally.

The author notes: These interviews help in arriving at an interesting conclusion of the software professionals towards social movements. There is on the one hand a cautionary understanding of social movements which should aim at social change, not cater to self-interest, and on the other see an imperative change at the individual level.

She says, post-1990s the relationship between civic activism and the middle classes has become more pronounced owing to economic liberalisation, democratic decentralisation (1992), good governance discourse and finally the RTI 2005. ‘Citizen activism across India have used RTI as a powerful tool to get things done concerning everyday lives of people like potholes not filled, garbage collection, getting ration cards etc. Post-1990s provided an opportunity for the ‘‘new middle classes’’ to have such civil society organisation for several reasons. First, the middle class has the resources to articulate common interests to mobilise around a common agenda. Second, many members of middle-class associations have strong ties with government officials. Finally, members of the middle class have access to various other resources including electronic media.’

The author goes on to acknowledge: The dilemma in researching and representing new middle class is how to conceptualise the emerging cultural configuration in terms of modernity, neither claiming a simplistic global homogenisation of cultural life nor essentialising cultural difference. This dilemma rolls on to the ‘unified political identity’ of middle class – is there any? If so, what is its nature? The socio-economic status, caste affiliations and educational attainments situate people who could be generically labelled as middle class in widely differing social positions. The apparent middle-class heterogeneity is built on a certain shared cultural meaningfulness. Being middle class is only one facet of any actor’s positioning – there could be many. Class affiliations emerge from a deeper layer of shared cultural meanings, the exhibition and articulation of which is made politically.

Srivastava notes: General elections expanded the use of social media in India greatly, especially in the urban centres. She quotes Akhil Gupta (1995), to point out ‘No other party leader other than Modi had an array of organisation and structures in place ready to support their bid for power’. Volunteers would run independent campaigns like Niti digital to appease voters virtually (Philipose, 2016). On the brink of a third general election, the reader is forced to ponder, if this new middle class’s social activism is a good or bad thing. If it has not killed the NGOs and legislation like MNREGA and RTI? Also the middle-class ignorance towards their consumption practices adding to waste creation needs critical reflection, she adds.

The author herself points out, ‘The transformation of urban spaces into megacities and smart cities has led to an enormous assault on the natural environment. Ethical environmental concerns have transformed into bourgeois environmentalism and ecological modernisation in the form of golf courses and theme parks (Baviskar, 2002). There has been widespread manipulation of nature as vast majority of acquired land goes into the creation of housing societies, gated communities, malls and shopping complex rather than preserving the natural environment. Bourgeois environmentalism is destructive for the survival and well-being of the poor – it serves the desires of the rich and the building of fast megacities (Shaban and Datta, 2019).’

What the book does is alerts the reader that the Consumer Citizen is more active than the Activist Citizen and their number is growing rapidly. ‘The different fields of middle class activism which are addressed in the book have a reflection of the rights claimed by these consumer-citizens.’

Srivastava says, the issue of political legitimacy and the ability to make claims in the public sphere is negotiated through bourgeois environmentalism. ‘Why have the urban poor been unable to have equal claims in the city? What is the politics of place which denies civic rights and stigmatises and disenfranchises the poor migrants of the cities? How is the public sphere configured to deny the most basic concerns of a majority of city dwellers? These preliminary questions are posed as an entry point to rethinking environmentalism, says Srivastava.

‘This stand of new middle class affirms that there is a visible divide between the middle class and the working class. We might see them demanding a corruption-free India, a safe world for women, clean air, clean environment for all but these are also reflective of the class divide.’ For instance, 70 percent of software professionals’ support for ‘Digital India’ showcased how the middle class was ignorant of the situation of the poor or working class.

In a very subtle manner, the book points out how this emerging new middle class have been selfish and self-centred globalists. The post-Covid decade is showing up how these Software Professionals, despite having the tools of development in their hands and a liberal economy, have not been able to bring life-changing positivities in the lives of fellow aspiring citizens. Srivastava’s book, thus, serves as an explainer of the connect that can be in the near future between two volatile classes.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.