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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 34 New Delhi August 11, 2018

Is there a ‘Unique Political Identity’ of the Middle Class?

Sunday 12 August 2018

by Anshu Srivastava

Definitions of the new middle classes in India, as elsewhere, are problematic and confusing. Middle classes in India have been often defined by economic criteria alone based on annual household income. In the Euro-American world, especially in the USA and in other affluent countries that have experienced fast social transformations, the middle classes seem ubiquitous. What unites the middle class as a social entity everywhere is its ambiguity. (Saavala, 2011) This vagueness is due to conceptual attempts to force a diverse group of people and social positions into a unified object. Third-World middle classes exist by definition in relation to the nationalistic movements and the centres of the world economy, and thus they have evolved through a different social history than the middle classes of the Euro-American world.

The dilemma in researching and representing 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 the middle class—is there any? If so, what is its nature? The socio-economic status, caste affiliations, 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 deeper layers of shared cultural meanings. I wish to examine this phenomenon with reference to the response of the middle class to the various incidents that took place in the National Capital Region of Delhi, the Capital of India. The nation witnessed a heightened political middle class. Let me outline three incidents.

The first incident that comes to light mid-year is the news of a face-off between residents of Mahagun Moderne, an upper middle class residential colony in Sector 78 NOIDA (a part of NCR, Delhi). It was reported that the society woke upto 100-150 people gathered at their gate, pelting stones, ransacking the security guards’ room. At the centre of the controversy was the ‘disappearance’ of 26-year-old domestic help Zohra Bibi, who was supposedly locked up in a flat on allegations of theft. In subsequent days the following events unfolded: Noida Police intervention, demolishing of makeshift shops and ‘jhuggis’ in Noida sector 78, blocking of entries of domestic helps in this society, Central Government Cabinet Minister and even a Chief Minister’s statements.

The second important incident was the cold-blooded murder of a seven-year-old student in a well-established public school on September 8. There was massive outrage on social media and online petitions began doing rounds. A lawyer’s Bar Association in Gurugram even went ahead asking its members not to represent the accused.

The third incident is the dharna by the flat buyers in New Delhi against a prominent builder ‘Jaypee Infratech’ which declared itself bankrupt. The intervention of the Chief Minister was sought and finally the CEO, Noida Authority relieved nearly 20,000 affected home buyers.

Let us try to analyse the above incidents. Leela Fernandes argues that the state remains a pivotal point of the restructured relationship between the new middle classes and state. In the first incident, the police lodged four FIRs in all—only one against the flat owners. Later, the case against the flat owners was dropped for ‘lack of evidence’. The political establishment’s response is instrumental in the restructuring of the relationship. A Union Cabinet Minister, who is also the elected MP of this area, reacted, “There is no doubt that the family is not at fault.” Establishing that it was a case of mob violence, he said that he will ensure that the accused will “never get bail”! The West Bengal Chief Minister also asked her MPs to look into the matter as most domestic workers are from Cooch-Behar. Fernandes also argues against the binary of democratic/anti-democratic when discussing the new middle class and instead argues mapping how this group engages in everyday practices that shape democracy. The above mentioned means of dharna for achieving the desired goal are a case in point since the middle class are not in decision-making positions. They depend on the political and economic elite for the conditions of their existence.

In the above incidents, there is mirroring of ‘unified political identity’. Fernandes clearly points out that the rise of the ‘new middle class’ as a social group can exacerbate the existing conflict between the middle class and subordinated groups. This identity echoed in statements of residents—”Our primary concern following what happened on Wednesday morning is security. Till the time these concerns are addressed, all of us are united on the matter. We are managing household work on our own. There is some amount of inconvenience but we are willing to suffer a little.” Similar sense of ‘Unified political identity’ was witnessed in the slain child’s case where paranoid mothers were seen to be warning other parents on WhatsApp groups against security guards, peons, cleaners and practically all those people who live on measly wages!

Dr Anshu Srivastava is an Assistant Professor, I.P. College for Women, Delhi.

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