Millennium Post

The Great Indian Middle Class

In 1997, member of Parliament Sharad Yadav created a storm when he opposed the women’s reservation bill, saying that it would allow 'short-haired women' into legislatures. Yadav of course meant urban, elite women – belonging to the middle class in other words, the pariah of Indian society at least as far as politicians were concerned. The middle class, as people had begun to believe, did not vote, had little interest in political affairs and did not constitute the sort of vote bank that Yadav would benefit from representing.

To be fair to Yadav, the middle class did not think much of him either – he did not represent them, they did not have the sort of problems he understood and they would never vote for him. This is a far cry of course from the middle class which led India’s struggle for Independence and was responsible to a large extent to setting our national foundations.

This mutual disrespect society evident since the 1970s was not limited to Yadav’s Janata Dal United or the Samajwadi Party – both of which represented OBC, lower caste, Dalit, minority and such easily identifiable groups of voters. Even the Congress, which had a large middle class support base, ignored the middle class and just took that support for granted. If any, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party which had some understanding of the middle class mind set – until the 'India Shining' campaign bit them in an uncomfortable part of the anatomy, from which they have as yet to recover.

But some parts of India did indeed shine and from there has emerged a new class of Indians – eager, interested, aspiring. They are the neo middle class and while the women may or may not have short hair, they are confident and more importantly, self-aware. Their favourite writer is Chetan Bhagat, their favourite personality is APJ Abdul Kalam and their idea of an upstanding citizen is Anna Hazare. The short hair sported by former police officer and now anti-corruption crusader Kiran Bedi makes her all the more appealing to this new middle class. It shows them that she is a no-nonsense person who means what she says.

To make Sharad Yadav’s life miserable, it was a short-haired woman after all who became the darling of the Dalits of India, however scorned she may have been by the rest of India. And former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati of course did not even need the women’s reservation bill when she swept to power five years ago. (It is another matter that she was swept out of power this year because contrary to what Sharad Yadav might imagine, short hair guarantees nothing one way or another.)

This new India challenges both the accepted social classes as well as the nature of public discourse. Both television and the Internet have given this India a voice. The exact demographic of this class is as yet uncertain – but there can be no doubt that it exists. It straddles the lines between India and Bharat and cannot really be slotted into one or the other. Who would have imagined even a decade ago that a group of city women could contact each other via the Internet and send pink underwear to a rightwing Hindu group in Karnataka to shame them for their treatment of women? Yet the 'Pink Chaddi Campaign' was a successful way to expose the Ram Sene – leading every other rightwing Hindu group to disown them.

But nowhere was this newfound voice more in evidence than during the anti-corruption wave which swept India under the leadership of Anna Hazare. Hazare was a well-known social activist in Maharashtra but even he could not have imagined the way the social media catapulted him to international fame.

The first waves took conventional wisdom by surprise – how could such a movement, bereft of political thought or support even survive more than a few days? But survive it did and for many months more than anyone imagined. That it eventually collapsed was inevitable – there were too many internal contradictions – but in the glory days that the Hazare movement, it terrorised India’s politicians.

The Congress balked at first and then bent over backwards to appeal to Baba Ramdev and then when that failed, grew overly arrogant. The BJP could not decide just how to play this game and dithered between support for Hazare and fear of the consequences. The smaller parties expressed their anger at both the new middle class and what their motives.

But increasingly, it is clear that this is a sound which cannot be drowned out. It is often annoyingly self-righteous, it can appear to be in a permanent state of 'outrage', it lacks the sophisticated nuances of the older middle class and can even seem completely bereft of intellectual discernment. But it can no longer be ignored.

The campaign by a retired army lieutenant-colonel to get the President of India to give up her plans for a retirement home in Pune used Right to Information, the Internet and television. These three are enormous weapons and are being used constantly to change government policy and even to remind politicians that someone is watching them – all the time.

It is evident that India’s politicians are still grappling with this phenomenon. This new middle class however is not easily intimidated and is using an aggressive media to push its agenda across. The political strength of this group has not yet been tested nor understood and indeed, it sometimes seems naïve in its expectations. But the more it tastes power, the more attractive this power becomes.

The challenge before this new class however is how to use this power effectively. Indian society and polity have several problems which jingoism – popular as it is on both TV and the Internet – cannot solve. Nor can contempt for politicians. Instead, this class can look further into those problems and push for solutions.

In a small way, the reaction to film star Aamir Khan’s TV programme Satyamev Jayate might work as a litmus test here. The success of the first show suggests some results – after all, female foeticide is a problem which is largely urban middle class. He painted an ugly picture and yet, people reacted favourably to him.

Many of the older intelligentsia pointed out that everyone already knew about female foeticide anyway. But that is hardly to the point. For too long have the 'aware' preached to the converted – that is, to themselves. There is a new audience available now and it seems to be dying for both cause and effect.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist, based in Mumbai.
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