The Indian Middle Class has suddenly become a very talked about group in this anti corruption “drama” that has been unfolding across television channels over the last couple of months! As a person who belongs to this social category, I have been trying to reflect on what are our defining characteristics? Who is this Indian middle class person? The images that come to my mind immediately are that of Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha on a BEST bus- straight out of a Hrishkesh Mukherjee/ Basu Chaterjee film I guess…!
I then get a bit confused wondering if that imagery isn’t dated by at least two decades? Now that brings me to another question- is the definition of middle class something that is dynamic- changing with time? Sure, income levels change with time due to inflation but here it is not income that is the defining factor …… or is it?
I try to apply the middle class definition to my own situation. I come from a family that runs on two salaried incomes ( mine and my husband’s). Both of us hold jobs that involve cerebral activity of some sort. We have one child who goes to an English Medium school. We own some of the commonly used consumer durables. We go out occasionally for movies or a meal over weekends and have annual holidays at some hill stations or the other. We have one car which my husband drives and I generally use public transport ! We own some branded clothing and have some savings. Now does this make us middle class? Yes…. and no..!!! For e.g if we owned two cars would that make us “upper class” or if we took “foreign holidays” would we be going beyond our middle income category? There are number of people who would be doing this and more and yet be classified as middle class!! So this class is nowadays not as clearly defined as it used to be during the time when we were teenagers watching those Hrishikesh Mukherjee films!
I think one of the reasons has been the way the markets have been ruling our lives. Post nineties with economic liberalization , there has been a transformation that has over run this country and the middle classes have been the ones who have benefited most from it. There was a time when the middle classes were largely employed in the government and public sectors. Sure, there were self employed people but somehow the spirit of free enterprise was not as much exploited or appreciated as it is today.
The options in terms of employment were few and far in between with people preferring to migrate out of the country to chase their so called “dreams” of making it big. But today, fortunately or unfortunately these “dreams” have every possibility of becoming a reality within this country itself. There are youngsters working in sectors that pay over hundreds of thousands of rupees per month! Credit is easily available and with that comes the desire for acquisitions! The middle class today knows the cost of almost everything but the value of only a few things.
So, we have Amol Palekar today, transforming himself into a Saif Ali Khan or a Shahrukh Khan resulting in “Raju ban gaya gentleman” .And though Raju lives in the US or the UK he is as “Indian” as possible dancing and singing with chiffon clad lasses having brown hair and light eyes celebrating “karva chauth”! That is sufficient so far as middle class values go I guess!
Now let us come to the crux of the issue- why has corruption started bothering this middle class group suddenly? I mean corruption was not something that came up on us yesterday! Corrupt politicians and corrupt government officers were very much part of the system even two decades ago..
I guess what is different now is that the middle class no longer identifies itself with government or public sector which they say is the seat of all corruption! Today, the government or the state plays a very marginal role as a source of power over their lives unlike the 1970s and 80s. Small favours that used to require “Sifarish” or recommendation those days now need “Rishvat” or bribes. Both these are like exchange commodities helping us meet our ends. When we had no money, we used our influence – someone’s uncle or cousin knew someone in some government department and that is how favours were curried. Today, with those uncles and cousins having retired and with the next generation being largely employed in the private sector that is thriving in our free economy, the exchange commodity is currency!
While this is change on one side, on the other we can also see the diminishing hold that the government or the state has as a source of power over the life of the average middle class citizen. Today we have the money and so we can ignore the options that were at one time only offered by the state! Money can buy everything from a seat in an engineering college to a beautiful bride or a foreign holiday. Big money as I said earlier is no longer a dream-
Our lives now are shaped as much by popular public opinion that is driven by the corporate media as it is by our own analysis of any situation. We have less time to discuss issues and we therefore believe what the news channels tell us and thus builds a “ movement” around corruption. We are also so starved on role models that are appropriate to the confused value systems that govern our lives today that we jump at the first sight of someone who in some way comes close to it! No offence meant to Anna Hazare but I would like to know how many of these candle light marchers actually can locate Ralegaon Siddhi on a map?
To conclude I can say that unless we do some inner reflection and sort out who we are and what our values are, we are likely to get more and more shallow in our approach to any issue.. Raju is trying today to become more than a “gentleman” he wants to be an “activist”- only he has no clue what activism is all about. It is more than a photo op or having a mike thrust under your chin in a crowd by a TV channel reporter! Middle classes do not signify passivity as we seem to have come to believe (wrongly). Remember, it is not just Raju who became a gentleman, there was a Naseer as the middle class protagonist in The Wednesday who almost become a terrorist!