SLIPPERY AS EVER

It’s not ideology but aspiration that drives India’s middle class—politicians take note

Quartz india
Quartz india

Whether you follow developments in India closely or not, you have likely heard about the emergence of the “Indian middle class.” The private sector, especially large multinational corporations, view the emergence of a large pool of Indians with increasing disposable income as the most vital consumer market of the future. The McKinsey Global Institute (2007) refers to India’s expanding consumer market as the country’s “bird of gold,” a phrase merchants used thousands of years ago to describe its vast economic potential.

The growth of a middle class is expected to play a transformative role in modernising the Indian economy, create new pressure points on the government to tackle the vestiges of the licence raj, and enable a more propitious environment for private entrepreneurship and job creation (Fernandes 2006). And those who are frustrated with the corruption and cronyism that has characterised Indian politics for decades view the rise of the middle class as a force for positive change, a palliative to the twin vices of identity and patronage politics (Das 2012).

Despite these tall claims, the research on the middle class globally is quite divided on its social and political impact. On the one hand, one strand of the literature argues that the middle class can be a dynamic force for change (Lash and Urry 1987) while on the other hand, some scholars have argued that they can often be a powerful votary of the status quo and traditional social and economic structures (Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992).

For instance, while the middle class might desire a reduced role of the state in the economy and a corresponding greater role for the private sector, it also wants better safety and environmental standards across a diverse array of sectors which, ironically, bring the state back in—this time in its regulatory capacity. This is one reason why—as far as India is concerned—the “inspector raj” has replaced the “licence raj” (Chandra 2015, Indian Express 2016).

[…]

We asked a sample of Indians from across the country whether or not they would classify themselves as “middle class”…we argue that the notion of “middle class” can be understood as a cognitive identity with some degree of class-consciousness or feeling of belongingness. In turn, this cognition should result in certain distinct views about the world, compared to other social classes. For instance, if the middle class is supposed to be “aspirational,” then being middle class should result in greater optimism about the future.

To preview our findings, we find that almost half of all respondents we surveyed across India identified themselves as part of the middle class. While there is substantial variation across states, which is not altogether surprising, identification is stronger in urban areas when compared to rural ones.

[…]

The total sample size of this survey was 68,516 respondents across 24 states and union territories in India.

Aspiration and optimism

The large share of respondents who identify as middle class begs the question as to whether these “middle class” Indians hold distinct world views. Do they have coherent views on the state of the country and the direction in which it is travelling? Are they more aspirational and optimistic about the future or fearful and pessimistic? Members of a first generation middle class, whose parents were poor but whose income has been buoyed by a rapidly growing economy, are likely to be optimistic about the future. But a second (or later) generation middle class whose income has stagnated or declined because of structural changes in labour markets and an anaemic economy is likely to be more pessimistic and fearful about the future.

[…]

Urban, middle class respondents are nearly 7% more likely to believe their children will be better off in the future than the respondents are today. The effect is slightly smaller for rural respondents. The effects of education are positive and significant, though at a reduced level. Respondents who are classified objectively as “rich” are, on balance, more positive in their assessment, although the magnitudes are smaller. There is no statistically meaningful effect of belonging to the objectively determined “middle wealth” category.

In other words, the effect of subjective self-identification with the middle class is more impactful than belonging to the middle of the income distribution.

These findings more or less remain when one considers the second outcome of interest: whether the Indian economy is getting better.

As with our measure of social aspiration, middle class self-identification is a strong predictor of economic optimism. Middle class respondents are more likely, in both urban and rural areas (though more so in the former), to have a favourable assessment of the Indian economy. Education plays a modest role while “middle income” is significant and positive, but does not eliminate the independent impact of self-identification. Interestingly, those who belong to the “rich” category are much more optimistic about the country’s economic future. While this is not entirely surprising, we note the much larger effect on economic optimism as opposed to social aspiration. Again, given the deeply stratified nature of Indian society, economic change is relatively easier to achieve than social change.

Since the American Civil War a century and half ago, incomes in the US have increased dramatically, but changes in race relations have lagged. We might similarly expect more rapid improvements in incomes in India, while social change related to caste, gender, religion, and region are likely to evolve much more gradually. There are three principal takeaways from this brief analysis. First, middle class self-identification picks up a lot of the variation in economic optimism and social aspiration that is not picked up by either wealth or human capital. Second, the association between middle class affinity and aspiration are comparatively larger in urban (than rural) parts of India. Finally, while income is positively linked with economic optimism, its impact is smaller on social aspiration.

[…]

Conclusion: Don’t take them for granted

Drawing on findings from a large survey of Indians across two dozen states, we find that middle class identification is large—between 40% and 60%—for virtually all demographic groups in the country. It seems likely based on this initial evidence that India’s aspirational middle class may be less ideologically driven and instead more focused on gaining social and economic status in a country where there is a tremendous amount of churn taking place.

As urbanisation picks up pace and human capital levels continue to rise, we can expect the size of the aspirational middle class to continue to expand. While this chapter has emphasised the importance of beliefs in the construction of a middle class identity, it does not provide answers on how these beliefs have been constructed. For the working classes, class struggle and unions played critical roles in developing such an identity. For the upper classes, these identities were constructed by attending specific schools and universities (as in the United Kingdom). Media, especially the electronic media, and the construction of a consumer society are factors that appear to be playing an important role in shaping middle class identities. But how and with what consequences remain open questions.

In India’s 2014 general election, research has found that the middle class (measured in more conventional terms) supported the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader, current prime minister Narendra Modi, in large numbers (Sridharan 2014). However, the government would be well advised not to take the support of the middle class for granted, as partisan identification could change rapidly if the aspirations of the middle class are thwarted.

Indeed, some research has shown that the middle class also backed the previous Congress-led government, which had presided over the fastest economic growth rates in Indian history (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2009). Once economic conditions began to deteriorate, particularly toward the final stage of their second term in office, the support of the middle class also began to falter. In other words, it seems logical that the ideological tether of the middle class to political parties will likely remain weak for the foreseeable future—not least because middle class identification cuts across most social groupings.

However, while social bases will continue to matter for politics, as the importance of the aspirational middle class grows, one can expect a concomitant growth in economic voting—although it is as yet unclear whether this voting will take place on retrospective or prospective lines.

This chapter was originally published in the book The New Middle Class in India and Brazil: Green Perspectives? We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search