A small middle class did emerge in colonial India. As it developed a political consciousness, it demanded change and freedom. However, in the context of the times, this meant political freedom from British rule.
This is why most of the leadership of the Freedom Movement were drawn from this middle class. As pointed out by authors like Pavan Varma, the middle class was very politically active during this period.
However, matters changed after Independence. The upper echelons of the middle class took over the reins of power from the British and overnight became the new aristocracy. The Gandhi-Nehru clan is the most obvious example of this phenomenon. This change in status meant that its attitude towards market institutions changed.
The remaining middle class was tiny, perhaps no more than a couple of million individuals. Thus, it was in no position to be able to defend market-friendly institutions against the socialism of the newly elevated elite. Moreover, in the early years, the middle class stood to gain from the new arrangement as it subsidised higher education and created white-collar jobs by concentrating the country’s resources in large public sector projects.
The middle class grew steadily in the decades after Independence but, over time, the inefficiencies of the socialist regime began to tell.
Job opportunities dwindled and the middle class grew more restive. Those who like sociological explanations for history may think that it was pressure from the middle classes that eventually led to the reforms of 1991.
It is true that the middle class has played an important role in many important historical turning points in world history. However, in this particular case, the middle class was not the decisive factor. Despite all its problems, the middle class in the late eighties still had a stake in the faltering public sector. Liberalisation promised new but uncertain jobs but it threatened the end of a way of life.
More importantly, however, the middle class was not politically powerful enough to demand change. First, it was just too small. There is no good estimate of the middle class in 1991 but we have seen that even in 2007 it was just 50 million. Furthermore, the section of the middle class that had emerged from the housing colonies was far more pan-Indian and less rooted in their provinces. This happened at a time that the gradual spread of political awareness was making the poorer sections increasingly active.
This meant that when the middle class was becoming more pan-national, the country’s politics was becoming more local—witness the steady growth of powerful regional and caste-based parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The middle class found that it was too small to count on its own steam and too rootless to be able to influence increasingly localised politics.
As a result, the urban middle-class largely lost interest in politics. The new urban middle-class has so far remained less politically active than either the old elites or the poorer masses. Even today, the old nobility and descendants of the pre-Independence middle-class (and later elite) provide a far larger share of the political leadership than the rootless middle class that emerged from the public sector and the housing colonies.
Virtually every one of the ‘young’ leaders that entered the Lok Sabha over the last decade came from powerful political families. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many political leaders who have emerged in recent years from relatively modest backgrounds.
In contrast, the urban middle-class has thrown up very little. How different this is from the earlier generation of politically active middle-class Indians described by authors like Pavan Varma. This is why it was an external crisis rather than pressure from the middle class that led to the reforms of 1991.
Fortunately, this situation will not last forever as the Indian middle-class is growing. As the country shifts to the Asian Miracle growth paradigm, the middle-class will no longer be the ‘source’ of growth but its ‘result’. As more and more blue-collar workers are deployed in the booming economy, many of them will work their way up the social ladder.
McKinsey Global Institute projections suggest that the middle class will grow from the current level of 50 million to 583 million by 2025.
Strengthened by the growing numbers, the middle-class will begin to demand its share of political power. In turn, it will demand the institutions of governance.
A study by William Easterly shows that sustained development of institutions in various countries is critically influenced by what he calls the ‘middle-class consensus’. As with many long-term changes, it is a dynamic that feeds itself—more growth will generate more middle class and this will support growth—enhancing institutional changes.
This will be a radical shift in the country’s political dynamics and the first signs are already visible. In recent years, the middle class has been increasingly successful in using the mass media to weigh against blatant misuse of political power. In both the Jessica Lall murder case and the similar Priyadarshani Mattoo murder case, the middle class used mass media to indict the politically powerful. The phenomenon is now widening.
In 2005, under sustained pressure from social activists, the Lok Sabha enacted the Right to Information Act which gives the general public access to government records. Transparency is good for all sections of society but it is a potent weapon in the hands of the middle class.
As the middle class grows more numerous, it will be able to influence politics more directly. Middle-class politicians will emerge to represent middle-class electorates. As happened in Britain with the Great Reform Act of 1832, the middle-class will demand the delimitation of constituencies to reflect the growth of the new urban centres and changing population concentrations.
The delimitation process has already begun and the regular recasting of constituencies will eventually change the balance of power. According to the proposals of the Delimitation Commission of India, Mumbai city will see the number of Lok Sabha representatives drop from three to two while the number of constituencies in the suburbs will rise from three to four.
One could think of this as a shift from the old middle-class of South Mumbai to the new middle-class that lives in Ghatkopar and Andheri. As India urbanises, there will be shift from rural areas to the new urban centres.
In other Asian countries, the rise of the middle class led to profound changes in socio-political power structures. South Korea was ruled by a series of military dictators till the mid-eighties. There were several attempts to establish democracy but they did not take root.
However, as the economy grew, the middle class grew in strength and eventually was strong enough to demand change on its own steam. In 1987, the middle class led a series of protests against the government of General Chun over the murder of students. These protests eventually forced direct elections and democracy.
Similarly, it was political pressure from the middle class that guided Indonesia to democracy after the political and economic crisis of 1997-98 pulled down the Suharto government.
India is already a democracy of long standing but its institutions are in dire need of reform. A rising middle-class will demand necessary changes in the institutions of higher education, and in the institutions of general governance—including the judicial system. In doing this, India will follow the experience of other countries.