One of the consequences of economic liberalisation was a major change in the size and composition of India’s middle class. Earlier it was largely a creature of the state, comprising mostly government employees. But with government employment basically stagnant since then, expansion of the private sector has been the primary driver underlying its growth. And the vast majority of the lower-middle class are the first generation of their family to belong to this group, having ridden the escalator of economic growth. But many are sliding back, the victims of India’s economic crisis.
The growth of a middle class was expected to play a transformative role in propelling the economy on the one hand and modernising Indian society and politics on the other. The former would be achieved by its consumption potential that would drive domestic demand and the latter by pressuring the polity to address corruption and transcend identity politics. That this has occurred more in the breach is self-evident. Why has that been the case?
In part, this might have to do with how we define the middle class. Conceptually it comprises those whose socio-economic position fell between the working and propertied classes, the latter initially rooted in the aristocracy and later to the capitalist classes. But beyond that broad definition, economists and consulting companies favour income and consumption criteria. While having a scooter in the 1970s might have signalled middle-class status, today is it having a car? If so, about 10% of Indian households would be middle class.
An income definition, with “middle income” defined as living on $10-$20 daily and “upper-middle income” defined as living on $20-$50 daily, would also yield a class that was about 10% of the population pre-pandemic, according to a recent Pew Study; numbers having fallen by a third since then.
In India, an argument could be made that anyone employed in the formal sector is middle class because of the particular social safety nets, whether employment guarantees, pensions or healthcare, which ensure the stability of lifestyles that we associate with the class. This too would yield an Indian middle class that is about 10% of the population, an order of magnitude larger than in 1990, but on a population base that is 50% larger.
A different way to think about the middle class is a subjective measure of how people self-identify themselves. It is certainly the case that many more Indians – nearly half according to one study – identify as middle class. If for the working classes, class consciousness came about through innumerable struggles against capitalists, the self-identified middle-class consciousness has arguably been the result of a huge increase in a specific non-material consumption – namely media.
The Indian media landscape has radically transformed post-liberalisation. Private TV channels were non-existent in 1990. Today there are 392 news channels alone. The internet was non-existent in India 30 years ago. Today more than half its households have access. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021 India is one of the strongest mobile-focussed markets globally, with more than 600 million active internet users, many of whom access the internet only through mobile phones. According to Facebook 416 million users in India access it every month and more than half – 234 million – access it every day.
Global evidence on the emancipatory potential of the class has been mixed. While for some it is a dynamic force for change, others have argued it is inherently conservative. Even as regards the economy, while the middle class might desire a reduced role of the state in the economy it is deeply protective of its own interests as in favourable tax policies.
Historically the social and political role of the class has not been due to its income or consumption per se but rather its human capital, and in particular its hegemonic role in the professions. The character of higher education and the governance and standards of the professions in India are likely the principal reasons why the social and political role of the Indian middle class has been so wanting.
The links between higher education and the professions have a critical impact in shaping the attitudes and sensibilities of the class. Since liberalisation, higher education in India has expanded tenfold and in principle should have shaped the attitudes and values of the large middle class it has generated. However, a professional who has paid a premium price for his credentials while receiving a poor quality education will not only cut corners to recover that investment, but will also have little regard for professional norms and ethics since his education did little to impart him with any professional values.
It has long been recognised (going back to Durkheim in his classic work, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals) that the state simply cannot perform the regulatory function of professions. While professional associations derive some of their regulatory power from the state, they must not be part of the state.
The source of the legitimacy and social power of the professions lies in their “public morality” which requires them to practise (and enforce) strong codes of professional ethics. As Durkheim put it, “professional ethics will be the more developed, and the more advanced in their operation, the greater the stability and the better the organisation of the professional groups themselves.”
Unfortunately the failures of the middle class to better govern the very professional organisations that have been the source of its social power are manifest, be it the governing body of accountants or of architects, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers. The Bar Council of India and the Medical Council of India (replaced by the National Medical Commission in 2020) are prime examples of professional misconduct themselves.
They epitomise a harsh reality. The institutional malaise in the governance of the professions is an important reason not just for the weaknesses of the professions themselves, but in their larger failure to hold the state to account – a failure that is all too manifest today.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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