The Middle Class - As the Class of No Class
Geography and You|Issue 142 - 143, 2020
An attempt to understand some of the ambiguities around what it means to be middle class in India has been made in this paper. It also discusses the influence that the middle class supposedly has on Indian politics despite these uncertainties.
Amir Ali
If there is one thing that characterises the question of class in India, it is the desire to be labeled and included in the middle class. This makes the category of middle class a rather all-expansive one and a bit of a mixed bag. As a result of this bulging and distended middle class there is a tendency for it to obscure and overshadow a not very clearly defined and demarcated lower or working class below and detracts attention away from the privileged creamy upper class above. The confusing nature of the class question in India in terms of its ambiguity is further compounded by its being shot through and intersected with that other notorious forms of stratification in India, which is of course caste.

One of the most significant aspects of the middle class that has been seized upon is its sheer size, with estimates for middle class numbers varying considerably not just for India but for the whole world. In February 2009 The Economist suggested that 50 per cent of the world’s population had entered the middle class, mainly on account of growth in emerging markets. Compared to this there have been more conservative estimates coming from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which has suggested that a mere 1.8 billion in the world made it to the middle class in 2010. Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2014 (Credit Suisse 2014) suggested a lower 1 billion with wealth anywhere between 10,000 to 100, 000 USD. Between 1990 and 2015, the middle class grew from 15 per cent to 62 per cent of the population in China. In India, according to Abhijit Roy, 50 per cent of the population reached middle class status in 2015 (Roy 2018).

As an immediate caveat to much of what has been said about the middle class in India, it needs to be stressed that it has perhaps been exaggerated on two counts. One, in terms of its sheer numbers, with almost everyone trying to claim middle class status, even when income levels may rule them out of that supposedly hallowed status. Two, in terms of the actual consumption levels, with only a very small sliver of the middle class at the very top experiencing patterns of consumption that would rival or equal those in more advanced capitalist countries. This ‘not-there-yet’ middle class, which is nevertheless sizable, has been characterised more recently as an ‘aspirational’ middle class. The term ‘aspirational’ captures rather neatly the tantalising ‘not-there-yet’ gap that was just mentioned. It has also had momentous consequences for the political direction that the country has taken, especially in the Modi years since 2014.

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