For several decades now, Indian governments have been obsessed with the idea of a middle class. In the 1970s, bureaucrats would tell foreign journalists that the Indian middle class numbered as much as the entire population of a European country. In 1985, Mani Shankar Aiyar, media adviser to the then-prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, told The Washington Post that India had a middle class of 100 million. By the 1990s, figures of 200 million were being offered up.
In reality, till the late 1990s, the Indian middle class constituted only a tiny space at the top of the population pyramid. There were businessmen and traders but the bulk of the traditional middle class consisted of salaried employees or professionals. There was a broad (and politically incorrect) distinction between the upper middle class and the rest of the middle class and it revolved around the English language.
The upper middle class had been educated in English. It spoke the language well, read English-language newspapers and used Western cultural reference points. The lower middle class usually did not speak English that well but recognised that it was the only language that mattered in the workplace.
When it came to politics, however, both levels of the middle class were broadly aligned. India had been created as a liberal democracy where all religions were equal and caste was an evil whose worst manifestations had to be curbed or even, stamped out.
It is possible this middle-class consensus would have survived into the 21st century had three significant developments not taken place in the 1990s. The first was the economic liberalisation of 1991. Not only were socialist controls lifted, but India chose to become part of the global economy, inviting foreign companies to open branches and flood the once-barren market with consumer goods.
The second was the growth of satellite television. Till the satellite channels started beaming to India, there was only the state-owned and rigidly controlled Doordarshan network.
But the satellite explosion not only opened up the world to Indians, it also encouraged an indigenous boom in television channels. India now has an astonishing 900 channels, of which around 380 are devoted only to news. Eventually, the satellite boom’s effects multiplied as the internet revolution hit India.
The third was the so-called demographic dividend. By the 1990s, the government had largely abandoned population-control policies and a baby boom occurred. Today, India has one of the world’s youngest populations: 65 per cent of Indians are under 30. And 50 per cent are under 25.
The economic liberation led to a leap in growth rates and a new urban prosperity. Many millions of families were added to the middle class. Most of them were relatively young. They formed their world view from television and the internet. And because so many younger members of the booming new middle class came from families that had previously not been English speakers or a part of the old middle class, they rejected the consensus about the kind of nation that India was. An idea that had governed most Indian political and social thinking in the second half of the 20th century was now under attack.
Nobody knows how to define the Indian middle class now, but figures of 500 million or more are mentioned. Much of this middle class has its origins in what used to be considered small towns but which prosperity has transformed into sprawling urban conglomerations.
It is this new middle class that is increasingly changing the rules of discourse in India. Some of the manifestations of this transformation are easily evident.
There is a deep resentment of the old middle class and the position it occupied in Indian society for so long. Much of this is framed in terms of English. Because the new middle class has not always been educated in English, many of its members are contemptuous of those who speak English well or have gone to “good” schools.
Recently, Indian vice-president Venkaiah Naidu, a veteran of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went so far as to describe the English language as a disease left behind by the British – and that the time had come to rid India of it. As there is no evidence to suggest English has done any damage to India, Naidu was probably only stoking social resentment.
But it goes beyond social resentment. There is also a questioning – if not an outright rejection – of the values that guided the traditional middle class. The notion that India is a secular country where a Muslim or a Christian has the same rights as a Hindu has come under sustained attack. The rights to free speech, to question the government’s actions, or even to eat the food of your choice, are often caricatured as Western values which have little relevance to India.
It is almost impossible to eat beef in today’s India, and Muslims are frequently attacked or lynched on the grounds they are beef-eaters and may, therefore, harm the cow, which is sacred to Hindus.
Obviously, this has political consequences. Till 2014, the old consensus was the dominant force in Indian politics. Even less-educated politicians who came from rural backgrounds endorsed the values on which India had been founded. The BJP, the party of the Hindu right, ruled India from 1998 to 2004 but did nothing much to overturn the secular, liberal consensus.
All that changed in 2014, when Narendra Modi became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and launched his campaign. Modi appealed directly to the new middle class, talked of traditional Indian values, and railed against the Westernised elites that had run India. He also promised to create white-collar jobs for the young Indians who were entering the employment market.
His message was skilfully disseminated on social media because, as his campaign managers conceded, they wanted to bypass the questions and scepticism of traditional media. Besides, the new middle class had embraced gadgets, computers and technology (without bothering, alas, too much about pure science or even a scientific method of inquiry and thinking). Such social media tools as Facebook and WhatsApp were the perfect means to reach this new constituency.
Though Modi was careful not to raise any anti-Muslim issues during the campaign, others in his party made no secret of their desire to overturn the secular consensus, to break the hold of the old middle class and to create a new India that was more responsive to the needs of the Hindu community and less interested in what they called “minority appeasement”.
Ever since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, many of India’s new television channels have been enlisted in this crusade. The traditional media is dismissed as “paid media” (during the campaign Modi used the term “newstraders” to describe some journalists); people who have a liberal perspective are part of a “Lutyens set” (the capital’s elite, after Edwin Lutyens, who designed New Delhi); and to question the government on many issues is to be “anti-national”. The most common response to anyone who argues for minority rights is: “Go to Pakistan!”
All the evidence suggests the new middle class is strongly behind Modi and this agenda. In their minds, he is their candidate, a man who will wipe out the consensus created by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister (and a figure of hate in pro-BJP social media) and Mahatma Gandhi (some BJP leaders are either asking Indians to lend a sympathetic ear to his murderer’s point of view or are actually lauding the assassin).
Research suggests Modi’s support among young voters is especially strong and he remains a hero for many of them. But will he be able to deliver on the new middle class’s aspirations? And while it is all very well to pour scorn on the liberal consensus, what new values will take its place?
In a new book, Dreamers, published to great acclaim earlier this year, the journalist Snigdha Poonam recorded her travels through India’s towns and cities. She wanted to understand what young people in the new middle class desired and what they believed in.
Poonam was startled by the scope of their ambition. “Each of the young people she met “wanted to end up at least one of the following: rich, important, famous. Their ambitions went beyond what seemed reasonable.”
Despite the unrealistic ambitions, some have, nevertheless, achieved what might have been considered impossible. Poonam visited a website called Wittyfeed in the city of Indore in Central India and discovered how well it was faring: 82 million monthly visits, 1.5 billion page views, 170 million users. Of the people who visit the site, 80 per cent are foreigners, half of them from the United States. They come for stories that Wittyfeed recycles from other media, about the likes of the Kardashians and Kylie Jenner. The people who write these stories have little or no experience of America, but television has plugged them in to global popular culture. Game of Thrones references abound in the WittyFeed office: the boss’ office is called Winterfell. The ladies’ toilet says “Khaleesi”. And of course the men’s loo is tagged “Khal”.
Of late, more Indians are going to the WittyFeed website, the Hindi content is increasing and there are many stories glorifying Narendra Modi. One was headlined “Ten Times Narendra Modi Proved He Is A Complete Rockstar” and another, “Narendra Modi, the selfie king”.
But for every success story, Poonam discovered a scam. She unearthed the call centre scam (in which young Indians called people in America, pretended to be US Internal Revenue Service officers and cheated them out of millions of dollars) before the FBI and others got involved.
As she notes sadly, “few young Indians I met had a clear sense of right and wrong; fewer gave a damn about it”. If the old middle-class values are being dispensed with, it is not clear what will take their place.
When you consider that half of India’s population is under 25, you realise how dangerous the drift away from value systems can be and how great the challenge to any government is. As Poonam notes: “India will need to educate about 100 million young people over the next 10 years, a task never before undertaken in history. At least 1,000 universities will need to be built and nearly 50,000 colleges. [To put things in context, the US has a total of 4,200 colleges].”
But education is only half the story. What happens to those who need jobs? The new middle class does have young graduates, but as Poonam points out, “fewer than 17 per cent of India’s graduates are immediately employable. Only 2.3 per cent of the Indian workforce has undergone formal skill training [compared with 80 per cent in Japan and 96 per cent in South Korea].”
Around 117 million people need to be absorbed into new and more productive jobs. And those jobs don’t exist. Nor is the government promising to create them any longer. It is now asking people to become self-employed entrepreneurs.
Poonam worries the failed promises made to the young, new middle class will lead to anger and frustration – as indeed they already have in some parts of India. If a whole generation has been fed a diet of dreams, resentment and hatred, then how will it respond when the dreams die?
These are serious and worrying questions. Yes, the old middle class is outnumbered and its ideas are under attack. But is the new middle class really going to create a solid and stable (even if different) India? Poonam is not hopeful. I just pray that she is wrong. Because the alternative is terrifying.
A former editor, Vir Sanghvi is a columnist and TV presenter