The Indian ‘middle class dream’ is a reality – an increasingly potent one at that. It is both similar to, and different from the ‘American dream’ of getting rich fast. Similar in the sense that there is a shared value system which gives a definite drive to the society – and different in the set of values that are cherished.
There are more Indians who are aspiring to be ‘middle class’, than who would like to be rich. Anyhow, by definition, even the ‘quite-rich’ consider themselves to be middle class. That is partly because of the middle class ethics of (relatively) sober living that they subscribe to and partly because of the socialist and community ethos of our society.
Strong family bonds, need for social acceptability, hankering for economic security and aversion to risk taking characterizes this class. This translates into a stable and a hardworking society. That is the good news. The bad news is that this makes India a relatively conservative, snobbish, less varied society, where there is bias against both ‘growing too big’ and ‘being poor’. (In the middle class mindset, poor remain poor because of some weaknesses in character, and the rich are rapacious and decadent.) In short it is a case of ‘The good- Middle class, The bad- Rich class and The Ugly- the poor’.
This class is seeking changes in the way the society is governed. A tectonic shift happened with the increase in numbers (about 260 million and growing), rising literacy and communication revolution. The class is trying to find ways to influence policy and in the process, is creating its own heroes and icons. In a democracy, the process may turn out to be smoother than what is happening in the middle east or is likely to happen in China.
But for the present political class it is a nightmare. Rich can rule America because of the American dream – the aspiration of all to be rich. But rich cannot rule India, for they represent all that is bad. This problem would be sorted out, slowly and electorally- probably in ways that is not easy to forecast today. But the wholesale changes that are required in administrative and political structures will not be easy to bring about. In fact, it is easier in revolutionary situations to bring about changes, by letting go of the old, by destroying redundant structures and creating new ones (often by adopting foreign models). Slow changes in structures leads to the nuisance of carrying lots of excess baggage- causing frustrations and wastages.
For the economy, this situation presents a dilemma. Capitalist economy demands a strong rich class as investor and a spender on luxury. It also focuses on investment and technology heavy solutions to problems. The economy will have to find ways to utilize the demographic dividend through investments in skill developments and creation of basic infrastructure. It will have to provide economic security so that spending potential of the middle class is unlocked.
We are living through a period of ‘slow, simmering’ revolution – something that would be written about in history books of the future. For now – three cheers for this thought!!