Monday, September 17, 2007

India: The Coming Malaise?

Victoria Station in Mumbai

Over dinner in Kolkata last January with my parents and a professor friend of theirs, a fact was casually dropped that was actually quite stunning: the size of India's middle class ranks 200+ million strong, and growing. To put it in context, that is about two-thirds the population of the United States and just less than half the size of the EU. And while this middle class may not be quite as rich as their Western counterparts, their parity in purchasing power is not quite as far a cry as it was even twenty years ago. To paint a picture, a middle class in India may not own a free-standing house, two cars, and a computer, but they are likely to have a scooter, a TV, and a cell phone.

In terms of access to media and connection with global cultural references, they are quickly and noisily arriving at the same status as their global peers. In terms of material possessions, they may be lagging, although given the population density of India (and since most of these middle class are urban-dwellers), their net impact, both positive on the economy, and negative on the environment, are within the realm of comparison to their peers, at a local scale (of course, in terms of global impact, nobody can touch us Americans...) And when you consider the potential for upward mobility, the sky is the limit.

Consider this framing paragraph from a recent article in Prospect magazine:
As the actual Mother India celebrates the 60th anniversary of her independence, there is—as in Jaya Mary's life—both surging optimism and crushing despair about her future. As the saying goes, everything and its opposite is true in India. The seven Indian Institutes of Technology rank near the top of global surveys, and job offers to graduates from the Indian Institutes of Management rival those to graduates of the famous US business schools; yet a third of the country is still illiterate. Three hundred million Indians live on less than $1 a day—a quarter of the world's utterly poor—yet since 1985, more than 400m (out of a total population of 1bn) have risen out of relative poverty—to $5 a day—and another 300m will follow over the next two decades if the economy continues to grow at over 7 per cent a year. Population growth, even at a slower pace, will mean that there will still be millions below the poverty line, but the fall in number will be steady. At the other end of the scale, India has the largest number of dollar billionaires outside the US and Russia.
While this is both a true and somewhat poetic discussion of the poles that characterize modern Indian society, the article is not interesting in its celebration of India's diversity, or in its praise of the rise of India's middle class. Rather, what draws my attention, and a thesis to which I subscribe through limited personal experience, is that as India's middle class grows richer, and just plain grows, it fails to become a politically conscious or engaged class. Rather than assume the mantle of leadership to tackle the nation's myriad ills, members of the middle class become concerned with consolidating their gains, exercising the benefits of their new status and wealth, and persevering forward on their personal and family journeys to wealth.

From the article:
Among the middle class, in much of the media, in the malls and airports, in houses (however small) with water and electricity, there is still a commitment to an India which plays a decisive role on the international stage—but now, instead of through "non-aligned" solidarity and ancient history, it is through software and finance. Ten years after the buzz caused by the nuclear tests, the middle classes take India's new status for granted; they simply assume it is India's due to be treated as the "equal" of the US and the rest, and move on to talk of economic opportunities. This commitment to their own idea of India and their central role in its economic rise makes the middle classes sure of themselves. But at the same time, their sense of citizenship is weak: they do not, on the whole, extend a sense of solidarity to the poor; they often do not acknowledge the role of the state in their own rise or its capacity to solve any of the country's problems; and they are, in general, politically apathetic.

What explains this introversion? Middle classes at all stages of development, whether in 19th-century Europe or now, distrust those who have not risen with them. Yet in more homogeneous societies, the better off are more likely to care for the worse off. Highly diverse societies, like India, find it more difficult to institutionalise such fellow feeling.

The key to the diversity of Indian society is the jati system—intermarrying among consanguineous groups with hereditary (if often notional) occupations. But these groups are also placed within the ancient hierarchy of the varna, or "caste," system—the fivefold division of society on the axis of ritual purity from priests to warriors to merchants to labourers to those beyond the possibility of purity and therefore untouchable. Over the centuries, there have been many efforts to extend a sense of common humanity across castes. The caste system has also allowed for unparalleled pluralism of belief and practice; according to the logic of purity, the Brahmin priest has no control over practices beyond his realm, making for a thrilling diversity of temples, festivals and deities. Nonetheless, the varna concept that people are intrinsically pure or impure has blighted the idea of citizenship on the subcontinent. And while the 1950 Indian constitution sought to end such division (which the British had exploited), caste sentiment still drives rural violence and the separation of privileged groups.

The social distance of caste is echoed in religious difference—above all in the existence of a large Muslim minority which makes India the largest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia. While some hostile Hindus still question the Indianness of Muslims, the middle class contains about the same percentage of Muslims as does the population as a whole: about 13 per cent. (Caste distinctions that combine older Hindu divisions with newer Islamic social stratification prevail in Indian Islam, and middle-class Muslims tend to come from the traditional ashraf or "noble" sections of Muslim society.) But despite—or because of—constitutional guarantees of special rights for Muslims, there is a perennial worry over Muslim economic progress.

Aside from some extreme Hindu nationalists, I have never met a middle-class Indian who did not acknowledge the political equality of all Indians. The pride that middle-class Indians take in their democracy requires them to have an inclusive sense of Indianness, but not of citizenship. Middle-class Indians who feel little obligation to the poor tend to believe that they have made their contribution simply by becoming middle class. They focus on their own needs because they have overcome a great deal to get where they are and still fear slipping back. Moreover, they say, why give to the state when the money will just be wasted by corrupt politicians?
I would suggest reading the rest of the Prospect article, as it is interesting, and while I don't agree with all of its assertions, I think the core thesis has merit. Moreover, I think that the evolution of the Indian middle class (and true of China, as well) will be among the most influential factors in shaping the world we live in twenty years from now. And, as a word of caution against reading too much into the Prospect article, it is worth noting how young the Indian middle class is, both in terms of the relative brevity of the recent Indian economic expansion, dating to the early 1990s, and the age of the constituents of the class itself. Hardly a generation has elapsed, and perhaps it will be the call of the next generation of Indian middle class, those born into relative ease, to be more civic-minded, as this article in the New York Times suggests.

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