The New Indian Middle Class: The Challenge of 2014 and Beyond
In only 100-odd pages, the venerable Pavan Varma, diplomat- writer-turned-politician, has surprised everyone by rendering a succinct, acerbic, though often moralising, political manifesto for ?the new Indian middle class?, a new 300-million-strong humanoid species with ?messiah proclivity? and a ?magic wand? to guide India to its promised ?tryst with destiny? in the elections of 2014.
The pint-size book is clearly disappointing for those who might seek scholarly depth and an analysis of social science in Varma?s literary ruminations, but he may also be credited for having rekindled the interests of the attention-deficit, neo-literate, Twitterati and Facebook generation in the long-forgotten genre of ?political pamphleteering?. Political pamphlets such as Thomas Paine?s Common Cause not only continue to gladden the hearts of radicals around the world, but also inspire liberals to use pamphlet literature for social and political criticism.
Therefore, young political volunteers of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) can read Varma?s book in a local train or college canteen and hone their advocacy skills in provoking a political debate. However, there is a small caveat: he or she needs to guard against freewheeling cliches, platitudes and hyperbole.
Written largely as an election-special post-script to his erudite The Great Indian Middle Class (1999) and in the mode of evangelical Sunday-mass-style of preaching to dissuade young, middle-class voters from the path of ?hate politics? of the BJP-RSS combo, Varma, unfortunately, ends up recycling what Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ashutosh Varshney and others have already written in their columns on familiar tales of the Team Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption battle, the tragic Nirbhaya case and the stunning success of Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP in the Delhi elections.
In a disturbingly vapid cultural theory of class, where ?if a group of people consistently wear the same clothes, watch the same movies, hum the same songs, read the same newspapers, compete for the same jobs, enjoy the same food, have the same education, want the same goods and speak the same language, they acquire a class identification?, Varma launches a Manichaean rhetoric of the homogenous, definitive and transcending notion of the City Excentric middle class that has nothing to do with capital or capitalism.
So young readers and undergraduate students, wowed by Thomas Piketty?s revolution in knocking out ?one percent? in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, will find the new Indian middle class too boring and cold. In fact, they may junk it for a sexier, rabble-rousing assault on the growing triad of ?one percent? billionaire crony capitalists, corrupt politicians and criminals in India. Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani have already been scarred by the gun-powder elections of 2014.
In his pearly language and brawny parenthetical tone, Varma raises the heckles of turncoat conservatives and freethinkers by arguing that ?For the first time in our history, a pan-Indian class, largely homogenous, mostly educated and universally angry, is a factor in the war rooms of almost all political parties. In keeping with the global middle-class revolution, will the Indian counterpart emerge as a credible game-changer, with an alternative vision that shows political discrimination, a wider agenda, better organisation and an effective leadership??
Given the history of complicity of the middle class in abetting riots and curtailing democratic freedom, Varma admiringly chides and flays the middle class for its amoral behaviour and narcissistic fantasies. Studies also indicate that if the new middle class is increasingly becoming a pan-Indian class and largely homogenous, it is also deeply fragmented along the lines of caste, class, gender, language, place of origin, etc.
In a major sociological faux pas, Varma fails to note that quotidian practices and multiple identities of the Indian middle class have often been shaped by Brahmanical and patriarchal disciplinary practices in Hindu society. A Bihari upper-caste, middle-class family and a Dalit middle-class household in Lucknow may share the same aspirations of upward mobility, but inhabit segregated social spaces in their quotidian practices. It is well-known in Mumbai that Muslims can?t find a home in Hindu middle-class buildings/societies.
So Varma?s misplaced faith in the ?incipient homogeneity? of the middle class needs to be tempered with a more nuanced account of ?hybridity? of the new middle class in which Dalit-Bahujan minorities are acknowledged as homo-equalis rather than homo-hierarchicus. There is no gainsaying that the middle class has emerged as a numerically influential status group, a la Max Weber, and must play a historic role in protecting the inclusive, plural and secular India.
But Varma does not offer an explanation of how the middle class is no longer an ?agent of the ruling classes? or whether the middle class continues to be a mere ?vacillating mass? struggling for political dominance over other classes, including the bourgeoisie to lead Gramsci?s ?historic bloc?.
Therefore, a political fetish about the middle class as a credible game-changer betrays a flawed thesis of middle-class reductionism, as it fails to acknowledge the fact that democracy in India is largely sustained by poor, lower castes and subaltern classes.
And elections in 2014 are no exception to this. Already, the juggernaut of Hinduvta seems to be facing stiff resistance by Ahinda, Ati-pichda, Mahadalits and tribal voters. Varma often slays academic shibboleths with a disarming charm, but historians and sociologists would be intriguingly amused in decoding what he means by Mahatma Gandhi?s ?devout piety?, Nehru?s ?professed agnosticism?, Ambedkar?s ?clinical rationality?, Maulana Azad?s ?warm eclecticism? and Atal Bihari Vajpayee?s ?sensible pragmatism? in his theorisation of the new middle class.
Incidentally, Varma has translated 21 Hindi poems of Vajpayee, who reminded Narendra Modi only about his ?rajyadharma?, but failed to fix his responsibility in preventing the Gujarat riots. A historic blunder in retrospect. Thus, read this high-voltage political pamphlet with the attention it deserves and take your own call on the lurking dangers of ?sensible pragmatism? and continuing ?Heideggerian silence? of Indian liberals in the elections of 2014.Ashwani Kumar is the author of Community Warriors and professor and chairperson at Centre for Public Policy, Habitat and Human Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai