P Chidambaram’s article on the “missing in action” middle-class of India misses the mark on many counts, including the basic maths of estimating the middle-class’s size
By Samir Kagalkar
In his article “Across the Aisle: The tragedy of the missing middle” (FE, March 14; https://bit.ly/3qW8A39), former finance minister and home minister P Chidambaram engages in an ill-founded ‘lament’ about the Indian middle-class—perhaps taking a cue from his ‘always-an-apprentice, never-arrived’ leader Rahul Gandhi, who recently seemed to suggest that the North Indians’ political sense wallows in the shallows. Chidambaram accuses the entire Indian middle-class of being aloof, self-centred and least concerned about happenings in the country. But how he ‘arrives’ at the middle-class number for the purposes of his article, as a sign of things to come later in the read, is as confusing as it can get; in attempting this, he mixes up wealth and income (stock & flow concepts), apart from breeding a confusion over percentages.
Chidambaram’s take in the article can be broadly summarised as follows: (a) the middle-class today is small in number, averaging 6 crore out of a 138 crore population; (b) pitying them for a per capita per month income of Rs 8,000; (c) accusing the middle-class of being indifferent to the happenings in the country; (d) focusing on a ‘take-over’ by the political class of the various organisations outside of politics, like in sports, labour rights, etc; and (e) the depravity of the political-class and the middle-class behaving like the Gandhian simians, in their ‘inaction’.
The muddled logic of Chidambaram’s estimation of the middle-class population in the country at 6 crore is pitiable, to say the least. For someone fancied as an intellectual among sycophants in the Congress party, he fares quite badly in getting even this basic math right. A Forbes survey-based article from 2007 (bit.ly/3cDAHPA)—during the UPA rule, in which he reigned as one of the top key ministers—should help in this matter.
The second point suffers equally from the same fallacy. Or worse, it is spin-doctoring gone horribly wrong. With an average family size of around five, per capita income of Rs 8,000 per month translates into Rs 40,000 per month for the whole family. To pity a family with an income of Rs 40,000 per month would surely be laughable?
With respect to his fourth and fifth points, the country is singularly in favour more common people participating in politics and bringing in a new era of politics that allows for a development-oriented vision. And the common man can be the son of a tea seller or a young lawyer or a former cricket player or an Ivy League MBA graduate—anyone who is self-made, instead of being a dynast. Today’s engagement between the government and the common man—the Padma awards are no more an outcome of lobbying and bribing—shows how far we have come on this. The truly deserving, bare-footed achievers, who would have been turned out of the powerful venues as being fit only to sell tea, are getting the awards. Likewise, people from the humblest backgrounds who have made a name for themselves on their own merit are seeing a ray of hope to enter the political domain—and are being inspired to serve the nation.
A case in point is that of K Annamalai, a young IIM graduate and a Karnataka-cadre IPS officer, who has given up the lucrative corporate world and the secure, powerful IPS service to serve the nation by contesting in the Assembly elections in Chidambaram’s home state, Tamil Nadu. In contrast, the followers in the Congress are woefully in favour of a family scion, with a history of failures despite privilege, as their leader. Reading Chidambaram’s rant about political-leadership failures, irony would have died a thousand deaths.
As for the third point of his piece as listed here, what sense of ‘participation’ does Chidambaram have in mind when he accuses the middle-class of ‘not being cognisant’ of the country’s situation? In case he didn’t realise, the same middle-class he is rallying against comprises of healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, medical staff, government administrators, scientists, entrepreneurs, NGOs, etc, that came out like never before to join hands with the government to help the society. It is the same aspirational middle-class that is driving our economy towards a $5-trillion size over the next five years. It is the same middle class that is throwing up new leaders in all domains, including politics.
Tellingly, the middle-class’s silence on the farm-Bill protest is a loud message. They are for the reform promised for country’s betterment. And their absence from anti-CAA protest is an endorsement of the CAA. It is time the former minister smelt the filter coffee.
All that he could do was berate the self-confident middle-class. Did he miss the plot completely or was it just that he was following Rahul Gandhi’s cue to accuse any segment that isn’t blindly following his party? Only Chidambaram can tell.
The author is head, Economic Cell, BJP Karnataka