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The great angry middle class: A toddler tantrum or empowering rage?

The great Indian middle class is mad as hell... But does it really matter? Outlook magazine's cover package corrals a wide range of expert and aam aadmi opinions to confirm the fact of middle class anger. But none of them are offer a definitive opinion on its significance. [Read the cover story here]

"Was It Just A Mirage Then?" eloquently underlines the erosion of the middle class dream, trampled underfoot by galloping inflation and stagnating salaries. From groceries to school fees to electricity, everything cost so much more, even as the prospect of a fatter paycheck recedes in the face of a slowing growth rate. After two decades of aspirational spending, the average middle class household is relearning older, more frugal ways. “Earlier we bought things by looking at the brand,” Prabha Jha, tells Outlook. “Now we buy looking at the price and always wait for a sale.”

All this belt-tightening in turn leads to greater anxiety and resentment: of the rich for remaining buffered from hardship, as usual; and of the poor for monopolising the government's attention and largesse. Hence the anger at a petrol price hike that makes your newly acquired car – bought with your hard-earned salary – almost unusable even as your kids' school admission is jeopardised by the Right to Education act.

“When the economy slows down, the middle class, which has been the beneficiary of higher growth, is likely to be the first to be hit. And it is precisely during such times that the government’s focus shifts to the larger population of poor to ensure benefits reach them," says author Pavan K Varma. Populist measures like NREGA then become a target of this sense of injustice.

All this belt-tightening in turn leads to greater anxiety and resentment: of the rich for remaining buffered from hardship, as usual; and of the poor for monopolising the government's attention and largesse. AP

The middle class is pinned between a rising lower class – which is educating their kids, learning English and demanding their share of the India Shining pie – and the now-visible glass ceiling of slow growth. And no one seems to care, including the political parties that view it as an insignificant vote bank. And some of this indifference may be self-created:

 [S]ocial activist Nikhil Dey thinks one cannot blame the political class for not taking the urban middle class very seriously, “as it has not shown any propensity to keep to any issue in a sustained manner”. In fact, a common observance of the middle class is that it has a magnified sense of self and a perceived sense of neglect. This class of divergent people rarely comes together as a force, and their sense of power does not get translated into electoral power.

The Hazare movement seems to have confirmed this prognosis. Its leaders may be doing their best to remain relevant, but the turnout at the recent Ramdev-Anna show was modest, and comprised mostly of Ramdev devotees. For better or worse, the middle class does not have the appetite for the sustained on-the-ground (i.e. not online/SMS) activism or the political cohesion needed to be heard in a billion-strong democracy.

So what next? Is the middle class doomed to idle in resentment, hoping that the next wave of growth will rescue them from this impasse? Or is there a way to turn this moment of collective rage into a vehicle for middle empowerment?

The Outlook story offers some tantalising dots, but doesn't connect them. For instance, Janagraha's Ramesh Ramanathan, points out, "In many ways, the poor in India and the lowest income group in the middle class suffer from the same privations.” More so, if we embrace a larger definition of a 600-800 million middle class, which includes "people who earn between Rs 45,000 and Rs 2 lakh per annum (think office boys and masons, drivers and maids, among others)"

The petrol hikes, rising food prices, stagnating salaries (which in turn pushes down the incomes of the working urban poor) are common foes that can unite greater numbers of urban Indians, rather than pit one against the other. There were hints of such a possibility – and its impact -- in the heydays of the Hazare protests which brought together autowalas and housewives alike.

But any such alliance will require ceding a well-nourished sense of entitlement. Tracing the arc of middle class affluence, Rama Bijapurkar observes in a related column:

For 15 years, between 1995 and 2008, their incomes had steadily gone up, prices had steadily come down, quality had improved (due to competition, duty reductions, a flood of foreign goods, a strengthening rupee), borrowing had become easier and cheaper, and it was possible to have the instant gratification of buying a house or a car or a foreign holiday, confident that one would not notice the pinch of future repayment on a steadily increasing income.

To quote author and cultural analyst Santosh Desai, to them “life had become a product to be experienced, not a condition to be endured”... Now, they feel the same government that had put the lollipop in their mouth and egged them on to consume harder, all the while assuring them there were more goodies to follow, is changing the rules of the game unilaterally. They feel the government is saying, “We can’t make it affordable any more, and you need to share the store with your poorer brethren, because they have had none so far”.

Middle class rage can be a stepping stone to a powerful, more inclusive vision of the future, but only if it can rise above the petty calculations of me, myself, and mine. Or else, it will remain a passing toddler tantrum over losing that "lollipop."

Read "Was it just a mirage?" on the Outlook website.

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