Indian “middle classes” had for long been spectators in electoral politics. However, as the country prepares for the 16th general elections, this time around, they seem to be audible and visible everywhere: on television screens, and in newspapers reports; as the angry aam aadmi or ordinary citizen, protesting on the urban streets; as the catalyst that propelled a new party, the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man’s Party, hereafter referred as AAP) to visibility and power in Delhi’s Assembly Election.

Who are the middle class or middle classes in India? What has been their role in politics and elections? How do we understand the ascendency of a ‘new’ middle class identity – the aam aadmi, the vocal and active citizen, at once an individual ‘common man’, and a collective ‘everyman’?.

Who is the middle class?

“Middle class” in India is a complex group that is often difficult to define. For one, it is a highly heterogeneous social category, differentiated not just by income, education, occupation, but also by caste, language, religion, age, gender, ethnicity, rural or urban location. Among the middle classes, not all social groups enjoy equal dominance. The hegemonic position is occupied by the “new middle-classes” who have come to embody India’s transition to liberalization – the prosperous, young, metropolitan, invariably upper caste and Hindu, white collared professionals – working in the private sector, who feel as at home in India, as in the West, with a consumption pattern similar to their western counterparts. What defines them and differentiates them from others are their life style, consumption and social distinctions.

Second, given the heterogeneity within middle classes, their priorities, ideological base, their relationship with the state, and their politics differs, depending on the subgroup they belong to. Hence, the new middle class that works in the private sector, reposes its faith in the market and does not depend on the state for jobs or public services such as education or health. It nevertheless engages with the state as a “client” to protect its own interest; demands that the state “steer” rather than “do”, and expects it to govern in the New Public Management (NPM) style, outside politics. It prioritizes efficiency, merit, competition (market principles), over distributive justice, equity, and democracy, which it perceives as messy business of “dirty politics”.

However, there are large sections of middle classes who articulate a different world view, and seek solutions through politics and the state. For middle classes coming from historically marginalized sections, the state remains an important centre where they gain or lose power, and hence continue to depend on the state and its framework of social justice, rights and entitlements, and on representative democracy.

This is in sharp contrast with the push for efficiency, competition, value neutral meritocracy by the dominant middle classes – creating for contestation on issues such as affirmative action policies, representative vs. direct democracy, notions of equality as sameness vs. substantive equality. Similarly, subsections of middle classes living in smaller cities, towns, rural India, are not the apotheosis ‘new’ middle class. For while they may share the aspiration of their metropolitan counterparts (depending on their caste, religion and other locations), their consumption pattern and location in the economy is not the same. They do not have the same proximity to power, nor the same visibility as the urban dominant middle classes.

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Third, middle classes exist as an empirical reality, and an ideological construct. As an empirical reality, middle classes are defined in economic terms, using income level, consumption patterns, and ownership of assets. Based on this criteria, the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) through an exhaustive survey, identified 153 million people in this category as per 2001 data, with a disposable income of Rs 200,000 to 1,000,000 ($4.380 – $21.890) a year. According to its recent estimate in 2011 the NCAER stated that by 2016-17, this “consuming segment” would be growing to 267 million. Other, more contested criteria include type of occupation (manual vs. non-manual), education level (English medium vs. others), place of residence (rural vs. urban), and caste/religious identity (Hindu upper castes vs. others). Depending on the criteria used, the middle classes are estimated to comprise between 10 percent and 30 percent of the total population.

As an ideological construct, the middle classes, particularly the new middle classes, are the new “moral majority” who despite being a small proportion of the total population, have come to occupy a hegemonic position, and their worldview, aspirations and values are influential far beyond themselves. They have come to project what India wants to be in the twenty first century: educated, upwardly mobile, with a westernized consumption pattern (but not necessarily westernized values). Notwithstanding the heterogeneity within middle classes, there is a homogenization of aspirations. Thus what we have is a project of “middle-classization” unfolding with contradictory tendencies.

On one hand, there is a growing social polarization between new middle classes, and others, when it comes to practices (consumption patterns, lifestyle, living spaces, on issues of affirmative action and social justice etc). At the same time, these lines become more and more blurry and aspirations increasingly homogenous.[4] This is becoming most evident in Indian cities. The rise of the aam aadmi identity in Indian cities – as middle class, and cutting across class, as ‘everyclass’ identity – needs to be located within this Janus faced project of middle classization.

Middle Classes, Democracy and Electoral politics

In prevailing theories, middle class has often been considered the mainstay of democracy. Here, a direct correlation is made between higher economic development, education, middle class and higher political participation, open political attitudes (toleration of opposition, inter-personal trust). However the Indian experience defies these theories.

While it can be argued that the notion of the authentic middle class, progressive and liberal in its views, is a myth the world over, this is particularly true in the Indian context. For, far from having a rationalist modern political attitude, Indian middle class use their social and cultural capital in contradictory ways: advocating radical change and preservation of tradition; liberty and authoritarianism; equality and hierarchy all at the same time. As mentioned earlier, their political attitudes are largely influenced by their location in the caste, religion, ethnicity, language sub group and the Indian middle classes have not militated against identity politics. Even as the new middle class becomes globally mobile, inhabits modern spaces, uses the language of modernity, they actively participate in articulations of identity politics of both the dominant “majorities” and of the “minorities”.

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Besides, their actions are about protecting their own interests and social privileges. Many scholars have also pointed out to the preoccupation of the middle classes with their own ken of interests and consumption, and immunity to abject poverty and deprivation around; their zealous protection of upper caste privileges and promotion of Hindutva (hindu right wing nationalism); to their thriving on “connections”, family and patronage. There are of course exceptions, and sections of middle classes have spoken out or joined progressive movements, but these at large have been the dominant tendencies of Indian middle classes.

When it comes to procedures of democracy, in sharp contradiction to the law of political participation the world over, in India it is the uneducated, and the poor who vote more than the educated middle class; Dalits and members of the “lower caste” vote more than upper castes, rural areas vote more than urban areas, women vote almost as much as men do. The new middle classes, in another words, are absent from electoral politics despite growing voter turnout. This is not to suggest that the middle class do not enjoy dominance, but to highlight that the power and influence of the middle class is played out outside electoral politics and institutions of the state, through the convergence of its interest with the market, media, and an increasingly neoliberal state.

New forms of Citizens’ Activism

Along with this, the middle class has been increasingly turning to ‘new politics’ to set policy agendas without being dependent on electoral results. This ‘new politics’ centers around new forms of organizations and “associational activism” – all in the domain of the civil society. For instance, if one examines middle class voting behavior in the decentralized local government of Indian cities, on one hand the middle classes have withdrawn from participating in the local self governance elections (in contrast to urban poor and marginalized groups). On the other hand, the middle classes have entered the local governance structures and exercise their clout over decision making through civil society organizations, middle class neighborhood associations, such as Advanced Locality Management groups (ALMs), or Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), or other parallel structures which are increasingly becoming integral part of the governance of cities – circumventing the formal democratic process and undermining their value.

Of late, the ‘middle class’ has increasingly sought to influence national agenda and policies through new forms of citizens’ activism and on issues that directly affect it. For a while now, middle class anger has been spilling into city squares and streets. Given their ‘ownership’ of digital and media technology, their intersecting interest with mainstream media, and televisions, their protests and anger have become spectacular, and received far more coverage and attention than any other protests by tribal’s, the poor, or Dalits in India. However, from the initial middle class protests such as demand for “justice” for Jessica Lal, justice for Priyadarshini Mattoo, and Nitish Katara[5], to the later anti corruption protests in 2011, and the anti rape protests in 2012, – these movements grew more amorphous, drawing in the aspiration and some participation of urban working class.

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This cross class ‘collectivized’ anger on the urban street, proved to be a significant catalyst in the rise of the AAP, a political party that emerged out of the anti corruption movement. Despite AAP’s origin in a middle class movement, its entry into electoral politics compelled it to expand its base and get far more inclusive. It can be argued that it has been able to ride on the “homogenization of aspiration” wave unfolding in urban India – by carefully expanding the politics of corruption to link it with cross class issues such as price rise, and bijli, sadak, pani (electricity, roads, water), and education in urban cities. While consolidating the support of the middle class, AAP successfully enlisted a large support base among urban working class and poor, migrant workers, others living in urban slums, resettlement and unauthorized colonies.

Significantly, for the first time in Indian politics, the AAP mobilized outside identity politics, or ideology, or common bonds – addressing the aspirations of the aam aadmi, the ordinary citizen – the common ‘man’ and every man. It has created space for a different type of politics, and a significant contribution of the AAP phenomenon has been an increased participation of middle classes in electoral politics – as candidates for elections, as volunteers for the party, and supporters/fund contributors, as voters. Consequently, the Delhi Election in December 2013, for the first time saw a very high voter turnout in middle class residential areas of South Delhi, raising expectations and perhaps bringing in the middle classes, as a social category, as active and vocal participants in politics of urban India.

It is being discussed in India at the moment, whether the middle class will or won’t play a significant role in the 2014 elections. Given the heterogeneity of middle classes, how the voting behavior would unfold is yet to be seen. Political Parties have nevertheless for the first time begun to address the middle class as a social category. The Congress party, going by the speech of its Vice President, is likely to target the “lower middle class” sections who have moved out of poverty, but have not fully ‘become’ the middle classes yet. Middle classes from the marginalized sections are likely to remain with the Bahujan Samaj Party. In the urban areas, the AAP would also try to win over these areas. The “new middle class” is likely to split between the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the AAP.

However, it is difficult to predict what role the middle classes would eventually play. Perhaps more than they have in the past, which would represent an important urban trend. However, given the size and plurality of the Indian electorate, the dynamics of its politics, the huge hinterland of rural India, regional politics, the contests and negotiations, is what will ultimately shape the 2014 elections, and Indian democracy. #KhabarLive