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The New Middle Class

India's New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform by Leela Fernandes;

The New Middle Class

Kamala Visweswaran

he research for Leela Fernandes’ study of India’s New Middle Class was begun in the late 1990s, but must now be read in the current context of the “National Council for Civil Liberties” serving legal notice on Ashis Nandy for his recent leader article in the Times of India called ‘Blame the Middle Class’. The absurdity of a lawsuit being pursued by middle class individuals who feel somehow impugned by Nandy’s article says something significant about emerging forms of middle class consciousness and the means through which it finds voice, if also casting a rather ironic light on the juridical notion of “class action”. At a time when the Indian middle class is simultaneously seen as both the cause of and cure for India’s ills, Fernandes’ study is a welcome addition to the literature on the middle class.

Since B B Misra’s classic study on India’s Middle Classes: Their Growth in Modern Times was published in 1961, much has been written on this social group which sculpted and was in turn, shaped by Indian nationalism. As Misra famously put it, “India won freedom but was divided. Both freedom and division were the work of the middle classes.” Fernandes continues the tradition of seeing the middle class as the subject and agent of nationalism, and explores its imbrication in the contemporary politics of Hindu nationalism. Describing the paradoxical nature of the new middle class, Fernandes writes, “The new middle class is marked by its social and cultural visibility, yet its political role is often invisible. Meanwhile its claims tend to be coded in terms of representative citizenship yet in practice are often defined by exclusionary social and political boundaries” (2006: xxiii).

Access to State Power

A political scientist by training, one of Fernandes’ strengths is her ability to shift the terrain of discussion away from a conventional disciplinary emphasis on electoral politics and into an analysis of the cultural

Economic & Political Weekly

may 24, 2008

book review

India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform by Leela Fernandes;

University of Minnesotta Press, Minneapolis, 2006 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xxxix + 290, Rs 575).

politics undergirding Indian democracy. Indeed, throughout the book, Fernandes refers repeatedly to the fact that the middle class has been characterised by relatively low voter turnout, and that a narrow focus on electoral politics misses the way in which the relationship between the state and the middle class is shaped by everyday practices in civil society. She points to the fact that the middle class can powerfully shape policy agendas in ways that do not rely upon electoral politics. Fernandes thus takes the electoral failure of the India Shining campaign to signify “the ways in which the politics of the new middle class may be more effective in shaping policy agendas and gaining access to state power through the cultural, socio-spatial, discursive, and organi sational practices within civil society rather than through electoral politics” (p 193).

Emphasising a constructivist approach, the book draws upon a wide range of sources: psephology, national survey data, cultural and media studies, the author’s own ethnography of a working women’s hostel in Mumbai, as well as her interviews with mid-level managers and journalists. While the book revisits a familiar range of issues about the Mandal Commission backlash, women’s anti-price rise protests, the Miss World contest, India Shining, bar hostesses, bus strikes, Bangladeshi immigrants, and neighbourhood beautification programmes, the book does so in a way that integrates these flashpoints of debate into a cohesive argument about the symbolic and cultural practices of middle class politics. One of the exceptional achievements of the book is that gender is fully integrated into the analysis of middle class subjectivity and practices. Another strength is its exploration of the relationship between state economic practices and middle class identity. The book is divided into five chapters: (1) The Historical Roots of the

New Middle Class, (2) Framing the Liberalising Middle Class, (3) Social Capital, Labour Market Restructuring, and India’s New Economy, (4) State Power, Urban Space and Civic Life, and (5) Liberalisation, Democracy and Middle Class Politics.

The first chapter establishes continuity of the “new” middle class of post-liberalising India with that historically formed under colonialism through English education, and (particularly in the Bengal and the Bombay Presidencies), through the entry of its members into the clerical professions. Fernandes describes the relationship between the state and the middle class in post-independent India as a managerial one, where the service and professional classes are drawn either into the state bureaucratic apparatus of the Indian Administrative Service, or as white collar public sector employees in the banking, life insurance, and airlines industries who press for unionisation as a means of advancing their claims on the state. As local politicians and officials sought to consolidate power through these social groups as they leveraged claims on the state, the middle class also became the terrain for the expansion and exercise of state power (p 27). Fernandes concludes this chapter by suggesting that, “It is this middle class frustration stemming from the overextended politics of state-management that has led to an increasingly assertive and visible middle class role – one that has periodically been manifested through the rise of a new middle class identity in liberalising India” (ibid).

Yet such a statement tends to take at face value what middle class people say about their frustrations. As Fernandes’ cited data also suggest, in the first years of independence from 1947-56, 94 per cent of IAS recruits were drawn from the professional and service classes; by 1980-81, this had dropped to 71 per cent. By 2000, the percentage is likely to be far lower. The implication here was clear: as reservation results in subordinated social classes claiming a greater


share of the state apparatus and patronage networks, the English-speaking middle class withdraws. The author later says as much (p 105). But throughout the book (and especially in the last two chapters) Fernandes has a tendency to report rather than interrogate middle class discourse on “state inefficiency and corruption” and its own self-understanding of “alienation and resurgence”. The middle class discourse on corruption can certainly be read as a sign of protest – but perhaps the core of that protest is its increasing displacement from the state apparatus by lower ranking social or caste groups, who also claim middle classness.

New Form of Citizenship

So what is exactly the “new middle class”? Throughout the book, Fernandes discounts both the empirics and theories that seek to enumerate and define it. (In chapter 2 for example, Fernandes reviews the literature that seeks to classify the middle class based either on income level or on consumption, and finds both lacking.) She is not concerned with resolving the numbers about how large it is referring to its size variously as 200 or 300 million. Nor does she offer a working definition until p 115: “English-educated urban middle class individuals (are) the core of the new Indian middle class”. She contends that “At the structural level, the new middle class is not comprised of new entrants to middle class status. Rather it is defined by a change in the status of jobs, which now signify the upper tiers of middle class employment” (p 89). Her central argument is that the “newness” of the new middle class is due not so much to a changed demographic profile, but to the ways it embodies a changing or “new” set of norms for Indian nation. Where once modesty and understatement would have marked a middle class ethic, consumption now forms the basis of a new form of citizenship.

In chapter 2 Fernandes describes how liberalisation brings about a shift in national political culture with the middle class representing an idealised liberal standard. She explores the emergence of consumer based identity by looking at recent advertising campaigns targeting the middle class. She argues that the cultural and symbolic practices that shape the boundaries of the new middle class are defined by linguistic and aesthetic sensibilities (p 34), not merely by shifts in income that might enable new forms of consumption. While there was a nominal growth in the actual number of consumers under liberalisation, however, as consumption did not translate into consumerism, as purchases of televisions and cars tended to be one time purchase items rather than revolving purchases. In the following chapter, Fernandes goes on to describe the downturn in the consumer non-durables or “white goods” industry when consumption did not reach predicted levels, resulting in the lay-offs of mid-level management. While she feels it is important to understand the symbolic markers of the new middle class, ultimately she finds the language of advertising and the market to be only a partial frame for understanding the middle class, and so the heart of the book is focused on the relationship between restructuring of the labour market, urban space, and liberalisation.

Shifting Aspirations

Fernandes explores the shift in middle class aspirations away from public sector government jobs and toward employment in private sector multinational corporations with the transition from a state managed economy to a liberalised one in chapter 3. She describes how the state and central governments subcontracting to private agencies is resulting in a kind of privatisation of the state (p 156). Thus, restructuring leads to changes in gender and caste composition of the new middle class, with upper caste groups concentrated in white-collar employment. The expansion of the service sector and private sector employment also results in new opportunities for middle class women in metropolitan centres, but often with no change in social attitudes toward working women. For example, companies avoid hiring single working women who live in hostels because their reputations are seen to be compromised. At the same time, working women’s hostels may charge rates above the minimum that single women can afford and may also strictly monitor their movements. Restructuring leads to women performing managerial duties but without managerial salaries; a secretary employed by a subcontractor might earn Rs 3,0004,000 per month (while young call centre workers could earn Rs 7,000-8,000 per month). Fernandes shows that secretarial work itself is being redefined at a time when many companies are trying to recruit secretaries with MBAs who can handle additional decision-making responsibilities. She also notes that middle class women in new economy jobs rely on labour of low caste domestic workers (p 167), but unfortunately this theme is not developed further. Fernandes capably discusses multinational practices of international outsourcing and subcontracting of white-collar service workers who receive a fixed salary but no benefits. The interviews in this chapter are quite revealing, and show middle class employees falling back onto individualised strategies of upward mobility rather than collective bargaining or trade union oriented response to adverse working conditions.

Turning from the restructuring of the job market to the restructuring of urban space, chapter 4 covers the politics of neighbourhood beautification practices and middle class lifestyle. Like the restructuring of employment, these practices also result in an intensification of social exclusions and hierarchies. Fernandes observes that the restructuring of public space in liberalising India is not just the effect of middle class desire, but of state-led development in the context of liberalisation. She discusses urban conflicts as a spatialised form of contestation over liberalisation (p 145) by noting middle class flight to the western suburbs of Mumbai, and the extension of exclusive clubs and multiplex theatres into elite or suburban locales which are spatially segregated from subaltern groups and neighbourhoods. In this context, she explores how middle class civic culture is shaped by gendered practices of religious nationalism as seen in debates around the attempt to eliminate bar hostess employment and the Miss World pageant. Fernandes describes how Hindu nationalist spatial practices use civic strategies to clean up cities like Mumbai and to target Muslim migrants; and how in turn, discourses on Bangladeshi immigrants are deployed to help produce a notion of purified Hindu citizenship (p 170). She argues that while middle class politics intersect with the rise of Hindu nationalism,

may 24, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


“the politics of India’s new middle class reduced to the politics of Hindutva, nor is it necessarily the case that Hindu nationalism will inevitably serve as a vehicle for middle class interests”.

Consumer Citizen

Chapter 5 describes middle class politics as a story of alienation and resurgence. “…as democracy has enabled subordinated groups to gain access to social power, the middle class has found ways to circumvent formal processes and reconstitute political mechanisms that provide access to the state” (p 175). Fernandes’ overall argument then, marks a middle class perception of plebianisation of political field (p 184), and supports theories of middle class exit from electoral politics. Since the state is perceived to cater to the poor and working classes, it therefore supports a liberalisation that leads to privatisation and cutbacks in subsidies. In Fernandes’ view, the politics of the new middle class is focused on reclaiming democracy from the corrupting influences of vote banking and mass-based politics, and from demands of groups such as unions, subordinated castes, and Muslims (pp 177, 87). Middle class politics thus advances a form of non-electoral citizenship, one that involves a shift from workers’ rights to consumers’ rights (p 182), where the middle class “consumer citizen” is seen to be the “new common man”.

The conclusion points in the direction of comparative research on the new middle class, but perhaps both the strength and weakness of the book is Fernandes’ nominal emphasis on the singularity of the Indian middle class. In the conclusion to the book, she makes clear that this is done deliberately to stress the hegemonic rise of the new middle class under liberalisation (p 206). At the same time, Fernandes stresses the heterogeneity of the middle class, and her own argument makes clear that its interests are disjunctive, rather than cohesive; that there is something like class contestation (if not competition) between the upper (caste) middle classes who benefit from privatisation and economic liberalisation, the middle-middle classes of unionised state employees in the banking, insurance and airlines industries for whom liberalisation has meant retrenchment and shrinkage, and the dalit and lower middle classes who have benefited from state-sponsored reservation programmes, but now find that once coveted government jobs have declined in status. Caste lies just below the surface of analysis, but Fernandes never arrives at an argument about how caste discrimination catalyses particular elements of competition and repudiation within the middle class. And while Fernandes emphasises that the acquisition of English skills is crucial for various segments of the “old” middle class to gain access to the new middle class (pp 208-09), she never quite gets to the analysis of the Hindi-speaking middle class she promises in chapter 1. Fernandes also has a tendency to equivocate when a stronger argument (as above) is suggested: “there is neither complete middle class retreat from the state, nor uncontested dependence upon the state” (p 215); or to overstate her argument when the evidence is not quite there, as when she claims that “the politics of internal differentiation within the middle class...are a central force shaping the politics of liberalisation” (p 212). All in all, Fernandes is stronger analysing the differentiation of the new middle class according to external factors (the state, neoliberal economic policies) than in understanding middle class differentiation according to internal factors (caste, language, region, religion, rural/urban).


Economic & Political Weekly

may 24, 2008

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