Professor Chakravarthi, in the article of the previous post estimates the total number of middle class Indians to be close to 200 million. I have a slightly different way of looking at the middle class, which is more social and cultural than simply economic. I look at the middle-class as sort of a semi-exclusive club, where the key requirement for entry is knowledge of English. As per the Census of 1991, about 11 % of India’s population knew English, extrapolating this percentage based on certain plausible assumptions1, I would estimate that number to be about 16-18 % today. Another way of looking at things is observing the % age of population that receives a tertiary education, given that the number is roughly around 11-12 % today, it would also a give a number in the same ball park. All in all, we can definitely say that knowledge of English, tertiary education and consumption potential must correlate strongly in India today. The number in any case should lie in between 150-200 million.
Understanding middle India’s relationship with English is crucial. Knowledge of English, together with mass media and the internet puts middle India in a very interesting position. It is in some sense, ‘pre-western’. The combination of comfort with English, combined with the relatively liberal political and media environment of India, is resulting in a huge American influence on this middle class. Also contributing are the increasingly strong people to people links between America and India2. The middle class is thus developing aspirations that are in line with this psuedo-western mindset. It seems that for now these aspirations are mostly consumerish and professional, not political.
But why not ? So much is wrong with India’s politics. What explains this most unforgivable disengagement ? Many different reasons have been proposed, but I think it really starts in school. Although the syllabus is now much better, when I was in school I mostly learnt about the Freedom Struggle, Shivaji and the Maratha Empire. I learnt a lot about what the results of the Freedom Struggle should have been and how a democratic India should be run. But I learnt absolutely nothing about what happened in the 50 odd years of a supposedly ‘free’ India. My textbooks were silent on the Emergency, the Babri Masjid demolition, problems in Punjab, Kashmir and the North East. They were silent on the day to day corruption. They did a very bad job of making me an Indian citizen. Add to this, the traditional nepotistic and self-serving attitudes of most Indians meant that we choose ambitions/aspirations with little regard to what effect our life will have on the broader society we are part of.
So in India today, we have a generation of young men and women who ‘dream’ of Harvard, neuro-surgery, nano-technology and New York, but there are few signs of environmental lawyers, quality journalists and film-makers, professors with India-specific research interests and politicians from the middle class. The entire nation seems in decay, institutions that are the fundamentals of the nation are collapsing, because the young blood that would have nourished them is now either in America doing a PhD in Computer Science or working in a tech company in Bangalore. For now it seems, middle India has abandoned the Republic.
But the middle class has its own fears, of course. Entry to this club is tough, and membership is not permanent. Life although easier than that of an Orissa tribal or a Bihari farmer is no cakewalk for most of middle India. But, the middle class has to realize one thing, that migration is an okay goal for an individual3, but not for an entire society. Until this fundamental realization occurs and middle India learns that it has a huge stake in the well being of the rest of India around it, India will be on a path that leads nowhere. It has to learn that the Dayamani Barlas command as much respect and recognition as the Abhinav Bindras. It has to organize and ensure that government schemes like the NREGA are implemented as faithfully as possible instead of drowning them in their cynicism. The middle class has to assert itself politically, it can start of by simply rejecting all criminal politicians, regardless of party affiliation. Most of all, it has to stop waiting for a political messiah. No one person galvanize a Kashmiri, a Mizo and a Malayali, that is not what this Union is about.
1: The literacy rate in 1991 was about 50 %, and was around 65 % in 2001. So we can conjecture that it will be around 80 % in 2011 census (probably more due to SSA). And assuming that the same ratio of literates speak English as in 1991 we get a number close to 17 %.
2: This blog being one example. One can find numerous other blogs of Indian grad students and young professionals in the US.
3: Some groups have to migrate, either due to security reasons or because some professions can only be pursued abroad.
I apologize for the bad grammar and HTML in this post earlier, I think I have rectified most of it now. 🙂