The Great Indian Middle Class: India’s New Political Constituency
The relationship and the divide between the majority and minority communities often drive the dynamics of electoral politics in most countries. In India the force exerted by majority and minority communities is particularly potent because of the multiple definitions of majority and minority owing to the existence of numerous caste, class, and religions in the country. The electoral politics in India is deeply entrenched in the politicization of these groups, especially the minority groups.
However, what emerges from a closer look at the Indian society is that there is no majority group. The Indian society is nothing but an amalgamation of the several minority groups. Even the majority population is split into sub-communities such as Bengalis (7.5% of Indian population), Marathi speakers (7% of Indian population), Oriyas (4% of Indian population), Gujaratis (4.5% of Indian population), and Tamils (6% of Indian population). Despite the strong community identities not all these minority groups have aligned and uniform voting preferences.
Traditionally the Muslim (13.4% of Indian population), and the Dalit (16.6% of Indian population) are the most influential minority groups in India due to their uniform voting preferences, often choosing to vote en-masse for a party. Any party that manages to get the votes of these two groups can have nearly one-third of Indian electorate in its pocket.
However, the emergence of a new group in recent years can potentially shift the entire landscape of Indian electoral politics. This group is the Indian middle class.
Different estimates put the Indian middle class between 250-350 million, which not only makes it 20-30 per cent of the Indian population, but also nearly as big as the population of the USA. It is the class that constitutes the mainstream of the Indian demographic, and is a force to reckon with, which has been repeatedly acknowledged by the government, the corporate world, and the academia.
Just as the majority groups and communities of the India, the great Indian middle class is often viewed as a uniform entity. The reality, however, is that it is a diverse and fractionalized group constituting of different religions, castes, and classes coming from distinct parts of the country.
The making of the Indian middle class has been an economic, rather than a social or a political process. At the same time it is the attitude rather than income that defines the Indian middle class. In spite of being composed of the minorities that have distinct and diverse social and political interests, what makes the middle class a uniform force are its aspirations, and tied economic interests. The key characteristics of the Indian middle class can said to be its distinct middle class values, concern with the welfare of the family, focus on being upwardly mobile, adherence to rules and regulations, a tolerant and less discriminating outlook, its reluctance to revolt yet confidence to be vocal about resentments, its sharp views on current affairs, and its cynicism. It’s these shared behavioural and aspirational attitudes that make the middle class a constituency in its own right - a constituency that is not only the largest, but also the fastest growing in India.
The political cynicism of the middle class is often taken to imply that the class plays a passive role in Indian electoral politics. However, the Indian middle class is not as dormant as it is perceived to be. In the last ten years this class has come into its own by more clearly defining its economic aspirations and social priorities. The growing social angst increasingly witnessed in urban areas, and demand for policies that ensure faster economic growth are testimony to its maturity, and emerging influence. The expansion of this class in the coming years will result in more equitable distribution of wealth while the insatiable appetite of this class for education, services, and consumer goods will fuel the economic growth of the country.
Until now the middle class has not been given political attention that is proportional to its size because of prevalent notions about its political cynicism, and low voter turnouts. A significant reason for the cynicism of the middle class is that no political party in India has yet considered it to be a political constituency in its own right, or engaged with it from a view of mobilizing it as a political force. However, the time has come for the government to focus on this class.
This is the right time for political parties to start addressing the concerns and needs of the Indian middle class not only because it emerging as India’s largest constituency, but also because it is a fallacy to presume that this class cannot influence the turnout of an election. It has done so, and can continue to so, by not voting in the elections. As it can by beginning to vote.
What is needed is a dedicated strategy to get insights into the middle class, and its concerns. Attention to this class will help it to emerge out of its cynicism and become a more active player in the Indian electoral politics. Now, it’s merely a question of which political party decides to leverage on the potential of the great Indian middle class.