Neelakantan’s comment to my previous post, where he says,
"The two Indias have always existed and will not go away in a hurry. The
difference is that there is a big bulging middle ground where most of
India is finding itself (give or take a few) – neither too bad nor
exorbitantly rich – but a lot happier and money to spend and jobs to
do. Things they never had a few years back."
made me ruminate about "The Great Divide" or The Two Indias" so popular in newsmedia mythology. In one sense, the comparison made, particularly in The Guardian article – poverty stricken suiciding farmers versus billionaires in urban metropolises is equivalent to comparing the lifestyle of someone living in Beverly Hills, CA with someone whose life has been affected badly by Hurricane Katrina adn then tut tutting about the terrible state of the United States. (Well, we won’t get into that here, this post is about India now)
What Neelakantan points out is the third India, that of the growing middle, between the ultra rich and the absolute poor. Our country, when portrayed as such, in media stories, sounds more like France just before the Revolution. The "Great Indian Middle Class" is not a new or unknown phenomena – it’s visible emergence led to the first burst of globalization in the nineties, when it began displaying amounts of disposable income hitherto unavailable. And in the decade since, this amorphous, burgeoning, difficult to classify mass has only grown in size, regardless of purchasing power parity, annual GDP or what-have-you used as a metric.
"Harmonious Schizophrenics" is a wonderfully insightful article by author Pavan Varma, written in February 2006, that best articulates a view of India I think even Neelakantan will find acceptable :). To wit,
One of the core strengths of the Indian middle class is that it has a great aspirational buoyancy. It is a class incorrigibly seeking to get on the fast track to upward mobility. This fuels other kinds of collateral growth alongside […] In fact, the distinction between urban and rural India is fast eroding. There is a middle class in the largest villages which will buy Gucci without the double c because it’s something they want to acquire.
Compared with 97 percent in the leading economies of the West, only three percent of the Indian economy lies in the organised sector. The rest — including huge swathes of the middle class — work with the most unpredictable parameters. They survive in impossible circumstances and actually come out a winner. This is what sets apart the Indian middle from those of other countries. Much of what the middle class takes for granted in other countries doesn’t exist here. Water, electricity, transport, health care are either unavailable or are precarious benefits. But this class refuses to go under.
Another remarkable quality about the middle class is that the waterline of hope somehow always remains a few notches above that of despair. A person who owns a cycle is dreaming about a scooter. Somebody with a fan wants a cooler. Somebody with a small car wants a bigger car. This is one reason a communist revolution hasn’t taken place in India. As people clamour on the lowest rung of the middle class, the possibility of becoming rich overtakes the fear of being inevitably poor. As psychologist Sudhir Kakar said, “This class somehow has the ability to transmute a flame into a blaze.”
And my favourite topic of jugaad, the motive power behind Indian innovation and creativity,
It thinks out of the box. It is a hugely entrepreneurial class. Scarcity and adversity have made Indians very inventive. In fact one of India’s great strengths is this homegrown entrepreneurship.
And to refute The Guardian article’s assertion of India’s "newfound" obsession with wealth accumulation,
Arth (money) is one of the four highest Purushaarths. We have no Biblical injunction about the rich. Laxmi is a ubiquitous deity, as is Ganesh, who is not an emaciated god hanging on a cross. So the middle class is an extremely pragmatic class. Today, as opportunities seem to outgrow or at least match with aspirations these tendencies of not jeopardizing what you have for what may gain through irrational actions are getting further reinforced. The membership of the RSS is falling. Some years ago, the most conservative Islamic seminary, Deoband quietly introduced English and computer classes because middle class recruits want a job. These are good signs.
Overall, a balanced viewpoint from Varma, giving a more realistic look at the changes afoot in India today. Go read the full article. This conversation will continue.