Going by recent trends, the middle class in this country has reason to worry. Life could soon be bleaker than we realise. Used as we are to the cliché of the ‘burgeoning middle class numbering 350 million’ with unprecedented purchasing power and ever-expanding maws of consumerism, this apprehension could seem exaggerated. But is it, really?
Let us start with the obvious. As of now, the rich are getting richer and the poor, at least in comparative terms, poorer. We assume that this trend operates strictly within the two blocs — the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’. We rarely ever think of its impact on the middle class. We gloss over the fact that many in the middle class could be getting pushed down the economic ladder. Consider this: There is no dramatic increase — adjusted against population growth — in national wealth. If, this notwithstanding, billionaires are mushrooming, it has to be at someone else’s expense. Surely, this cannot be wholly at the expense of the poorest of the poor.
The shrinking of the middle class takes place in two ways. A few, from its upper layers, push their way into the bracket of affluence. But a vast number from the bottom half gets relegated to the ranks of the deprived. Socio-demographic shifts of such magnitude do not happen by accident. There may well be an intent at work here, ushering in avoidable social upheaval.
The wilful connivance of the ruling elite, for example, in the insanely gigantic banking scams that bombard us — coupled with the intriguing unconcern it evokes in all quarters that matter — by which lakhs of crores simply disappear from public reckoning is, quintessentially, a middle class holocaust.
The prime beneficiaries are the economic, industrial oligarchy. The poorest sections are not devastated in the immediate horizon. The present welfare and future security of millions in the middle class are imperilled. The lakhs of crores dished out to these bandit kings, in full awareness that these ‘loans’ are like rockets fired aimlessly into outer space, belong mostly to those who are doddering in the bandwidth of the middle class. The burden of this mayhem will fall, largely, on them. They will sow wheat and reap chaff. Interest rates will drop further. The purchasing power of each rupee will decline. The rogue bankers of this country will ensure that millions of our middle class citizens are pushed down to a less honorific economic status. The economic value of the middle class, at the present time, comprises largely in their capacity to sharpen the voracity of our consumerist hypermarket.
It is the middle class that keeps the market hungry. But, for that to endure, there must be a synergy between saving and spending. You cannot go on spending if you don’t save. Social and economic conditions play a significant role in determining the extent to which the middle class is enabled to save. Already I know of many lower middle class families that have been ruined irrevocably because they violated the necessary balance between saving and spending. Millions more are poised precariously on the edge of ruin.
To middle class citizens, banks are the foremost symbol of saving. They operate “savings” accounts! But, banking scams mock the very idea of saving. The creeping insecurity about saving that results from this — saving is risky — will aggravate reckless spending, with sinister long-term consequences for individuals and families. Our recalcitrant unemployment scenario further aggravates this escalating insecurity. For a substantial segment of the middle class, employment is the hope. This puts the spotlight on education. It is only too obvious that the State is keen to effect a tactical retreat from the education sector, which will cripple the middle class all the more.
It seems likely that we are headed towards unprecedented disarray especially in higher education in the near future. A serious consequence of the erosion of the middle class will be the erasure of the buffer zone between the rich and the poor. The perception-gap between the two will shrink. The poor, through their visual and demographic proximity to the rich, will become acutely conscious of their deprivation. An important social function sub-served by the middle class is to be a medium of gradation on the scale of privilege. Once this is dismantled, the immorality of the rich-poor cleavage becomes offensively real to the lesser children of the system, with consequences too horrendous to contemplate.
The erosion of the middle class may seem a tempting electoral strategy. The rich are absentee landlords of democracy. They lobby hard, but hardly vote. The poor can be herded together and manipulated at will. The middle class are the hardest electoral nut to crack.
They have, besides, the will to resist: the reason they are the backbone of democracy. The swelling of a restless helot class, eventuating from the degradation of the middle class, will activate a mindset of oppression in the ruling elite. All through history, the dominant class has used persuasion to bridle the middle class and brutal force to suppress the disenchanted masses.
A society without a robust middle class is like a head fitted on two legs, with nothing in between. In the meanwhile, an endless series of diversionary balloons will be floated, assuming the middle class to be cold blooded frogs that allow themselves to be cooked slowly, unaware that the water in the vessel is getting hotter and hotter and is, now, not far from the boiling point.
The author is former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Email: email@example.com