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The Great Indian Middle Class
by Ajey Rao Bookmark and Share
 

Sounds very much like the Great Indian Rhino ! If such a comparison is attempted it will not be entirely out of the world. Like the great Indian Rhino the Indian middle class has a tough exterior but has a great inborn tendency towards extinction. The middle class of yesteryears is already extinct. Anyone who has recorded the middle class mass exodus to Uncle Sam's land as part of the 'geek' generation will vouchsafe that. No longer are our middle class homes inhabited by lungi-clad, newspaper-reading not-so-ambitious salary-earners. The middle classes have all but vanished; they have migrated to the new rich classes having acquired the greenbacks which have given them enormous amount of purchasing power. Of course not all the new rich owe their prosperity to the American dollar. There is also a powerful new generation of traders who have made it big without foreign money.

Whatever may be the source of the newly-acquired money power the middle class is no longer of the same character as it was some years ago. Understandably the value system too has undergone a rapid change having lost some of the rigidity of the earlier values. The values are now more individual-centric than family or community-centric. Coupled with dilution in ethical values there is this dramatic reduction in the obsession with the ritual. It is not that the middle classes have become less religious or more materialistic. It is only that the structural rigidity of the ritualistic behavior of the earlier generation has slowly disappeared giving rise to 'nominalism' or a token adherence. A case in point is the rituals still being followed in marriages. These rituals are still a must for no parent would countenance a son's marriage without the customary 'satphera'. Not that people understand and appreciate the significance of the elaborate ritual prescribed in the shastras. But people still feel that the marriage is incomplete without the Panditji chanting those sonorous mantras invoking the gods. Their faith in the ritual is not one hundred percent but is merely an allowance for the tradition.

Religious faith has not dimmed however in these classes. If the number of the new rich people visiting the Tirumala is any indication it would appear that faith continues to flourish although the methods of worship have also undergone enough changes with the passage of time. Thus a devotee of yester-years would have spent six hours of arduous wait to have a glimpse of the Lord. Today's new rich would not shrink from spending a few thousand bucks as bribes to short-circuit the queue. The middle classes who have graduated to the new rich have evolved their own peculiar value system which enables them to marry traditional faith with modern conveniences born out of newly acquired prosperity.

Even in the matter of pursuit of material prosperity the middle classes have evolved their own peculiar value system which is a curious admixture of practical morality appropriate to the times and traditional values sanctioned by religion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the highly ambivalent attitude of the typical middle class patriarch who thinks nothing of paying a major part of the capitation fee for his son's engineering seat in unaccounted money. The argument advanced is that this is the way of the world and he cannot be a lone Ramachandra in a world driven by the parallel economy. You will find the same gentleman feverishly arguing in the second a.c. train compartment that the country has gone to the dogs due to the evil of corruption which has eaten into the vitals of the economy.

The attitude of the middle classes towards corruption is highly ambivalent. One suspects that they talk from the moral high ground whenever they themselves are victims of corruption in public places. Their reluctance to bribe stems not out of altruism but out of their perception of their own intellectual superiority. When it comes to grabbing or cornering a few of the benefits they are not averse to bribing themselves, a fact which they conveniently forget .As a matter of fact in the initial phase of their ascent on the ladder of material prosperity they had indulged in some palm-greasing themselves.

The peculiar ethic which they have evolved for themselves embraces a perfectly elastic system with lots of emphasis on pragmatism. A few moral transgressions are ok in this scheme of things but not those which directly impact on other people's lives in an adverse manner. The middle classes still manage to keep their basic morality intact. That is why the seemingly prudish behavior of these people some times when they themselves are known to have committed a few moral transgressions.

In the traditional Indian society there has always been a confusion between social morality and what the religion sanctions. The manu smriti is nothing but a body of sociological tenets dividing the social fabric on the basis of castes. We have seen how the caste system has held sway for thousands of years .This has become possible because although the manu smriti is a purely sociological document a sort of religious sanction has been given to the caste system which has been enunciated therein. Through centuries the Indian society has been mixing up religion with ethics. Unlike in religions like the Islam, Hinduism has been eclectic enough to incorporate in itself the frequent changes in social morality taking place in the wake of social upheavals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sociological behavior of the middle classes. In the constant confusion that takes place between religion and ethics the middle classes have through centuries been trying to reconcile changing social mores with immutable religious tenets. The dilution of the ethical standards that one witnesses in the evolution of the modern day middle classes is a result of this confusion. What is very apparent is the technical compliance of the social tenets that one sees more particularly in the middle classes achieved through implementation of the 'letter' and not the 'spirit' .

Lastly, the middle classes are of course becoming extinct. By the very definition the middle classes are the middle-income groups who form the commonest denomination in any civilized society. What we mean by the disappearance of the middle classes is the slow vanishing of the earlier middle-income groups. It is of course a truism to say that in place of the fast disappearing old middle classes a new group of people from the low-income groups will take their places. The only difference would be in the speed with which the new middle classes will graduate to the rich. Such a change may probably take place in the next generation .

19-Aug-2002
More by :  Ajey Rao
 
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