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Living Just for Yourself
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The Mores of Indian Middle Class — I

In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class,
and every kind of thinking, without exception,
is stamped with the brand of a class.
 – Mao Zedong. Quotations from Chairman Mao

I’m no longer a Marxist that I was once. I haven’t, however, shed altogether the cargo of dialectical materialism as a key to the understanding of a society and its driving agents. I believe that decades hence, when the future historians look back at the social dynamism of Indian society the role of India’s middle class won’t emerge in flattering terms. Nonetheless, there it is for scribes like me to analyze.

Erving Goffman, the renowned Canadian-American sociologist – remember his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – famously said: “Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories”. This exercise of categorizing is by no means an assured means of differentiation. And when it comes to the middle class — that much-prized socio-economic label which has become an over-used portmanteau term of contemporary political vocabulary — it is nearly impossible to arrive at a universally agreed complement of attributes.

There is still an ongoing debate among sociologists to delineate both the limits and homogeneous characteristics of the middle class and its various socio-economic subdivisions. All the semantic debate notwithstanding, there is general agreement about the profound influence that the middle class exercises (for good or bad) on our social and political life. Even the Marxists who theoretically believed that there are only two classes in society at any given time (i.e. the exploiting and the exploited) are forced to concede this fact in their latest revisionist incarnation to cope with the changed political realities of the world.

Middle C

Middle C in the world of music is a white note. It stands in the centre of the piano keyboard with different sets of keys both in the left and the right regions. Similarly, the middle class represents a section of society below and above which there are other sections. Conventionally, the middle class in the English-speaking world has been the counterpart of what was called the bourgeoisie in Europe. However, the English term, middle class was always less value-loaded. It didn’t carry the pejorative overtones that were commonly associated with anything to do with the bourgeoisie in the European.

Loosely, the term ‘middle class’ covers all those who are (like you and me) engaged for their living (and the fortunate ones who don't have to) in non-manual occupations and are, relatively, earning more than those who are engaged in manual work as skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled workers do. (In our day, the emergence of what Peter Drucker called knowledge workers — the computer-generated new species in our workforce — has further blurred the lines of distinction between various sub-divisions).

The middle class of India that I’m referring to consists of professionals engaged in non-manual activities. Their work helps them earn more than what is referred to as the working class. As a matter of fact, in our society they have managed to usurp a disproportionately high share of opportunities and incomes that became possible after Independence.

The middle class can further be divided into several subdivisions, depending almost always upon their economic earnings. The upper middle class, for instance, represents higher income group than the middle class while the lower middle class consists of those having lesser earning capacity.

Obligation Immunity

Foreign diplomats, accredited to our country, enjoy many an immunity as members of the corps diplomatique. They can, for example, park their cars on pavements of busy thoroughfares; traffic constables dare not question the driver if the car has a CD number-plate. They can, also, import Scotch whisky duty-free. That’s the reason high spirits prevail in their get-togethers attended by the well-heeled Delhi-ites. There’s an equivalent of diplomatic immunity in Delhi’s high society. It is called obligation immunity. And that’s the most important attribute of India’s (especially, New Delhi’s) upper middle class that consists of the fixers of deals, the importers-exporters, builders of multi-storied complexes, colonizers, drug dealers, smugglers and the like. The nouveaux riches of Delhi have no obligation — none whatever — to the society they live in.

Traditionally, Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning “nobility obliges”. It denotes the concept that nobility extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person who holds such status to fulfill social responsibilities, particularly in leadership roles. For the Indian middle class noblesse oblige is a hopelessly outdated feudal notion. Over the years, they have learnt to display unabashedly their money power. The service lanes of South Delhi’s posh colonies are theirs to use as storage sites of their export cargo. The roads outside their mansions are reserved for their limousines: a couple of them for the Saab, two or three for the Mem Saab (depending on the number of kitty parties she has to attend), at least one each for the unmarried sons and daughters and a couple of spare ones for the outstation guests. The drivers of the cars have strict instructions to jump all traffic lights to show, among other things, that the ‘Saab’ has contacts with ‘high-ups’.

Another immunity that the Indian middle class claims for it is to be above the laws of the land. Laws, they firmly believe, are made for lesser mortals. Their children in early teens must have driving licenses whatever might be the legally prescribed age limit. It is a matter of legitimate pride for middle class professionals to dodge every possible tax that they can. The self-justifying thinking is simple: the Government functionaries are so corrupt and so are the Ministers and MP’s that taxes shouldn’t be paid to support them. I don’t know if ever a study has been done to quantify the percentage of tax dodging. My personal guess is that only a fraction of the taxes due to various tax-levying authorities are ever paid.

Recently, MIT economist Professor Abhijit Banerjee pointed out how India’s tax system is soft on the country’s super-rich with the wealthiest class of people paying far lesser levies than they ought to. Year after year budgetary provisions lower corporate income tax rates and continue with the layers of exemptions that reduces further the effective taxes that companies pay.“Nobody talks of wealth taxation, death duties,” Prof Banerjee pointed out. Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan also made similar comments.

Every now and then both with a view to augmenting its revenues and providing a salve to the middle class conscience — whatever survives of that precious commodity — , the Government of the day resorts to voluntary disclosure of income. And all what is collected is like the proverbial tip of the iceberg of parallel economy.

Air of Condescension

Social snobbery is another attribute of the Indian middle class. In a typical social get-together everyone you run into enquires (not out of politeness, but with undisguised intent) where you live. In case you drop an address of Vasant Vihar or Maharani Bagh or New Friends Colony or anywhere in the Lutyens City, the conversation proceeds smoothly further. Should you mention Pusa Road or Model Town, the dialogue comes to an abrupt end. One’s place of residence is a symbol of status. The same is true in case of the vocation you happen to be engaged in. Should you mention teaching as your profession, an unmistakable frown greets you. But should you turn out to be a Joint Secretary or (better still) an Additional Secretary to the Government of India (and that too in the Ministry of Finance or External Affairs) you literally stand several millimeters taller in your social stature. The conversation is interspersed with unfailing “Sirs”.

Our Carpet-baggers

Another social attribute of Delhi-ites can be described by the American phrase, carpet-baggers. In United States history, a carpetbagger was a Northerner who moved to the South after the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction era (1865–1877). White Southerners denounced them fearing they would loot and plunder the defeated South.

“Carpetbagger” was a pejorative term referring to the carpet bags (a form of cheap luggage at the time) which many of these newcomers carried. The term came to be associated with opportunism and exploitation by outsiders. (The term, incidentally, is still used today to refer to a parachute candidate, i.e., an outsider who runs for public office in an area where he or she does not have deep community ties, or has lived only for a short time. That includes our dear ex- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and most to our Rajya Sabha members.)

Every time a minister is appointed from Andhra or Madhya Pradesh or Assam, a full-fledged army of retinue arrives with him to render service to those who wish to have their work done from these august bodies. No wonder the ranks of “fixers of deals” are swelling by the day in Delhi. The capital of India has a special class of Delhi Carnegies, who of late are very unhappy with Prime Minister Modi for giving a short shift to this tribe.

There is also in the Capital a sizable fraternity of what Arthur Koestler in one of his novels described as call-girls (Koestler was talking of intellectuals who move around from one country to another, attending conferences in quick succession, expressing opinions and giving — solicited and unsolicited — advice on any subject under the sun). Delhi has its own crop of call-girls. They are professional intellectuals ready to render advice to any Government that comes into power on any matter of concern. They are thoroughly apolitical and utterly devoid of convictions, ever prepared to bend their views and opinions to suit the ideological flavor of the season.

Continued to “Mercenaries Par Excellence”

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