As India’s poor demand relief, why are middle classes silent?

Image Courtesy: Associated Press

Recent events have made the apathy of India’s middle class and its antagonism towards weaker sections starkly apparent. India’s sudden lockdown has now extended to beyond three weeks. Initially, it forced lakhs of migrant workers, who are usually extremely poor, to attempt walking home, many with their families. Many died during these long and arduous journeys. Many more lakhs could not return to their home towns, for public transport was abruptly halted soon after the lockdown. This has left people still stranded across the country, with no work and therefore no income.

The poor and other lower classes are a substantial percentage of India’s population. The lockdown has depleted their savings and the policy responses to their plight have been grossly inadequate. That the condition of the poor is acutely precarious is apparent from their continuing pleas to state governments to provide them work or a means to return homes.

Right after the lockdown, news reports pointed out that in gated middle class colonies, landlords and neighbours were forcing many medical staffers and doctors to vacate their homes. Airport and airline staff faced the same problem. Both these sets of professionals are viewed by the middle class as carriers of the novel coronavirus which causes the Covid-19 disease. It is this perception that which prompted the middle class to try and remove them from their neighbourhoods. It is another matter that medical staff, including nurses and doctors, do not have adequate personal protection equipment, which exposes them unduly to the risk of Covid-19 infections while they attend to patients. This critical shortage has not caused an outcry among the middle class.

These are just a few instances that illustrate the agonies and horrors that are unfolding in India since the lockdown following the epidemic. They make it clear that the most marginalised groups, or those at the forefront of combating the virus, are receiving the harshest, even inhuman, treatment.

The middle class is not the most numerous section of Indian society, but it has a political clout that is beyond its numbers. It controls the ideological underpinnings of society and the state and it is has the ability and resources to question the condition of workers during this lockdown. They can, at a political level, rally behind the need to treat medical workers with dignity and respect as well.

True, some members of the middle class made individual efforts to provide relief such as food and other essentials to the poor during this lockdown. However, it has not attempted to coerce the government into addressing serious shortfalls as an imperative. For instance, experts have been saying that the relief package announced by the government for the poor is grossly inadequate. Yet, the middle class has not applied concerted pressure on the State on this account.

Indeed, in recent weeks, the one episode in which the middle class took centre stage was when its members rallied behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a candle-light vigil. The lighting of candles was taken to a perverse level in gated and posh colonies and their neighbourhoods. Middle class India society indulged in an extravagant display and noisy celebrations, including bursting of crackers, completely unmindful that people were dying of Covid-19. They did not “unite” to address any pressing concern, such as India having the world’s lowest rate of testing for Covid-19, which health experts have been warning is critical to combat the epidemic. A middle class preoccupied with symbolic exercises led by the government, has not even tried to use its collective resources to address the escalating problems of fellow citizens.

This behaviour is substantially explained by developments over the last few decades, which have led the Indian middle class to internalise, an then reproduce, a dominant ideology whose focal point is individual aspirations and well-being. Not that the middle class is not heterogeneous. It is indeed varied in terms of, say, caste and geographical location. However, the seemingly ‘amoral’ behaviour of this class during the ongoing crisis demands explanation and context, first along some broad patterns.

Indian middle class as a leader of opinion-formation:

There are innumerable ways to understand which group of people constitutes a middle class. The sociologist Satish Deshpande has said that we define the middle class depending on what we wish to do with our definition. For our purposes, the middle class is those who are neither the industrial and financial bourgeoisie nor the poor. They are the strata that lies in the middle. Naturally, they are not homogenous. The upper strata of the middle class typically have more economic and cultural resources (or capital) and some political clout. They are engaged in technical and professional jobs and, more often than not, have a good command over the English language.

Several scholars have established that the upper strata of the middle class also largely belong to the ‘upper’ and ‘middle’ castes, who, along with the strata just below them, are displaying active apathy. They are choosing to remain silent despite having enough resources to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding in India.

Deshpande argues that the upper middle class has always played an important role in political behaviour and opinion-formation and, importantly, it shapes the dominant ideology. Further, the lower sections of the middle class—the ‘middle middle class’ and ‘lower middle class’—are consumers of this dominant ideology and reflect the aspirations, lifestyles, practices and political behaviour of the upper middle class.

In the pre-liberalisation era, the upper middle class were footsoldiers of the Nehruvian ‘socialistic’ state. During liberalisation, this class aligned itself with the market, benefitted from it, and reproduced these advantages to serve its own interests. (It earlier depended on the big state.) After liberalisation there was an absolute expansion of this section, and it now includes disparate groups.

Neo-liberalism as a legitimate ideology:

Neoliberalism has been the dominant ideology of the post-liberalisation era in many parts of the world, bringing with it growing privatisation, corporatisation, and the freeing up of controls on foreign investment, abolition of tariffs and subsidies and, in the economic sphere, it has dismantled the welfare state. In the social sphere, its salient features include increasing individualism, self-discipline, self-reliance in the quest for social mobility, goal-oriented behaviour, emphasis on hard work and meritocracy, and so on. The focus of the neo-liberal ideology is the private (individual) instead of the collective (social). Therefore, one of its characteristic features is a privatisation of responsibility and risks—you know that you should buy private health insurance because the state will no longer provide healthcare.

In this system, there is little regard for the structural barriers of caste, class, gender, religion, region, sexuality and so on. A labourer’s child and a doctor’s child can become astrophysicists in this system, which claims to put all on an equal footing. However, structurally, a doctor from the middle class is at an advantage for he or she is able to deploy ‘individual’ effort—such as private education, tuitions, money to pay the fees at a private/foreign university—whereas a poor or less-advantaged is not. In such a system, the cultural capital, such as one’s credentials, their mastery of English etc, can confer tangible benefits, but remain exclusive and private, transmitted through generations within clans or social groups. The son of the doctor is endowed with cultural capital that remains hidden in plain sight—and it is mis-recognised as ‘merit’. The middle classes are also often quick to contend that the less-advantaged are responsible for their own failures. This is because they view the world through the prism of the neo-liberal ideology, which favours individual merit. After all, the labourer’s child is not “physically barred” from achieving success.

Noted sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how the neo-liberal ideology has become a doxa—a pervasive and internalised form of legitimate knowledge, which is being reproduced to maintain social relations of dominance. In India’s context, the neo-liberal ideology has been made pervasive through the use of the media, pro-liberalisation politicians, academics, research organisations, and others, to widely disseminate its direct and coded messages. This has imparted neo-liberalism with a certain legitimacy: its ideas have been internalised and accepted as incontestable. This knowledge is being reproduced by most institutions, and in social relations, human behaviour, expectations, in minds and bodies.

Since the middle class, especially its thin upper stratum, has a stake in perpetuating this status quo, for, on balance, the gains of neo-liberalism are overwhelmingly in their favour. Therefore, it is particularly sympathetic towards liberalisation and its ideology. The other strata of the middle class are, more often than not, uncritically accepting of the doxa.

The political face of neoliberalism:

There is a close association of the middle class with the BJP, which has aligned itself with the neo-liberal ideology and is its prime proponent. On the one hand the BJP makes neo-liberalism a doxa and on the other hand people act upon the doxa, having internalised it. This, in turn, leads to the victory of the party electorally. Both reinforce each other.

However, the BJP’s carved its way into the middle classes gradually. Initially, it was the dominant castes who joined its ranks in bulk. For these sections of the middle class, the cultural politics of Hindutva became a natural refuge in recent decades, as they sought to check the political and economic assertion of the non-elite castes. Thus social conservatism and the neo-liberal doxa came together to propel the BJP into power.

In its second coming under Modi, the BJP has expanded among the middle class. Explaining the 2014 election verdict, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot referred to the alignment of the ‘neo-middle class’ with the BJP. According to him, this class is defined by aspirations. Situated just above the poor, it desires to join the middle class. Naturally, it is far more heterogeneous in its caste composition, yet, being defined by its aspirations, this class closely aligned itself with the neo-liberal logic of the BJP—an almost natural segue.

This does not mean that no other factors are at play. The neo-middle class is also more overtly religiosity and its location is urban. This, too, as scholars have argued, makes them a natural target group for the BJP.

The BJP’s toxic blend of aggressive communalism and individualistic neo-liberal idiom has turned the middle classes regressive, a tendencies they harbour and display in varying shades of intensity.

It is these symptoms which are on open display as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds in India.

Apathy of the middle class:

The socio-political logic of neoliberalism shapes the apathy of the middle class in a unique way. While the lockdown will hurt everyone, eventually, those most at risk are the poorest and the marginalised. They cannot stay in the “comfort” of their homes and thus might step out to work in extremely precarious conditions. We already have sanitation workers, vendors, small-grocers, and other marginalised groups risking their lives by working during the outbreak.

Doctors and medical staff are another at-risk group. The group most cushioned by the lockdown, other than a thin upper class/rich layer, are the upper middle class and some sections of the middle-middle class, who have relatively secure jobs and savings.

At this time, these sections needed to put their weight behind those groups which are most at risk. However, neo-liberal logic dictates that the marginalised are in their present state because of their own doing. This is one reason why we do not see a collective effort from the middle class to address concerns of the marginalised.

The privatisation of risks under neo-liberalism also means that it is acceptable for a nation with the GDP the size of India to supply a grossly insufficient relief package for people struggling to stay alive—and be supplemented by donations to a fund (PM Cares).

We are not witnessing merely an apathetic state, but also an apathetic socio-political ideology, which has direct bearings on how the most vocal section of the population—the middle class—thinks and reacts.

Yes, there are countervailing tendencies within the middle class, such as the majority of students and many academics, aside from civil society activists, who are still leading active movements against the BJP and its ideology and belong to this strata. In Bourdieu’s words, these people have been able to challenge and critique the common-sense knowledge, or doxa, through individual agency. To expand this segment is a political task, which includes countering the neo-liberal doxa and all political formations that embrace it.

First published in Newslick.
Aashti Salman is a PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.
Balu Sunilraj is a senior researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi.
Views are personal.