Being middle class in India

Are differences within the middle class, in income, education, and cultural and social capital, so wide as to render moot any ideological or behavioural coherence to this group?

December 09, 2014 02:55 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

Over the next two months,  The Hindu  will release the findings of a new survey on the aspirations and anxieties of ordinary Indians. The survey is the latest round of a multi-year panel study sponsored by the Lok Foundation and carried out in collaboration with the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) at the University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. The “Lok Surveys” aim to track the attitudes of Indians over the next several years, as part of a significant new effort to understand the social and political reconfigurations taking place across Indiatoday. CMIE, on behalf of the Lok Foundation, conducted face-to-face interviews of 69,920 randomly selected Indians across 25 states and union territories between January and May 2014. Because our sample is about two-thirds urban and one-third rural, 2011 Census data is used to reweight the sample to ensure urban/rural representativeness.

The rapid growth of the Indian economy over the past three decades has led to a substantial expansion of India’s “middle class”. This has triggered a robust debate over who in India actually belongs to the “middle class,” its size, composition, and political and social behaviour. This is a debate with serious implications for economic growth and governance since a range of scholarship in diverse settings has shown that the middle class is an important driver of a country’s economic, political and social development.

But is the middle class anything more than simply a large group whose income makes it neither rich nor poor? Are differences within the middle class, especially in income, education and cultural and social capital, so wide as to render moot any ideological or behavioural coherence to this group?

This also happens to be a debate with no easy answers because social class is a conceptually complex measure; there is neither a universally accepted definition of middle class nor widely available data on the income of Indian households, as opposed to their consumption patterns. But even if acceptable measures and hard data could be marshalled, they would still be ill-equipped to nail down a rather elusive concept: whether Indians actually believe and behave as if they are part of the middle class. Self-identification of class status is important because it suggests the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities.

To investigate this, the latest Lok survey asked respondents from across the country whether they considered their family to be a “middle class” family.

To our surprise, nearly half (49 per cent) of all survey respondents believed their family is a middle class family. There was, as one would expect, great variation in responses across states. For instance, while 68 per cent of respondents in Karnataka believed their family belonged to the middle class, just 29 per cent of respondents in Madhya Pradesh felt the same. Self-identification as middle class is expectedly more prevalent among urban respondents (56 per cent) but the share of rural individuals claiming to be middle class is also remarkably high (46 per cent).

Survey results Two things are striking about this finding: the contrast between respondents’ self-perception and objective reality and differences on the rural-urban axis ( Figure 1 ). We disaggregated our sample into five income categories, based on self-reported annual household income. While any such classification is admittedly blunt, the results are nonetheless illustrative. Whereas respondents are more likely to self-identify as middle class as household income increases, a sizeable proportion of respondents across all income groups believe they are part of the Indian middle class. 47 per cent of lower middle-income respondents self-identified as “middle class”, while half of middle income and 54 per cent of upper middle-income respondents did so. Expectedly this declined to 48 per cent for those in the highest income bracket. Most surprising 45 per cent of those who were in the lowest income bracket self-identify as middle class, barely 3 per cent less than the richest income group.

Even within the same income categories, however, there are marked differences between rural and urban India. There could be several reasons for this. For one, we are comparing nominal incomes and not real incomes, given the much higher cost of living in urban areas. Second—and this reflects disagreements about whether a coherent middle-class identity comes about due to social or economic factors or is instead the result of political factors—ascriptive identities (especially caste) are more salient in rural relative to urban India. Historically, the “middle class” construct has been a production of the forces of industrialisation and urbanisation.

Middle class belonging also increases with educational attainment: the more educated one is, the more likely she is to claim to be middle class. However, 47 per cent of individuals with less than 10th standard education—those we typically do not associate with middle class status—still claim such an affiliation. Those numbers are surprisingly large and, as with income, urban-rural differences are notable.

But the extent of “middle class” identification is striking, not simply because of its size or the fact that it seems to run counter to households’ own economic realities, but also because it appears to have powerful experiential effects on respondents’ social attitudes.

Across a range of measures, those who believe they are middle class are markedly more upbeat about their status in life today as well as their prospects in the future ( Figure 2) . When asked whether they believed their household’s economic conditions are getting better, 62 per cent of self-proclaimed “middle class” respondents answered in the affirmative, compared to 48 per cent for those who feel they are not among the middle class. When compared to those who believe they are not middle class, larger proportions of so-called “middle class” respondents believed that their children will have a higher standard of living than they enjoy and that their family’s social status has improved in a generation. Furthermore, they are more bullish in their assessments of the country’s overall progress and India’s economic conditions as a whole.

Class replacing caste? The factors driving such large middle class self-identification are less clear. In a status conscious society, as caste weakens as a marker of status, could this be a sign that class markers are taking its place? What might be some consequences of self-identifying as middle class? Could it be, for instance, a factor shaping occupational mismatches between aspirations and jobs in Indian labour markets as one of us has shown in a related work ( Aggarwal, Kapur, et al, 2012 )? If so, it could explain the fact that in fast growing urban areas where there is a large unmet demand for good blue-collar skills (such as carpenters or plumbers), which can give incomes that would place the person in the lower middle class, young people often prefer a lower paying “white-collar” job as a shop assistant.

The “middle class” moniker may also be affecting what people do with their money and how they define their roles in society. There is considerable evidence that, to the extent class reflects a person’s place in society; it impacts both consumption levels and product choices. Our finding that middle class self-perception makes one more optimistic about the economy bodes well for consumer spending since the extent to which people are sanguine about their economic future influences their discretionary spending.

Another contested terrain shaped by social class is political behaviour. The Lok survey indicates that, for all the talk of “middle class” support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the evidence is not clear-cut. Self-proclaimed middle class Indians were only marginally more likely to have voted for the BJP in the recent general election. We find starker differences when measuring class objectively through income, education, or occupational criteria — with those on the upper ends of the spectrum (those with at least a 10th standard education, a “bourgeoisie” occupation, or with annual household income above Rs.7,20,000) more in favour of the BJP.

Three structural changes occurring in India — service-sector led economic growth, rapid expansion of urbanisation and higher education — are undoubtedly resulting in a massive expansion of the middle class, however defined. The political and social consequences will depend on whether this middle class emerges simply as a social formation or as a self-conscious political force, whether progressive or possibly even reactionary.

(Devesh Kapur is with CASI at the University of Pennsylvania. Milan Vaishnav is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.)

This article is part of a series. Read part 2: > Choosing thy neighbour

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