Pavan K. Varma is a member of the Indian Foreign Service and has, in the years gone by, been posted in such exotic places as Bulgaria, Romania and the Indian Mission to the United Nations, New York. To add to these achievements, he has been Press Secretary to the President of Indian and official spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry and is currently the Director General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. In addition, he has written eight other books.
The Great Indian Middle Class was originally published in 1998 and this is a revised, arguably more reflective, edition. Its purpose, says the author, is to try to understand the middle class, howsoever defined, and to study how it has grow and evolved over the years. Varma is a sceptic. If we are to believe him, the middle class has lost its innocence and changed in size and character. He asks: ?Can India prosper in the long run in an enduring manner if the privileged sections of its society refuse to see any interest or priority beyond their narrow self-interest??
The presumption is that the middle class thinks only of itself and its upward march, without any ideology or vision except to make it economically to the top. Varma is sadly out of touch with reality. What constitutes the middle class? According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), the very rich in India comprise of about six million people or a million households. Varma divides the next group into three segments: The Consuming Class accounting for thirty million households or 150 million people, The Climbers consisting of 50 million households or 275 million people and The Aspirants numbering another 275 million. Households with incomes restricted to between Rs 12,500 and 40,000 a year accounted for as many as 331 million. Only 4.1 per cent of population or 37 million people had an income of over Rs 40,000 a year. One would hardly dare to call these people as belonging to the middle class. Varma would have been more scientific if he dissected the various classes into three segments each. Thus, Upper Upper, Middle Upper, Lower Upper, Upper Middle, Middle Middle and Lower Middle, Upper Lower, Middle Lower and Lower Lower. How on earth anyone earning a thousand rupees a month with a family of three to take care of can be categorised as middle class. Varma calls such a middle class as belonging to a poor country and he adds, for all that this, the so-called Indian middle class has grown, it is still far removed from the fast-growing middle class of even a country like Poland. So what? The middle class of all three categories is growing and is increasingly becoming consumer-minded. And why shouldn'tit? Varma makes consumerism sound as if it is a deadly sin. That it is not. A long-suffering people want to make the most of new opportunities. True, Gandhian values have been for all practical purposes marginalised but the Mahatma lived in another day and time. And what seemed right in the thirties and forties should not be made mandatory practice in the 21st century. But who says that the middle class is strictly inward-looking? Varma obviously has not heard of literally thousands of Self Help Groups (SHGs) that are sprouting all over the country and doing some splendid work. Is that selfishness? The Mahatma wanted the middle class?indeed all classes?to resort to simple living and high thinking, to get them involved into the freedom struggle, to make sacrifices., insisting that the approach was noble in itself. Possibly he also did not want to promote a capitalist economy or poverty based political revolution. The Gandhian approach went well with the practice of non-violence and satyagraha, but times have changed. But what about the 250 million Indians?at the very minimum?who are still going hungry to bed at night, asks Varma. Can the middle class ignore them? Should it? Varma'sargument is that ?once it becomes legitimate to ignore poverty, the sense of community ceases to have a place in social life?.
Are we to equate ?political instability? with a major revolution? Is that part of Indian ?culture?? Varma wants the middle and elite classes to display a small amount of social concern which ?will not seriously jeopardise their preferred lifestyles?. In other words, he wants self-interest and social concern to co-exist. What makes him think that they don?t? The middle class is intensely aware of dharma and if only Varma makes a full study of how various bodies, temples, privately run educational institutes and their like have got themselves involved in the emancipation of the poor, he would be less cynical. Towards the end Varma asks: ?Will the great middle class be able to read the writing on the wall? If it does, there is still hope?. Let Varma be assured. The middle class is greatly aware of the problems of the poor. And it will make its contribution towards their upliftment as it has in the past and as it will, in the future. Varma may be a cynic. The middle class isn?t. And that'sits glory.
(Penguin Books India, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)