Saturday, December 29, 2007

Book Review: The Great Indian Middle Class: by Pavan K Verma

The Great Indian Middle Class

- Pavan K Varma

: A book Review/Report

When I picked this book, I did not know what to expect. It was recommended to me by a friend, whose recommendation I would value. But at the same time, the title was dull! Since the opening of Indian economy in 1991, there has been a special interest to learn about the consumption appetite of Indian middle class. The multinationals eager to find a market other than booming Chinese market saw prospects in India. There have been articles everywhere including Economist and BBC on India Awakening, which is nothing beyond how the newly rich from Indian middle class like to spend and flaunt and how big or small its size is. But such statistics, even though serving a purpose for multinationals and for Indians taking pride in India’s “growth”, are still not worthy enough to merit the space of a book meant for a general reader.

As I started reading it, the book immediately absorbed me. Certainly it was not about the figures and numbers that everybody loves to give when talking about India (a billion plus population can throw numbers that can dazzle a reader for a few moments!). It was about the evolution of Indian middle since pre Independence time. It was so apt to my own realities while I was growing up back home in India. I am the product of the same class. The book brings back the grave realities of the Indian society, hammering heads on some of the myths that we, collectively as a middle class, just delude ourselves with, while denying what is obviously distasteful to us.

The message of the author can be summed up in a few sentences. It is the critique of this class and not its glorification. Essentially he is pointing to the moral bankruptcy of the middle class which is guided solely by its self-interest, and has become incapable of seeing anything beyond it. The message is more than relevant in a country like India, which houses worlds richest and yet the percentage poverty is worse than that in sub-Saharan Africa. The author does conclude therefore, even though he spends only a few words on it: That such a divide which is only widening every day is unrealistic. Unless the middle class wakes up from its revelry, and looks beyond its self-interest, its prosperity itself is in danger as the widening economic gap can only bring turmoil and political instability.

If I read the summary above, I will nod to it and then ignore it. Of course, we all know about it! It has been said before and so what does the book add on to what we already know?! The beauty of the book lies in Pavan Verma’s perceptive analysis and thorough research. He persistently traces the origin of the current syndrome to the origin of Indian middle class during pre-Independence era. The current elite in the middle class certainly trace their roots to British colonialism, which in an effort to rule the gigantic country, created an English-educated administrative class, that was “Indian in color and blood, but English in taste and opinions”. The genesis of Indian National Movement is within this class, which inspite of its name lacked a popular appeal before the appearance of Gandhi because it only served the interest of this class. British finally left India, but it was this class which had its first taste of power in independent India. Here Pavan Verma makes his first critical observation. In a country whose culture and civilization was thousands of years old, the institutions that emerged had little or no resemblance to the past. The change, even if for better and modern, was not from within, but from outside. Infact, English which became the lingua franca of the state because of the bias of this initial English educated class, became the language for exclusion. The English-educated middle class person, so far removed from the understandings of its own country, hardly represented the cause of an average Indian. The malaise of pursuing vested interest infested this class from the very beginning. But still, as the author notices, in pre-independence era, the intension was noble. The influence of Gandhi, champion of the poor, was still strong. The privileged still felt a moral obligation to the betterment of the poor, though their actions were far removed from it, partly because the lives of initial representatives of the people were far removed from those of the vast majority of their own country. Even Nehru, the first prime minister of India, found himself in that precarious situation. Still, in early years, the Gandhi-Nehru legacy was strong. There was a general consensus that nation building exercise was for the betterment of all in which educated middle class had an important role to play. The gulf between precept and practice existed, but ideological framework was still alive.

Relating it with personal front, I knew it was these formative years my father was making way into this educated middle class. Gandhi-Nehru ideologies with which he grew up with became a baggage for him to prosper (materially!) in post-Nehru era. It is the post Nehru era, when all shackles of morals and obligations to the society was thrown. As the state failed on its promises and politicians became unscrupulously corrupt; the middle class was left in a moral vacuum. For it, there were little reasons left for pretence of idealism. Here comes in the perceptive critique of Pavan Verma, where he debunks some of the myths the middle class of modern India lives in. It has been the typical tendency of the middle class to consider itself the victim of the failure of the state, and in middle class the state finds a vociferous critic of the policies not conducive to its interests. However, while wallowing in self-proclaimed misery, Verma is quick to point some of the hypocrisies. While the middle class vociferously criticized corruption, it had its hands completely immersed in it. While the middle class was quick to accuse state of not providing amenities like water and electricity, it was the first one to do anything to steal it. Verma emphasizes that middle class always found poor responsible for the theft of electricity, while its share infact was the largest. While the middle class finds slums inhabited by urban poor responsible for the filthy conditions in cities, Verma provides an example to the contrary. The newly growing rich in middle class build colonies of expensive homes, almost like castles; however they are surrounded by unpaved roads and mounting filth. It is not the lack of money for appalling civic conditions, but a complete apathy towards it. The sense of public responsibility is non-existent. Verma is also quick to point another irony. While vociferous on appeal for lower and simpler taxation, the middle class, including the well-to-do and rich businesses, have done everything to evade taxes. Getting away with taxation by bribing is so widespread among this class that India has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world. But when it comes to public responsibility, the middle class, on its part, blames the state for appalling civic conditions in public spaces. Infact when it comes to its self-interest, this class has shown very little commitment to democracy and even lesser commitment towards secularism. The malaise is even more prominent among new entrants to this class, small scale businessmen in small cities, who made into this class when Gandhi-Nehru legacy was already dead, and any moral scruples almost extinct.

Verma diagnoses plethora of such ironies and hypocrisies in his first three chapters to make his point. The fact is that I can’t disagree to even a word of what he had to say, having seen it with my own eyes, just never putting together while growing up as a kid. It was his fouth chapter “The Inner Landscape” where I had trouble staying with him. Verma tries to explain the psyche of the class with his immense knowledge and understanding of Hindu mythology. However, I think even knowledge can sometimes lead to intellectual suicide, where subjective reasoning can help provide causes that seem plausible, and yet the merit of such reasoning can never be validated. They can equally be turned around to prove otherwise. Similarly, in his fourth chapter, India’s economic liberalization just cannot be viewed from one aspect: that it is making the middle class more vulgar in its pretence, display and conspicuous consumption. Countering him is not my intent. But there are lessons to be learnt from world history. The industrial revolution that shook the western world long ago brought great economic disparity there as well. When old order gives way to new, and existing social fabric is ripped apart, vested self-interest seems to grip humans, irrespective of them being Christians or Muslims or any other religious identity or ethnicity. I am not justifying the existing lack of moral fabric in Indian middle class, but just like other developed part of the world, India has to search and find its own balance, from within, not from outside. Otherwise, the warning with which Verma leaves us, has a historical basis as well. Europe suffered the chaos of communism and militancy, largely become of extreme economic disparity the industrial revolution brought with it. Bringing the masses into a common umbrella of middle class was ultimately the solution and achievement of the developed world. Verma himself acknowledged that middle class in India has expanded over last 50 years. How to bring the vast majority of India’s poor to be a part of this class is a perplexing question, though certainly any effort in this direction will be dwarfed by the extreme self-centeredness of Indian society.

There is another small folly in this book. Which middle class is the author referring to? It starts with the English-educated middle class in pre-Independence era. But as the time progresses, many small businessmen and small time land owners enter into this class by their sheer purchasing power. They in many parts of India are hardly English speaking or educated with university degrees and their perception and thinking is very different from the traditional educated middle class. Nevertheless, as far as Verma’s critique of moral degeneracy goes, it applies to this class with even more vehemence than anywhere else.

This book was written during 50th year of Indian Independence (1997-98). It was the same time I left my home country to come to a country, which has long been regarded as one governed by the engines of greed. But ten years have since passed by and it seems the warning made by Pavan Verma still hold for the country of my birth. On the other hand, I have to agree with another observer who noticed that it must be the irony of our times that one has to travel to west to find spiritual satisfaction and some relief from the obsession with superficial materialism!