Mayank Shekhar: Playing the middle class card
Everyone in India claims to be in the middle, while they're really on top; a difference that starkly comes to light when you break it down
If you are stuck at the airport because of a delayed flight (flying Jet, good chances are you will be), then you'd hope the person you bump into at the terminal to while away time is a stand-up comedian rather than an attractive woman. With the latter, you'd have to do all the talking to impress. Stand-up comics, on the other hand, make a living out of chatting to entertain. And so, I was only too happy to bump into Cyrus Broacha at T2 last week.
Except, he seemed totally pissed off the morning after the stroke of the midnight hour when, arguably for the first time in the history of economics, a nation along with its mainstream press, had wildly celebrated the imposition of a new set of taxes (GST) upon itself! "The actual name of this country is FMC (F*** the Middle Class)," Cyrus groaned.
FMC sounds like a medical college in Faizabad, odd name for a country. But Cyrus's point was that the super poor have little to lose. The super-rich won't lose jack. So, the middle class is the only one constantly screwed. I agreed with Cyrus, reminded of a conversation with writer Javed Akhtar right after demonetisation where he spoke of being at a party full of India's top industrialists. He said they all seemed to be discussing demonetisation as if it had happened in Iceland! Akhtar somewhat referred to himself as a middle-class type looking in.
Which brings me to the existential conundrum: If Cyrus, one of India's best known comic entertainers,â and Javed saab, owner of a bungalow in Bandra, besides sea-facing floor in Juhu, are middle-class, then where does that leave me? Or you?
India's estimated middle-class figures tend to go as high as 60 crore, depending on whose piece you're reading. Most of the exaggerated numbers perhaps stem from excessive self-declaration. Everybody in India thinks they're middle class, while no one, economists and sociologists included, are clear on its definition.
If it's the genuine income-middle of the economic pyramid that we're talking about, then there's no doubt that the average person,âor even median, from a per-capita earning POV, would be the anpadh in a gaon. The top one per cent already accounts for more than half the nation's private wealth. And out of 125 crore Indians, only 1.5 per cent (1.9 crore) pay income tax. A global economic indicator for middle-class is someone who earns between $10 and $20 a day. Which is still odd, since the poverty line in the US is about $16!
Still, does middle income alone equal middle class? Obviously not. We're all designed to feel poor – regardless of what we make – that's what consumerism does. And the key question of whether you live off profits or fixed salary further compounds confusion between social status of a CEO versus a carpenter. Since definitions fail us, let's rely on conventional wisdom.
What is middle-class the middle of, then? I guess beyond the long passage between the lowly poor and the revered rich, it's the semi-educated centre – not quite the elite. You could get into this class because you were wealthy once. That means you either married/divorced a gold-digger, or invested in the airline industry!
Of course, more likely that you'll enter it from the end of once having had to work with your hands (skilled/unskilled labour), and now supposedly using your brain. It's an aspiration thing. This is why, if you notice carefully, a good way to tell a neo claimant to middle-class status is someone who always carries a pen in his breast pocket – ideally in safari suit, or freshly cleaned shirt. It's a social statement about what you do for a living, and therefore your station in life.
In trying to fit in, the middle class is also associated with a certain kind of hypocritical morality over what people will think – "Log kya kahenge"â– in matters of marriage, sex, and lifestyle-related choices and social habits. The super-rich and the super-poor apparently entertain fewer such compunctions, albeit for opposite reasons.
Either way, living off a limited pocket money from parents, I used to be middle-class once. I don't think I am anymore. How do I know this? Because stepping into a restaurant, I look more closely at the left-hand side of the menu than the right-hand side. The state naturally targets people like me, because you can only profit from the rich – can hardly rob the poor. And so the RHS of the menu simply keeps getting heftier even as ST, VAT, PPT, ABCD is replaced by GST.
We see fewer returns from the money one spends on the state, purportedly to make lives better for all. This is in line with Milton Friedman's economic fallacy that it is even feasible or possible to do good with other people's money. It isn't, whether by the government, or your son; when it's not their hard-earned money, they will be less careful. So Cyrus complains. But that's because he is rich in a really poor country. Not the middle class.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org