NEW DELHI — As India's national elections approach, the country's middle class is the center of attention. Analysts cite it as the decisive demographic in the vote slated next month.
It is true that the electoral weight of the middle class hasn't stopped growing: according to the Asian Development Bank, the Indian middle class rose by 205 million between 1991 and 2008. Its influence is said to go beyond the raw numbers.
And yet, there are doubts. Sociologist Satish Deshpande says of the Indian middle class that it's a minority that claims to be speaking in the name of all the citizens of the country.
That's where its strength lies. The middle class has managed to impose its demands on the political debate, focusing attention on issues such as improving access to infrastructure like roads, water or electricity.
Meanwhile, however, a large proportion of the population still lives under the poverty line, and the eradication of hunger and the fight against poverty are no longer part of the debate, like they were in the 1970s.
The concept of the middle class gained momentum during the years of strong economic growth that followed the liberalization reforms initiated in 1991. Such banks and consulting firms as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey were only interested in indicators like the average number of television sets or income per household, and kept repeating that India was bound to overtake Europe in economic progress.
Sure, most of India's middle class shops in malls and buys refrigerators. But does that mean that they all share the same political aspirations and grievances?
"The middle class is very diverse, just like the country itself," says sociologist André Béteille. "But it tends not to occupy the middle of the pyramid. It merges with the elite, because it's the privilege stronghold."
The middle class in India thus covers a dispersed social category, contrary to the United States or Europe. Divisions are numerous, depending on the jobs, on whether they speak English, or live in a big city.
Leaning on the state
But the question of caste is probably the most important divisive factor, and it still exists inside the middle class. Doctor Ambedkar, leader of the untouchables and an architect of the country's Constitution, observed that inequalities between castes were "tiered," meaning that each perceives itself as inferior to another but refuses to join forces with the lower one, by fear of losing their place.
Leela Fernandes, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, describes the "new middle class" in India like a napoleon layered cake, with those born after the liberal reform of the early 1990s stacked on top of the old one without replacing or blending with it.
After the country's independence in the middle of the 20th century, when the government played a central role in the economy, the middle class was mostly made of employees of state companies. With the economic liberalization, members of that middle class — educated, English-speaking and mostly from higher castes — benefited from the creation of positions in the private sector in that they had better-paying jobs, especially in the technology sector. There were more people from medium-sized cities and from inferior or intermediate castes among those who replaced them as state employees.
What was "new" about the middle class of the 1990s was not only the background of its members, but "the production of a distinct political and social identity that represents and claims the fruits of liberalization," concludes Fernandes.
The political interests of the different layers of the middle class are therefore far from similar. According to Professor Eswaran Sridharan of the University of Pennsylvania, between 58 % and 75% of its members depend on the state, either from subsidies or employment.
This is one of the paradoxes of the middle class: "As a whole, it benefits from the economic liberalization," he underlines. "It has access to a range of services and products that didn't exist before. But that doesn't mean that it unanimously supports all liberal measures, such as privatizations or cuts in public spending."
The interests of the Indian middle class are so diversified that it would be hard to predict which political party will get the majority of its votes. Despite the criticism directed at the Indian National Congress, in power since 2009, its support for Narendra Modi, the hero of the liberal reforms and candidate of the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is far from being secured. In the last two elections, the BJP, the main opponent to the Congress party, was the favorite and both times winded up losing.