September 6, 2007

India's middle class failure

India's middle class has been a dynamic presence in the business world, but its lack of interest in the political sphere bodes poorly for the country's future, says a scholar of South Asian politics and culture. Much of the Indian middle class doesn't think political change is necessary or possible, says Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad in Britain's Prospect magazine. India's middle class—which he defines as the 200 million or so people who have a telephone, a motorized vehicle and a color television—focuses mainly on improving its children's earnings. The middle class supports government spending on higher education to gain an edge in the knowledge economy, but not on primary education that would help its poorest citizens.

Prof. Ram-Prasad, a professor of comparative religion and philosophy at Britain's Lancaster University, cites as typical the views of some Indian information-technology professionals in a recent focus group he conducted. They dismissed political activity as dishonest. They thought the most effective way to make a difference was to donate money to their companies' charities. In general, the middle class holds political parties in equally low esteem.

Without greater pressure from the middle class to reform the country's political and social structures, it is hard to see how India's hundreds of millions of poor will see their lives improve markedly. "Middle-class skepticism about the capacity of the state is understandable, but is also at the root of India's troubles," Dr. Ram-Prasad writes. He notes that the most politically active Indians tend to be those who are poor, though not destitute. With much of the middle class remaining apolitical, it is possible that real reform in areas like prejudice against lower-caste members of society lower castes will only come from nascent political coalitions that manage to lump together the votes of more marginalized populations. Robin Moroney

India's 200m-strong middle class is the most economically dynamic group on the planet, but is largely uninterested in politics or social reform. Until it begins to engage politically, India will suffer from a lop-sided modernisation

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