Milan Vaishnav
Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program and the host of the Grand Tamasha podcast at Carnegie, where he focuses on India's political economy, governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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Whether you follow developments in India closely or not, you have likely heard about the emergence of the ‘Indian middle class.’ The private sector, especially large multinational corporations, view the emergence of a large pool of Indians with increasing disposable income as the most vital consumer market of the future. The McKinsey Global Institute (2007) refers to India’s expanding consumer market as the country’s “bird of gold”, a phrase merchants used thousands of years ago to describe its vast economic potential. The growth of a middle class is expected to play a transformative role in modernising the Indian economy, create new pressure points on the government to tackle the vestiges of the License Raj, and enable a more propitious environment for private entrepreneurship and job creation (Fernandes 2006). And those who are frustrated with the corruption and cronyism that has characterised Indian politics for decades view the rise of the middle class as a force for positive change, a palliative to the twin vices of identity and patronage politics (Das 2012).

Despite these tall claims, the research on the middle class globally is quite divided on its social and political impact. On the one hand, one strand of the literature argues that middle class can be a dynamic force for change (Lash and Urry 1987) while on the other hand, some scholars have argued that they can often a powerful votary of the status quo and traditional social and economic structures (Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992). For instance, while the middle class might desire a reduced role of the state in the economy and a corresponding greater role for the private sector, it also wants better safety and environmental standards across a diverse array of sectors which, ironically, bring the state back in—this time in its regulatory capacity. This is one reason why—as far as India is concerned—the ‘Inspector Raj’ has replaced the ‘License Raj’ (Chandra 2015, Indian Express 2016).

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This chapter was originally published in the book The New Middle Class in India and Brazil: Green Perspectives?