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Rediff News  All News  » Business » India may be poor, but Indians are rich!

India may be poor, but Indians are rich!

Last updated on: September 15, 2010 09:05 IST

Photographs: Reuters Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Bengalis with some money but little English use the English words 'middle class' as a term of disparagement even in their Bengali speech. They dismiss a flat or a car as middle class if it's not grand enough to merit attention.

The upper reaches of Delhi society are more subtle in expressing the same snobbishness. A diplomatic wife recalls the ambassador's lady lifting her eyebrows in pained surprise and murmuring disapprovingly, "So bourgeois, my dear!" when she -- a mere third secretary's wife then -- said "Bon appetit" before a meal. My friend had the aplomb to retort, "But I am bourgeois!"

So she would be counted by any international reckoning. But given India's abysmal average income and the mysteries of Purchasing Power Parity, she is probably in the highest income bracket.

Does that make for class? Her father was in the heaven-born service, but upper class English youths at Oxford in his day had a rude name for ICS cadets who had achieved entry by merit and not birth.

That was unforgivable. The 'competition-wallah' was a figure of fun.

. . . 

India may be poor, but Indians are rich!

Photographs: Reuters

Applying a similar yardstick, V S Naipaul was surprised when I told him that Jawaharlal Nehru's father was an advocate. "Then why do they call Nehru an aristocrat?" Naipaul demanded. "He's middle class!"

Naipaul hadn't reckoned with India's pragmatic materialism. Motilal Nehru was rich. Therefore, he was aristocratic.

But, then, who does comprise the middle class whose suffocating morality provoked Mr Doolittle's anguish in Pygmalion, but whose numerical supremacy over the rich and the poor Aristotle thought essential for stable democracy?

American sceptics argue that the Great American Middle Class is only another Great American Dream though Barack Obama on the stump accuses his Republican predecessor of doing his best to destroy this backbone of the Land of the Free.

Too few Americans have tertiary qualifications, equity holdings and retirement savings, critics complain, to qualify as middle class.

. . . 

India may be poor, but Indians are rich!

Photographs: Reuters

In fact, 43 per cent of Americans can't even muster $10,000 to fall back on after retiring. They would starve in capitalism's highest temple without Social Security.

Our situation is even more complex as B P Mandal discovered when Karnataka Brahmins pleaded for OBC status. India religiously trots out 300 to 350 million consumers as the passport to world status.

South Koreans flocked here to make cars for this supposedly burgeoning middle class. George W Bush licked his chops at the thought of selling pizzas and washing machines to aspiring consumers.

George Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, cited them to recommend robust economic relations between the two countries.

I asked Yeo where he got the figure, and he replied in surprise, "From the Indians, of course!"

. . . 

India may be poor, but Indians are rich!

Photographs: Reuters

The irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar spilt the beans. Or was he just boasting? According to Mani, the 300-350 million figure popped out of the top of his head when a foreign journalist popped the question. It's been written in stone ever since. Now, the stone is in danger of being eroded.

For, like the Great American Dream, the much-vaunted Great Indian Middle Class may be no more than the Great Indian Mythic Class. But for totally different reasons.

If Americans have not yet achieved middle class status, astonishing as it may seem, we have surpassed it.

According to a new World Bank publication, Equity in a Globalising World, those who earn more than a daily $10 in a developing country -- which must include all readers of this column -- are in the top 5 per cent. They are the elite!

Toss that with PPP, and hey presto! a daily $10 becomes a monthly Rs 5,176.8, a Delhi driver's wage.

. . . 

India may be poor, but Indians are rich!

Photographs: Reuters

The Asian Development Bank even more generously lavishes middle class status on anyone who earns between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 a month. Anything more is wealth.

India may be a poor country but thanks to the World Bank, ADB and PPP, Indians are rich, looking down on others as in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, "Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!/ Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses."

Holding that the middle class outnumbers both rich and poor in the best democracies, Aristotle would have been dismayed. The world's oldest democracy is too poor, the largest too rich!

No one told him it's all a question of definition and strategic action. There's no writing on the wall if the wall is demolished. Abolish exams and nobody fails.

Do away with the poverty line and the poor disappear. India is ready to take its place at the high table of the comity of nations.

Source: source