This essay analyzes the political economy of lifestyle that frames middle class consumption in post-liberalization India. The essay argues that the new middle class in India is part of a state-led project of development rather than an expanding consumer group that has naturally been produced by economic growth. Economic liberalization in India operates through two disparate but simultaneous languages of economic development and economic growth. On the one hand, state, non-governmental organizations and World Bank sponsored projects produce narratives of sustainable development that primarily target subaltern social groups. On the other hand, state-led and global policies of economic liberalization deploy celebratory languages of middle class consumption as a sign of the success of such policies. These narratives of middle class consumption and subaltern sustainable development are part of a singular set of state developmentalist strategies in the post-liberalization period. This role of the state suggests that the politics of sustainability will require more than attitudinal shifts amongst middle class individuals. The essay concludes by analyzing possibilities for cross-class alliances between subaltern groups and sections of the middle classes that the state cannot successfully incorporate into this new middle class model of development.
- Development regime
- English speaking middle class
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout
Purchases are for personal use onlyLearn about institutional subscriptions
For a critical discussion of a consumer preference model approach see Smith 1996.
This is seen in the practices and data collection methods of survey data on middle class consumption collected by various market research firms. The most well known is the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) which has collected detailed income and consumption data on the middle classes. While the NCAER data provides useful parameters that aid in the measurement of the middle class, as I have argued elsewhere, such survey techniques are in themselves also representational practices that have contributed to the image of an expanding consuming middle class.
This is particularly the case with sections of the urban middle classes that identify with a new middle class identity associated with liberalization. However, it is not limited to urban or more privileged sections of the middle classes. See for e.g., Jeffrey, Jeffrey and Jeffery 2004 on rural and dalit middle classes. For less privileged sections of the middle classes, consumption becomes a strategy of upward mobility; it is also a means that individuals use to accumulate social capital in order to try and gain access to new economy jobs.
Research on other parts of Asia has paid more attention to the role of the state. See for example case studies in Sen and Stevens 1998 and Embong 2002.
At a methodological level, such research tends to focus primarily on particular sites that are explicitly associated with consumption (for example various forms of print or visual media or sites of consumption such as shopping malls, fast food restaurants, leisure parks). A broader problem is the conflation of India’s middle classes with consumption and with elite behavior. Such a conflation misses other definitional aspects of the middle classes and also misses substantial socioeconomic variation that exists within the middle classes. I address this in Fernandes 2006. While consumption is often associated with the middle classes, there is also a research agenda which focuses on consumption and poverty. See for e.g., Jha 2007; Kumar and Aggarwal 2003.
The point is not of course to argue that private capital is not important but to refocus attention on state practices and interests.
For general approaches that address the discursive dimensions of development see Escobar 1994.
See Chatterjee 2004 for a theoretical formulation that reproduces this dualistic narrative.
This is an identification which first became publicly articulated under Rajiv Gandhi’s regime. However, its real political force has intensified since the reform period in the 1990s.
On the state of public sector workers under liberalization see Ganguly and Scrase 2001.
Sustainable development is also of discussed in relation to environmental sustainability but rarely in relation to the middle classes.
For work that examines the historical invention of “the economy” as a distinct realm see Mitchell 2002.
This is of course a subnarrative in which this middle class fueled economic growth allows the state to respond to problems of poverty. This idealization of middle class oriented development is not limited to India. See for e.g. Mead and Schwenninger 2002 for an array of writings by economists and analysts who make a case for global middle class oriented development.
The state is thus seen in a more passive role as merely responding to demands from elites and middle class constituencies.
This can be seen for instance in increasingly assertive middle class demands on local municipal council resources. Note however this is also not new to the post-liberalization. Middle class claims on civic and urban development resources have a long history stemming back to the colonial period.
While there has been variation in the success of these efforts this has been the case regardless of the ideological bent of the party in power (and has included the Left Front government in West Bengal). On state governments and reforms see Sinha 2004.
This state-middle class relationship also has important implications for our understanding of contemporary democratic politics. In contemporary election campaigns in India for eg politicians formulate agendas designed to appeal to socio-economically marginalized groups. New middle class rhetoric has condemned these state supports and has focused on the “politics of votebanks” that have captured the state and neglected middle class interests. Such political rhetoric relies on the invisibility of the state subsidies of middle class oriented development that I am emphasizing. Hence the twin narratives of middle class growth versus state led subaltern development provides an ideological basis for middle class claims of exclusion.
On Caste see Sheth, 1999b. Gender is a more complex factor as middle class women have been able to gain entry to new economy jobs. However, these women would still come from more privileged caste backgrounds and they are often tracked into lower tier work such as the call center industry.
The most visible case was the conflict over the Mandal Commission report and the upper caste middle class backlash against the VP Singh government’s move to implement the recommendations.
As Kumar notes, the Congress-led government in Maharashtra introduced a bill on affirmative action that includes private sector reservations for dalits before the 2004 assembly polls (2005, p. 803).
The proposals for reservations were of course met with strong resistance from the private sector. Prime Minister Singh asked the private sector to voluntarily invest in training and technical education for youth from less privileged backgrounds. More recently, a joint task force of ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of the Commerce and Industry of India) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) task force set up by the government is formulating a Code of Affirmative Action for all companies affiliated with Assocham and CII.
In the 1990s, the most significant cross-class movement was the culturally exclusivist brand of Hindu nationalism that emerged. This movement was able to effectively deploy anti-Muslim sentiment in ways that linked middle class political conservatism and economic liberalism with the political unrest and anxieties of the urban poor and lower middle classes. This xenophobic nationalism was also able to manage conflicts within the movement between the pro-liberalization orientation of the BJP and the protectionist “swadhesi” leanings of the RSS. See Hansen 1999 and Fernandes and Heller 2006. However, the Congress return to power in the 2004 elections reflects in part a political result of the economic frustrations of sections of the middle class as well marginalized socio-economic groups. The Congress consistently used strong economic populist languages in its campaign and electoral data shows some shift in middle class electoral support from the BJP back to the Congress. The token attempts at caste reservations in the private sector seem to represent the congress’ recognition of the precarious contradictions between this populist promise and the inequalities intensified by its economic policies
For data on education and state policy see Rudolph and Rudolph 1987.
This varied by region (see Dasgupta, n.d.) and as many critics have not also biased union activity towards the interests of more privileged workers (particularly neglecting workers in the unorganized sector).
This remains a possibility not necessarily a likely possibility. The case of the American middle class provides an ideal typical example of a social group that has acted politically in ways that have undermined its own interests. Current debates on the lack of health care and employment for middle class Americans foregrounds this. However, contemporary political rhetoric that is effectively projecting these problems onto marginalized social groups such as undocumented workers from Mexico underlines the ways in which cultural nationalism and middle class conservatism are readily deployed as a cross-class response to socio-economic anxieties.
The limits of the movement again underline the importance of addressing the role of the state. The movement was able to successfully pressure the World Bank to withdraw funding for the project but was less successful in pressuring the Indian government to stop or curtail the project.
The importance of state-middle class linkages in shaping developmental strategies is not new or unique to the Indian case. Comparative research in a range of empirical research has demonstrated that state conceptions of sustainability often favor middle class oriented models of development. See for instance case studies in Evans 2002.
Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bose, A. (2003). Consumer demographics: People’s assets in census 2001. Economic and Political Weekly, 27, 4085–4087.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. (N. Richard, Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Breckenridge, C. (Ed.). (1995). Consuming modernity: Public culture in a South Asian World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Chatterjee, P. (2004). The politics of the governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. New York: Columbia University Press.
Chibber, V. (2003). Locked in place: State-building and late industrialization in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dasgupta, R. (n.d.). Comparisons and contrasts in working class politics and organisation: Bombay cotton textile labour force and calcutta jute textile labour force with focus on post-independence period. unpublished paper: 1–14.
Deshpande, S. (2006, June 17). Exclusive inequalities: Merit, caste and discrimination in Indian higher education today. Economic and Political Weekly , 2438–2444.
Donner, H. (2004). Labour, privatisation and class: Middle-Class women’s experience of changing hospital births in Calcutta. In M. Unnithan-Kumar (Ed.), Reproductive agency and the state: Cultural transformations of childbearing (pp. 113–135). Oxford: Berghahn.
Embong, A. R. (2002). State-led modernization and the new middle class in Malaysia. New York: Palgrave.
Escobar, A. (1994). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the third world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Evans, P. (Ed.). (2002). Liveable cities? Urban struggles for livelihood and sustainability. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fernandes, L. (2006). India’s new middle class: Democratic politics in an era of economic reforms. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Fernandes, L., & Heller, P. (2006). Hegemonic aspirations: New middle class politics and India’s democracy in comparative perspective. Critical Asian Studies, 38(4), 495–522.
Fuller, C., & Narasimhan, H. (2007). Information technology professionals and the new-rich middle class in Chennai (Madras). Modern Asian Studies, 41(1), 121–150.
Ganguly, R., & Scrase, T. (2001). Who wins? Who loses? And who even knows? – Responses to economic liberalisation and cultural globalisation. South Asia, 24(1), 141–158.
Hansen, T. B. (1999). The saffron wave: Democracy and Hindu nationalism in modern India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Harriss, J. (2005). Political participation, representation and the urban poor: Findings from research in Delhi. Economic and Political Weekly XL, 11, 1041–1054.
Jeffrey, C., Jefferey, P., & Jefferey, R. (2004). A useless thing’ or ‘Nectar of the gods?’ The cultural production of education and young men’s struggle for respect in liberalizing North India. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94(4), 961–981.
Jenkins, R. (1999). Democratic politics and economic reform in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jha, R. (2007). Vulnerability of consumption growth in rural India. Economic and Political Weekly, 24, 711–715.
Joshi, S. (2001). Fractured modernity: Making of a middle class in colonial North India. New York: Oxford University Press.
Juluri, V. (2003). Becoming a global audience: Longing and belonging in Indian music television. New York: Lang.
Kapur, D., & Mehta, P. (2004). Indian higher education reform: From half baked socialism to half baked capitalism. Center for International Development Harvard University, Working Paper No. 108 (September), 1–49.
Kapur, D., & Ramamurti, R. (nd). Privatization in India: The imperatives and consequences of gradualism. In T. N. Srinivasan (Ed.), India after a decade of economic reforms: Retrospect and prospects. Stanford University press (forthcoming).
Khagram, S. (2004). Dams and development: Transnational struggles for water and power. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Kohli, A. (2004). State-directed development: Political power and industrialization in the global periphery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kumar, N., & and Aggarwal, S. C. (2003). Patterns of consumption and poverty in Delhi slums. Economic and Political Weekly, 13, 5294–5300.
Kumar, S. (2004, April 17). Impact of Economic Reforms on Indian Electorate. Economic and Political Weekly , 1621–1630.
Kumar, V. (2005). Understanding the Politics of Reservation. Economic and Political Weekly, 803–806.
Lakha, S. (1999). The State, Globalisation and Indian Middle Class Identity. In Pinches, M. (Ed.), Culture and Privilege (pp. 251–274).
Mankekar, P. (1999). Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood and Nation in Postcolonial India. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mawdsley, E. (2004). India’s Middle Classes and the Environment. Development and Change, 35, 79–103.
Mazzarella, W. (2003). Shovelling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mead, W. R. & Schwenninger, S. (2002). The Bridge to a Global Middle Class, Development, Trade and International Finance. New York: Springer.
Mehta, P. (2006, June 7). Being Middle Class is OK. The Indian Express.
Mitchell, T. (2002). Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mohanty, M. (2006, September 2). Social inequality, labour market dynamics and reservation. Economic and Political Weekly, 3777–3789.
Pinches, M. (Ed.). (1999). Culture and privilege in capitalist Asia. New York: Routledge.
Rajagopal, A. (2001a). Politics after television: Religious nationalism and the making of a Hindu public. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rajagopal, A. (2001b). Thinking about the new middle class: Gender, advertising and politics in an age of globalisation. In S. R. Rajeswari (Ed.), Signposts: Gender issues in post-independence India (pp. 57–99). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Rao, S. L. (1994). Consumer market demographics in India. New Delhi: NCAER.
Rao, S. L. (2000, September 30). India’s rapidly changing consumer markets. Economic and Political Weekly, 3570–3572.
Rudolph, L., & Rudolph, S. (1987). In pursuit of lakshmi: The political economy of the Indian state. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sen, K., & Stevens, M. (Eds.). (1998). Gender and power in affluent Asia. New York: Routledge Press.
Sheth, D. L. (1999a, August 21–28). Secularisation of caste and making of new middle class. Economic and Political Weekly, 2502–2510.
Sheth, D. L. (1999b). Caste and class: Social reality and political representations. In V. A. Pai Panandiker, & A. Nandy (Eds.), Contemporary India (pp. 337–363). New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill.
Singh, M. (2006, January 25). Retrieved from, http://www.ficci.com/media-room/speeches-presentations/2006/jan/25jan-saudi-manmohan.htm.
Singh, M. (2007, May 24). Retrieved from, http://www.mbauniverse.com/innerPage.php?id=ne&pageId=326
Sinha, A. (2004). The regional roots of developmental politics in India: A divided leviathan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sinha, A. (2005). Understanding the rise and transformation of business collective action in India. Business and Politics, 7(2), 1–35.
Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. New York: Routledge.
Sridharan, E. (1999). Role of the state and the market in the Indian economy. In V. A. Pai Panandiker, & A. Nandy (Eds.), Contemporary India (pp. 107–136). New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill.
Sridharan, E. (2004). The growth and sectoral composition of India’s middle classes: Its impact on the politics of liberalization in India. India Review, 1(4), 405–428.
Thimmaiah, G. (2005, February 19). Implications of reservations in private sector. Economic and Political Weekly , 745–749.
Thorat, S. (2005, February 26). Reservation and efficiency. Economic and Political Weekly , 808–810.
Upadhyay, C. (2004). A new transnational capitalist class: Capital flows, business networks and entrepreneurs in the Indian software industry. Economic and Political Weekly, 39(48), 5141–5151.
Van Wessel, M. (2004, July). Talking about consumption: How an Indian middle class dissociates from middle class life. Cultural Dynamics, 16(1), 93–116.
Varma P. (1998). The great Indian middle class. New Delhi: Viking.
World Bank (n.d.). Retrieved September 2007, from http://www.worldbank.org.in/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/SOUTHASIAEXT/INDIAEXTN/0,,contentMDK:21351747˜pagePK:141137˜piPK:141127˜theSitePK:295584,00.httml.
Yadav, Y., & Deshpande, S. (2006, May 31). Wrong Route, Right Direction. Times of India.
Editors and Affiliations
© 2009 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.
About this chapter
Cite this chapter
Fernandes, L. (2009). The Political Economy of Lifestyle: Consumption, India’s New Middle Class and State-Led Development. In: Meier, L., Lange, H. (eds) The New Middle Classes. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9938-0_12
Publisher Name: Springer, Dordrecht
Print ISBN: 978-1-4020-9937-3
Online ISBN: 978-1-4020-9938-0