City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of India, Bharat & HyperBharat

There was a time when it was very easy to tell a person’s background, both economic and social from one’s external appearance. The educated elite could be told apart from those from the business who in turn were very differently turned out than their counterparts in smaller towns and as for those from rural India, well, they could be identified with obvious ease. Increasingly, it is not quite that simple anymore. The visible cultural divide between different classes seems to have narrowed, and it is increasingly difficult to tell where one come from on the basis of appearance alone.

This could easily be read as a sign of the expanding middle class, and in some ways it is exactly that. In purely economic terms, the Indian middle class is opening its doors to an ever increasing number of people. And yet, this seeming similarity hides a fundamental and deeply significant difference. This new breed of consumption-enabled Indians represents a new mindset- one that is miles away from the middle class that has dominated our consciousness for so long.

The middle class has historically spoken for all of India. As a category, it is more a cultural formulation than an economic one, and one with which a large part of the India that is seen and heard identifies itself. It represents a certain worldview which tries and balances the conflicting needs of growth with continuity, individual self-expression with collective order, and the quest for uniqueness with the need for restraint. Its size has become an index of India’s attractiveness as a market and serves as a sign of its potential in the future as an economic superpower. At a cultural level, the middle class has been the sole arbiter of values we see as being Indian, as it implicitly determines what is legitimate and what is not.

It was perhaps Sharad Joshi of the Shetkari Sangathana, who first suggested that the Indian economy was split into two- India, being the more westernised, enabled part and Bharat, which still lived without access to the most basic means of getting ahead in life. This economic divide has deepened into a cultural one, with India pulling away from its counterpart as it has plugged into the larger world of consumption and economic progress. Enabled by a media that increasingly focuses on its own consumers, India has become an assertive force, arrogating to itself the right to speak for the entire country, while being narrowly focused on its interests. At one level, as many have argued, the India/Bharat divide has deepened, with affluence making the better off part of the country becoming blind to the other India, but perhaps the full reality is a little more complex.

With greater access to affluence, the new class that is emerging is neither India, nor Bharat. More tellingly, it is not a part of Bharat that wants to belong to India, it is instead a Bharat that strives to be a brighter shinier and altogether more muscular version of itself. What we are seeing is the emergence of HyperBharat, a new social class, with its own priorities , value systems and consumption codes. In terms of mindset, this class has no desire to mimic the values of the erstwhile middle class and shares few of its apprehensions about consumption. The great need of the middle class is to balance the past and future, something that does not concern HyperBharat at all.

For this new class, consumption is a legitimate vehicle of hope, a new language to express their own mobility in. Unlike the middle class, which is shackled both by the weight of the past and the burden of future expectations, HyperBharat does not valorise the past or fear the future and sees all gain as a bonus that it gleefully embraces. It shows great openness to change and understands the power of appearances. It feels no compulsion to try and align its external appearance with its internal reality and does not think of material progress as a way of changing one’s fundamental way of life. It is open to change without feeling compelled to embrace it and feels little sense of shame about itself.

The middle class was India’s solution to the staggering social diversity that it had to deal with. It cut across caste lines to a certain extent, and created a buffer zone where we could suspend regional differences. It homogenised the visible part of India into a single category with a common set of goals, priorities and anxieties. It contained our impulses and channelized our energies and gave us a mirror in which to watch ourselves critically. It earned the right in its own eyes to represent a notion of Indian-ness, and made that the benchmark for other classes. The rise of HyperBharat challenges with unipolar notion of progress in India, one which assumed that all affluence would be funnelled through the middle class.

The rise of HyperBharat comes on the back of the slow conversion of political power into economic clout by those groups that were left out of the economic and cultural mainstream of society. The process of slow accretion of electoral significance in the post-Mandal era is translating into an increased ability to consume in a more discretionary manner. As affluence deepens in India, a lot of assumptions about what constitutes the Indian way of life will need to be dismantled and reconfigured. It is early days yet, but the hegemony of the middle class is likely to be an artefact of the past.