For as far back as records go, conversations in India about class divisions have traditionally been about caste divisions. The upper class fell to the upper caste, who negotiated better opportunities for themselves – be that in education, asset mobilisation or social mobility.

They spoke fluent English, quoted Shakespeare and Byron – confusing themselves with their colonisers – got into top educational institutions in India and abroad, and secured cushy jobs. They infested the vast bureaucracy that ran the country, landed the top positions in media, and cornered plum roles in politics. They lived in the toniest neighbourhoods in Indian cities and had first right to everything, from electricity to telephony.

And it was generally assumed that if you enjoyed social mobility, you must be an upper-caste Indian. But caste started loosening its grip, ever so gently, when the economy expanded in the 1990s: villagers started migrating to the cities; cities developed urban slums; India opened to overseas investments; jobs grew; the economy expanded. In India’s call centres and data centres, opportunities created mobility, caste notwithstanding. It was a slow and steady crawl.

The arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, fast forwarded the discourse from caste-based opportunism to a purely ambition-based one. Modi is his own mascot.

His rise, ostensibly from a poor boy selling “chai” on a railway platform to the leader of the world’s largest democracy, is the story with which he mesmerises audiences. And this tale has travelled so well that after two terms in office he is nearly assured a third as India elects a new government in June.

Modi, arguably from a backward caste, has jetted around the world hugging other leaders and selling the story of India, usually in Hindi, rarely in English. He has papered over the warts of his country and put on such a grand show that even the most hardened naysayers have taken notice. As have India’s masses. An unexpected fallout of his strident rise is that it has obviated the excessive burden of caste from the imagination of many citizens. In this playbook, caste is not in the way of social mobility.

In a country of 1.4bn people, income inequality is at a historic high

A change in attitudes is palpable not just in Indian cities big and small, but in the hinterlands too, where the bulk of the population resides. Aspiration is taking root, one poster child at a time. With unprecedented access to online content, scores of Indians wake up to success stories so over-the-top that it hardwires aspirations and, understandably, deepens the desperation to succeed: if they can, we can too.

Earlier this year, India’s wealthiest family, the Ambanis, hosted a pre-wedding bash that saw the likes of Bill Gates, Ivanka Trump and Mark Zuckerberg descend into an oil-refinery town with only a military airport. Zuckerberg and his wife, one of the world’s richest couples, looked decidedly underdressed and unprepared for the show put on by a new breed of royalty.

The groom’s sister wore a blouse casually embellished with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. Rihanna performed barefoot for some 1,200 guests. Bollywood actors sprinkled themselves among guests like celebrity confetti. It was all so dazzling that India’s wealth inequality seemed entirely forgotten for a while.

Indians voyeuristically followed this show of money-on-steroids through social media, newspapers and the telly. Yet a hazy lifetime ago the founder of the group, the late Dhirubhai Ambani, had been forced to raise his young family in a low-rent Mumbai tenement called a chawl.

In Bollywood and cricket, which holds unparalleled sway for India’s masses, drive, determination and daring have superseded caste and upper-class connections in the equation of success. India’s biggest superstar, Sharukh Khan, came from a middle-class family that fell on hard times when he was growing up, but he eventually joined the lifestyle of the world’s one per cent.
In cricket, sporting hero Yashasvi Jaiswal sold street-food in Mumbai and slept in tents so he could train for cricket. His estimated worth is $2m and he has only just started his career. Hardik Pandya, the vice-captain of the Indian cricket team, was born into a middle-class family that fell into financial ruin, but now collects luxury cars and reportedly owns a private jet.

Then there are the social media influencers riding an express elevator to the upper storey. One 25-year-old recently bought a house belonging to Bollywood star Akshay Kumar in Mumbai, where real estate prices are among the highest in the world. And Dhruv Rathee, a 28-year-old YouTuber listed on TIME Magazine’s Next Generation Leaders, was raised in a small-town in northern India, but uses the democratising power of the internet to create influential political videos that amass up to 20m views.

These high-decibel wins have inspired a determined social shift lower down the scale. Scores of struggling Indians who’d been waiting forever for the state to fix schools and hospitals and provide government jobs, have realised they’re better served by the digital revolution and their own determination to create more opportunities for themselves. Home makers have turned home bakers, handmade goods are bought and sold on digital platforms, and farmers are joining collectives to sell directly to customers be they big retailers or individual buyers, eliminating middlemen.

Women in India’s villages are mobilising themselves into self-help groups, running micro enterprises from tailoring units to pickle-making, and trying to crawl out of generational poverty. They are also sending their children to school, encouraging them to go on to further education and eventual employment.

But not everyone is finding jobs. And while unemployment and inflation remain serious challenges, people are trying hard to create more opportunities for themselves.

The poster children of success wield disproportionate influence and money, which helps them create more of the same

A rapid expansion in both the digital payment systems and physical infrastructure is lending a helping hand. Villagers in India are accepting payments for a plate of pakoras by shoving a printed QR code under their customer’s phones, and retailers in big cities are doing the same for those buying MacBooks. By shifting and simplifying transactions to the buttons on a phone India has leapfrogged, providing functional banking to the unbanked.

In India’s cities, workers trapped at the bottom of the pyramid, from house help to gardeners, are sending their children to private schools they can barely afford, so they can learn a smattering of English and perhaps get a foot on the social ladder. Vast swathes of Indians speak a mix of English and their local language, spawning new languages like Hinglish – a mix of Hindi and English. YouTube helps. The internet has brought the world to their phones delivering an inside view of how the rest get on.
While affluent parents encourage their children to discover their genius, the less well-off goad theirs to simply find work. The unemployed are attempting self-employment – some as delivery boys for always-on services, others by setting up teashops or turning into small vendors. The will to succeed is gradually overcoming the traditional, overwhelming resignation to fate, which was often tied in with caste.

Beyond these transformational stories, however, there is an undeniable hard truth about India. The poster children of success wield disproportionate influence and money, which helps them create more of the same. In a country of 1.4bn people, income inequality is at a historic high according to The World Inequality Lab. The Hurun Rich List estimates that India’s billionaires, some 271 of them, collectively possess $1 trillion in wealth.

For most Indians, as automation threatens to take away even the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs that are currently their lot, the only hope of salvation is in doing it for themselves. Entrepreneurial flair, combined with high aspiration, is the most promising ticket to social mobility. It’s time for the citizens of India to remake the rules, and thereby themselves.

Anjana Menon is a former editorial leader, and an author and commentator. She advises leadership on stakeholder listening, communication and policy strategy. @menonanj

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June / July 2024, Main Features, Special Report

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