The Indian middle-class was having a moment, a rather extended one at that. Then, the pandemic stuck. Initially there was resistance - our un-hygiene will keep us healthy, its members proclaimed. Little did science know this was only the beginning.
In the last 7 years, India’s middle class has often reminded me of the IPL cheer leaders - always dressed up for showtime, and there has always been an act. Shakespeare would have been left wondering if he got it all wrong.
It watched as its leaders campaigned without a mask - on their face or otherwise as they lulled voters in. But all was well. It wasn’t them and they weren’t there.
Like the front bencher in class always looking to please the teacher, the middle class often in the last few years worried about failing its politicians.
As Mark Twain once said, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” So, pictures of millions taking a dip at the Kumbh made them switch the channel instantly, what you can’t see, can’t hurt you.
Then the pandemic struck
But then it came for them. Suddenly, they began to lose parents, wives, friends and even children. Middle-class India was on the roads, standing in long queues for oxygen cylinders and hospital admissions.
All is well, tweeted the health minister- he thought he had this, headline management and social media distraction were schemes launched right at the beginning. But when the minister looked around, he was alone on a sinking ship.
In hospitals only healthcare worked, for saving lives only infrastructure mattered. The chests began to shrink, polarisation, the faithful learnt did not buy drugs or get them vaccinated. Nor did statues and ambitious new buildings.
Their savings dwindled and just like that so did the middle class. Pew Research report says 32 million people in the country crossed a line and plunged into poverty. This was last year, by most accounts expect much higher numbers in the second wave, but data has never been our strong point.
Press the rewind button
Circa 2014, Madison Square Garden, New York. 20,000 jubilant Indian NRIs listened to the Prime Minister as he asked them to invest in cleaning-up the Ganga.
Those who haven’t seen the river in decades thumped their fists in joy, this was the home of their forefathers never mind that it wasn’t for them. Today, bodies are floating in the same Ganga.
5 years later, there was ‘Howdy Houston’- a slogan a day kept uncomfortable questions at bay while engagements continued with his bands of loyalists- the diaspora abroad especially in the US.
The middle-class back home was complimentary- it was a buy one, get one free scheme, both enablers of where we stand today.
Indians though were still running Silicon Valley and their children still acing Spelling Bee, but back home it was no longer the land of Buddha. We finally learnt to stand up but unfortunately in the words of Virat Kohli, in this “representation of the new India,”
A war of words
There was nothing healthy in a debate, every logical reasoning had an equal and opposite reaction. The Congress was ‘corrupt’ and the unbearable price hike during its rule once made even Amitabh Bachchan’s middle class speak up. These days with fuel at Rs100/litre he wants to only tell us kaun banega crorepati.
We were also constantly reminded of emergency, but we needed no reminder. The rest was on Nehru.
Politics has no friends and in the last 7 years it made sure we also lost some of ours. When the pandemic hit, a society that was already socially distanced, was asked to keep its distance.
Until death came at our doorsteps
The elections are far away, and the middle class can be unpredictable, but grief is not like an election manifesto, it can’t be forgotten easily.
Uttar Pradesh polls next year are crucial and perhaps Covid would have taught the government not to call out victory in advance. Or maybe it hasn’t.
Despite the rumblings Chief Minister Adityanath keeps his place - for now. The Congress helps, barely allowing its tallest leader Amarinder Singh to rule in Punjab.
Before the second wave hit it was all about where the government stands. Today, it also matters where we the people stand. Could the one-sided love affair finally be over? The 7-year itch some say is not just a phrase.