The Pulse

India’s Consumer Caste System

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The Pulse

India’s Consumer Caste System

How globalization has shifted India’s social dynamics.

India’s Consumer Caste System
Credit: Flickr/ Kuruman

In New Delhi, the loudly printed Armani t-shirts, revving SUV engines, and energetic socializing inside McDonald’s restaurants are no longer a surprise. After all, since the early 1990s — amid liberalization, a burgeoning middle-class, and a demographic youth bulge — consumerism has well and truly taken off inside Indian metropolises.

But for some, a fervent association with branded goods, amenities, and lifestyles is as much about social mobility as it is about India’s economic development and modernization. “[Delhi is] a place where one’s social significance is assumed to be nil unless there are tangible signs to the contrary,” wrote novelist Rana Dasgupta in his 2009 Granta essay Capital Gains.

In other words, material wealth serves a purpose beyond financial security and prosperity — it’s also a prominent social marker. While that may not be surprising, it does seem that the instrumental value attached to affluence in India is particularly notable. According to the 2013 Ipsos Global Trends Survey, 58 percent of Indians measure success on the basis of what they own — the global average was 34 percent.

Of course materialism is not solely an Indian phenomenon, nor is it a universal sentiment among all Indians. Yet, conspicuous consumption today — and particularly that of Western trademarks — may offer a unique insight into how India’s social dynamics may have evolved, and adapted, as the nation has globalized.

Sanskritization, a term popularized by the Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas in the 1950s, described how lower caste Indians achieved social uplift in a cocooned nation. Srinivas found that untouchables and servants would attempt to mirror the rituals, ideology, and way of life of the upper castes, including the priestly top-ranking Brahmins. That seems fitting, since the caste system was, and is, crudely a social order based on the level of ritual purity.

The aim for lower castes ultimately was to mimic the religiosity of the upper social strata — including their diet, clothing, and customs — in order to stake claims to a higher-ranking social position. Srinivas even noted how India’s British rulers super-imposed themselves upon the system. With the British as the new tip of the pyramid, upper caste Indians began to copy some British customs and habits, such as meat eating and alcohol consumption, which they would have otherwise abstained from as devout Hindus.

And so, through Sankritization, the British effectively “became the filter through which Westernization reached the rest of Hindu society,” wrote Srinivas in the August 1956 Far Eastern Quarterly. But while British rule lasted for almost two centuries until independence in 1947, India’s rapid globalization since has been the true driver behind the Western consumerist dynamics that Dasgupta alludes to in New Delhi today.

Until the 1990s, India was largely an isolated nation. Successive state leaders preferred an inward focus on economy, culture, and security. It was only when Prime Minster Narashimha Rao’s government in 1991 adopted liberalization policies — which deregulated the private sector and lowered trade and investment barriers — that India truly announced itself on the world stage.

That transformation was meteoric. For measure, the stock of foreign direct investment in India rose from just below $1.7 billion in 1991 to $206.4 billion in 2011, according to UNCTAD data. With the new funds — and global business activity, growing Internet access, and international media penetration alongside it — Indian society became increasingly exposed to new brands, cultures, and ideals.

The effects were almost immediate. India’s nouveau riche began to adopt a more cosmopolitan, and Western, tinge to their food, clothing, and lifestyle appetites. Fast-food has become a billion dollar industry, while the number of shopping malls has grown exponentially, from just a handful in the early 2000s to well over 500 today. Bollywood film plots — a bellwether for societal trends — now lead with more liberal and youth-based storylines, ahead of the conservative and family-centric plots of the early 1990s.

Though inequality has amplified and remained pervasive at the same time, overall opportunities to gain some economic foothold have greatly expanded through more prosperous outlets for entrepreneurial endeavors, the global outsourcing industry, and international trade. And, in effect, the “middle class” has stretched to include street food vendors, carpenters, and rickshaw drivers.

So, while caste identity is still relevant, class mobility is now increasingly salient in India. “[O]ne of the existential realities of being a middle class Indian is an inescapable desire to escape the rest of India,” wrote political scientist Sankaran Krishna, in a June 2006 Middle Class Economic and Political Weekly article. With a “bourgeois” population at over 250 million, that drive is likely to be particularly strong.

The relative improvement in economic mobility that arrived with India’s connection into the global capitalist model may have also gone hand-in-hand with the declining importance of religiosity as a social symbol. It’s likely been displaced by a more secular value-system, which creates social uplift through material accumulation — as the Marxist critique of capitalism goes.

It means Srinivas’ unique findings may still have parallels today, only in a different context. With differentiation increasingly along economic dimensions, and given India’s open borders, the new top ranking “caste” to emulate might just be the Western liberal elite — or more generally, the developed world. And so, the visibility of one’s purchasing potential becomes a more important status indicator than one’s piousness.

“Brands hold within them the impressive infinity of the new global market,” writes Dasgupta in Capital Gains. “They hold out the promise of dignity and distinction in a harsh city that constantly tries to withhold these things.” Meanwhile, the intense desire to achieve social uplift means traditional Indian brands and customs are increasingly considered outmoded.

This does not mean the increasingly common Western dress sense on Delhi’s streets; the widespread fries, pizza, and burger diet; and the displacement of Indian soaps with increasingly popular Western TV shows, are entirely instrumental. These changes may just be more convenient, or simply, preferred.

And certainly, marketing and Western consumer vogues have a strong critical mass for take off given India’s roughly 350 million 10-to-24 year-olds — the world’s largest youth population. But there are some indicators that suggest the consumption patterns also have a strong element of conspicuousness.

2011 Harris Interactive Poll showed that an indicative 74 percent of Indians were brand-conscious, compared with 26 percent in the United States. For Dasgupta, a notable proportion of this is likely to be driven by the status symbolism of brands. Meanwhile, some have gone further, linking the proliferation of skin-whitening creams — which are particularly popular in India — to the caste, colonial, and global narratives of fairer skin at the top of society.

Altogether, the forces driving secularization are energizing India’s more conservative voices, who have found a greater platform under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has strong links to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh group. And while most right-wing rhetoric has focused on isolating the nation’s Muslims and lower castes, some leaders have also criticized “Western” culture. For example, BJP politician and Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma vowed in 2015 to “cleanse” Indian culture of its Western “cultural pollution.”

As novelist Pankaj Mishra alludes to in his 2017 book Age of Anger, the globalization of the ideals of liberty, equality, and prosperity, while a boon to overall human progress, has fomented societal angst. Now, 70 years after independence, India faces its own multilayered spiritual crisis.

Through the forces of Srinivas’ model of emulation and elevation, traditionalists are clashing with liberals at a national level, while on Delhi’s streets citizens are seemingly locked into a never-ending pursuit of manufactured social kudos, where the drive for prosperity is proving unharmonious with the dual desire for equality.

“The society that has emerged in post-liberalization India” writes Dasgupta, “… is one consumed both by euphoria and dread.”

Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist. He received his master’s degree from Yale University with a focus on political economy, development, and conflict. He runs the policy discourse website The Global Prism and tweets @tejparikh90.