The category “middle class” can refer to quite different social entities. In the United States, it is often used as a synonym for “ordinary folk.” In the United Kingdom it references an elite with economic and social privileges. In India, “the middle class” acquired its own valence through a history that encompasses colonialism, nationalism, and desire for upward social mobility. At one level the Indian middle class was evidently derivative. Indians who wished to emulate the achievements and standing of the British middle class adopted the category, “middle class” as a self-descriptor. Yet the Indian middle class was hardly a modular replica of a metropolitan “original.” The context of colonialism, indigenous hierarchies, and various local histories shaped the nature of the Indian middle class as much as any colonial model. Composed of people—often salaried professionals—who were reasonably well off but not among India’s richest, being middle class in colonial India was less a direct product of social and economic standing and more the result of endeavors of cultural and political entrepreneurship. These efforts gave the middle class its shape and its aspirations to cultural and political hegemony. The same history, in turn, shaped a variety of discourses about the nature of society, politics, culture, and morality in both colonial and post-independent India. Contradictions were inherent in the constitution of the middle class in colonial India, and continue to be apparent today. These contradictions become even more evident as newer, formerly subaltern social groups, seek to participate in a world created through middle class imaginations of society, culture, politics and economics.
Since the seminal publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000), there has been a continuing upsurge of writings on the possible reasons behind the rise of the West from a “global perspective.” Most of these studies focus on comparisons between Western Europe and China. Yet, in recent years works on India and the great divergence have followed suit, taking up research questions that have not been as prominent since the proliferation of debates on the subcontinent’s pre-colonial potentialities for capitalist development in the 1960s and 1970s. As of now, the paucity of quantitative data complicates endeavors to compare pre-colonial India with Europe and explore the underlying reasons behind the great divergence. Case studies examining the socio-economic history of a number of South Asian regions are still needed in order to conduct systematic comparisons between “core areas” of the subcontinent and those of Western Europe. The existing evidence, however, suggests that some of the advanced regions of 16th- to 18th-century India had more or less comparable levels of agricultural productivity, transport capacities (during the dry season), military capabilities in terms of ground forces (e.g., Mysore and the Marathas), commercial and manufacturing capacities (especially in textile, ship, and metal production), and social mobility of merchants (e.g., in Gujarat). Moreover, Indian rulers and artisans did not shy away from adopting European know-how (e.g., in weapon and ship production) when it redounded to their advantage. On the other hand, South Asia possessed some geo-climatic disadvantages vis-à-vis Western Europe that also impeded investments in infrastructure. India had a lower degree of consumer demand and lagged behind Western Europe in a number of fields such as mechanical engineering, the level of productive forces, higher education, circulation of useful knowledge, institutional efficiency, upper-class property rights, the nascent bourgeois class consciousness, and inter-communal and proto-national identity formations.