Who are the common masses?

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Published: Monday, 02nd May 2016

Political and economic institutions in a healthy democracy are expected to function centred on the interests of common man/people/masses/aam aadmi. Both Mahatma and Swami Vivekananda undertook a long journey to find out the problems of common people in India before embarking upon their own missions and strategized their respective political and religious interventions based on their own understanding of people. Nani Palkiwala wrote in 1971 that our Constitution is primarily shaped and moulded for the common man. When we start writing about or for the common masses in present day context, a pertinent question arises: who are these common masses?

Both Mahatma and Swami Vivekananda undertook a long journey to find out the problems of common people in India before embarking upon their own missions and strategized their respective political and religious interventions based on their own understanding of people.

Krishna Pokharel, a journalist last February explored this question in the pre-budget context found varied views including from different politicians: (i) one who is not connected to the system; (ii) people below the poverty line; (iii) peasants, agricultural labourers and middle class: (iv) mainly those in the unorganised sector and marginalised sections of society; and (v) excepting VIPs and the very rich.

We are well aware that the Common Man as a cartoon character created by Indian author and cartoonist R. K. Laxman  for over a half of a century, represented the hopes, aspirations, troubles and perhaps even weaknesses  of the average Indian, through a daily cartoon, "You Said It". The comic was started in 1951 almost starting from the period when India became a republic. In which category can we put this common man? Always silent and bewildered, he looked like a helpless witness to whatever were happening in society –be it in social, economic or political spheres – but, keenly observing and listening to the simple irony and many a time the hypocrisy of privileged and those in power.

Can we derive some common ground from all these? Better first, to look at some history behind the term.

Traditionally it originated as a social division

According to Wikipedia, which is in a sense a common man’s encyclopaedia since everyone can contribute or edit it, the terms common people, common man, commoners, or the masses in the west denoted a broad social division referring to ordinary people who were members of neither the nobility nor the priesthood. With the growth of Christianity in the 4th century AD, a new world view arose that underpinned this thinking on social division until at least early modern times. The three leading divisions were considered to be the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. This found expression as "those who prayed", "those who fought" and "those who worked". Comparative historian Oswald Spengler found the social separation into nobility, priests and commoners to occur again and again in the various civilisations that he surveyed.

This threefold division was formalised in the estate system of social stratification during the medieval period, where again commoners were the bulk of the population who were neither members of the nobility nor of the clergy. They formed the third estate consisting of peasants and artisans. The rise of the bourgeoisie during the late middle ages had seen an intermediate class of wealthy commoners develop, which ultimately gave rise to the modern middle classes. While middle-class people could still be called commoners, the interests of the middle class were not always aligned with their fellow commoners of the working class. Further, after the French revolution, the division into three estates lost its relevance.

The term "common people" in the modern age assumed in general sense to refer to regular people as opposed to the privileged elite. In the western world it was thus only since the 20th century, the term common people had been used in a more general sense to refer to typical members of society in contrast to highly privileged, in either wealth or influence.

Strangely, we find the similar expression of Hindu tradition of division of classes which is even much older in time and even today found in the form of communities and castes though the underlying base for such divisions has run out of time due to socio-economic change after independence. In this classification, rulers and priests may be considered as more privileged than traders and workers and the latter group can be equated with commoners in the western tradition of middle ages.

In the modern age

The term "common people" in the modern age assumed in general sense to refer to regular people as opposed to the privileged elite. In the western world it was thus only since the 20th century, the term common people had been used in a more general sense to refer to typical members of society in contrast to highly privileged, in either wealth or influence. The solution to identification by exclusion would seem to be simpler.  In the present day India, as per this reasoning, then we may have to find answer by looking at stratification based upon who are highly privileged? By wealth it will denote relatively well-off higher income groups—may be from upper middle class onwards. By influence, it may denote relatively more educated, elected public representatives or in general politicians, and the officialdom. The traditional social hierarchy if relevant acts through the above stratification and perhaps lost its relevance as purely an independent force.

What distinguishes common man?

As a collective noun, he is by above definition is underprivileged. Mostly silent and his voice is yet to be heard prominently except when he votes. He is impoverished and undernourished and hence not physically healthy. He is only partly literate and his conditions in rural areas are much worse than in urban centres. His overall condition also depends upon where he is located geographically as some regions are more prosperous than others.

Above all, while public policies are aimed at improving his lot, he may not be benefited to the full extent and at times he may become a victim to such policies if he is asked to migrate and forced to take unfamiliar occupations. In short, he is a policy-taker and not a policy-maker. Therefore, he may definitely be interested in knowing how effective are public policies particularly oriented towards him and how he is policy-affected.

(K. Kanagasabapathy is an independent economic consultant based in Mumbai. The views are his own)