2014: The great middle bulge is back to business
The upper middle classes and corporate India are clamouring to get the Indian state out of their way. With Modi’s ascent to power, they might just succeed
Harish Khare Delhi
If we are permitted the luxury of an old journalistic cliché, then let us proclaim that Two Thousand Fourteen is poised to become a turning point. Almost like 1991, when we were forced to revise some of our basic assumptions and arrangements. As a confused and bewildered India approaches 2014, it is becoming glaringly obvious that the mismatch between politics, on the one hand, and the society and economy, on the other, is as pronounced as it was in 1991. And, this mismatch cannot be left un-straightened any longer. An unexpected and perhaps unpalatable denouement awaits in the political arena.
Saturated though we are with our own prejudices and fears, it will still be helpful to keep in mind a few ‘fundamentals’. Let us remind ourselves that the primary task of ‘politics’ is to enable the State to satisfy and promote its best interests as also to help the society cope with its anxieties and aspirations. A new political model has become imperative as the UPA experiment has run its course. It was inevitable that the UPA should have facilitated its own nemesis. The UPA arrangement has spawned political and behavioural incongruities, which are now adding up to only institutional delinquencies and policy deformities.
For better or worse, over the last decade, the United Progressive Alliance put in place policies and practices that were meant to ameliorate the damage the National Democratic Alliance had inflicted on the nation’s institutions and social health. During its six years in office, the NDA thrived on creating anxieties and fears; it was this cultivated itch to trade in provocations and pretensions that explains the failure of the Vajpayee government to send the Narendra Modi regime packing after the horrible Gujarat riots in 2002; it was this failure that rendered the NDA regime inherently at odds with the Indian State. At the first opportunity, voters sorted out the anomaly. Now, after 10 years of its rule, the UPA has created its own set of social anxieties and economic uncertainties. Unless it is able to convince the nation that it still has the will or even the desire to undertake any kind of course correction, the voters are bound to punish the Congress in 2014.
The primary task of “politics” in 2014 will be to navigate through these economic dislocations and social turbulences in order to produce a new working and efficacious governmental arrangement. But because of its actions (and inactions) the UPA has incurred a political cost. The name of the game in 2014 is for its rivals to extract this cost from the UPA and for the Congress to minimize the indemnity.
The signs of economic turbulence have been all too evident in the last few years; however, this time the most vocal and most assertively selfish voice belongs to the upper middle classes who are unforgiving in their denunciation of the UPA regime and its social democratic programmes. It is this class that has provided the cadres, funds and energy for the anti-corruption movements of assorted varieties. And, it is this class, the original Manmohan Singh constituency, that has now turned its back firmly on the Congress-led UPA.
The primary task of ‘politics’ is to enable the State to satisfy and promote its best interests as also to help the society cope with its anxieties and aspirations
At the same time, the middle classes are also troubled by the unrestrained street power. Centuries ago, the great political philosopher, Cicero, had warned of “the mad and irresponsible caprice of the mob”. After two years of being high on civil society activism, the middle classes are beginning to be a bit apprehensive of too much anarchy in the streets. Hence, the temptation to put some of their eggs in a purported strongman’s basket.
The middle classes were instigated in their rebellion by another very powerful force: Corporate India. Various industrial houses and their owners had, for different reasons, found themselves frustrated in their expectation that the UPA-II would be only too happy to give them all the policy breaks they wanted; but that was not to be, and the corporate leaders found themselves exasperated by the so-called ‘policy paralysis’. Towards the end of the UPA-II innings, this exasperation turned almost into a nightmare when the ‘law’ began closing in on business tycoons. Corporate India is now in search of a new mascot who will assure them protection and profits.
More than the economic slowdown and its discontents, the citizen finds himself totally baffled by the meltdown in society. As communications explode and information travels at hitherto unimaginable speeds, all social institutions have been found wanting in making sense of change and chaos. Indeed, all the valued and comforting social relationships—between the guru and devotee, editor and reader, or between the judge and the petitioner in the hallowed judicial portals—are seen to be crumbling. A cumulative failure of individuals and institutions has induced conditions of social breakdown. None of the iconic ‘social’ leaders are able to provide any assurance to this deeply troubled land in this time of transition. While the citizens are instinctively prone to blame the ‘politician’ for this breakdown, they also look to the political elites to rescue them and restore some normative order.
It is in this context of troublesome disquiet that the country will find itself embroiled in the 2014 Lok Sabha contest. It is not just the troubles at home, but also the demanding regional and global diktats that will impinge on the choices the voters make. Will 2014 produce a governing arrangement commensurate with the Indian State’s abiding interests? Can the UPA re-invent itself to convince the voters that it still has the imagination and the integrity to steer the nation to safety and security? Can the Congress and other ‘regional’ forces re-negotiate a new power-sharing arrangement that is democratically feasible and morally sustainable? Or, is the BJP’s arrival at the seat of power in New Delhi a foregone conclusion?
Objectively, the onus is on the BJP to try and harvest the national mood of disenchantment. Being the only other ‘national’ party to have ‘successfully’ operated the Indian state, it was expected of the BJP to have used the 10 years in opposition to produce a valid and coherent critique of the UPA and its policies. Instead, the BJP allowed itself to be bewitched by a determined and monolithic Narendra Modi. To his credit, it must be acknowledged that the Gujarat chief minister did script a remarkable essay in political marketing. It is now slowly emerging that the Modi Prime Ministerial Project has been in the making for quite a while, and he used some very innovative marketing techniques to, first, bamboozle the BJP and its confused ‘national’ leadership, and then manipulate and mesmerize the elite ‘national’ media.
There is a fly in the ointment, though. While Modi was engaged in a hostile takeover of the BJP, he goaded the party into making a strategic miscalculation: under aggressive quarterbacking from the Gujarat chief minister, the party’s parliamentary wing came to believe that it could make the going so tough for the UPA in Parliament that the Manmohan Singh government would be forced to call the polls in November/December 2013, concurrent with the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram. The BJP’s disruptive tactics did stall the UPA-II, while reinforcing the impression of a government totally at sea; but the leaders in the Opposition ended up underestimating the Congress’ bench strength and match temperament. Now the BJP is saddled with an over-exposed, over-scrutinized, over-analyzed and over-sold prime ministerial mascot.
The premature showing of the Modi hand, in turn, has already instigated a regional re-think. The Modi Catechism, with its pronounced sub-text of a cultivated personality cult, will encounter opposition from the other entrenched leadership models—a Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, a Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, a Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, a Nitish Kumar in Bihar, or Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. These regional models are not just predicated on this or that leader; rather, these are anchored in a vibrant and vigorous contention over the nature and direction of political development and how power (over allocation of values and resources) will
Modi has designed his prime ministerial project around an implied dilution, if not outright rejection, of two cherished republican values—secularism and equity—that he has chosen to damn the Congress. There is a flaw in the Modi sales pitch. The battle over these two fundamental values is not just Congress’ exclusive domain; indeed, the 2014 Lok Sabha face-off should see a re-alignment of forces in defence of these values. For Modi and a very sizeable segment of the articulate narrative-wallahs, secularism and equity are merely slogans, mouthed insincerely by the cynical politician. The politician’s duplicity notwithstanding, India witnesses painful and often bloody battles over these two values in every mohalla, basti and town. That is what makes all political skirmishes local, impervious to over-simplification by the national media.
In his implicit rejection of secularism and equity as the key elements of national cohesion, Modi has enlisted the support of two powerful forces — corporate and middle classes. In the past few years, sections of corporate India have bankrolled the ‘anti-corruption’ movements; some of these sections want the Indian State to just get out of their way ( a la the so-called Gujarat model) while other sections are determined to settle a few scores with their own rivals who were smarter at playing
This determination of the business leaders to intervene and steer the electoral process towards Modi is bound to invite a response, opening up the possibility of a re-alignment of centrist and progressive elements.
The unpredictable variable is the untested but much vaunted capacity of the middle classes to work up a pan-Indian political ‘hawa’ in favour of Modi. In 1998, the nascent middle classes had thrown their weight behind Atal Behari Vajpayee, lending the then BJP mascot just the respectability he needed to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with ‘regional’ forces. Once again, the middle classes are at it; they are not just angry, but bitter over losing some of the recently-gained economic prosperity. They are on a collective high, deeply self-satisfied in their disdain for the ‘politician’, feeling empowered in this global age of the Arab Spring. These classes are determined to take charge of the Indian State and they seem to have concluded that Modi is the man who would help them stage this democratic coup. The middle classes have the conceit to believe that their resources and prejudices can help make up for the absence of the BJP’s organizational spread. This is not the first time the New Delhi-based elites will be presuming to speak up for this vast country.
If Modi has ushered the BJP into a post-Vajpayee age, Rahul Gandhi has now silently effected a regime change in the Congress. The Nehru-Gandhi family scion personifies all the weakness and drawbacks of a dynasty without being able to tap into any of its advantages. However, for whatever it is worth, he seems to have understood that under his mother’s stewardship, the party has acquired an organizational rhythm that is sadly out of tune with the changed India. Presumably, the young man’s attempts to introduce changes are making the old guard and the old beneficiaries nervous. Unwittingly, he has also locked himself in the old Congress rhetoric of social democratic/state welfare entitlement. In a society pockmarked with glaring inequalities, this ‘inclusive’ mantra will gain traction, provided the Congress leadership is able to renew its credentials as the party of the
It is in the nature of the modern media to reduce politics to a clash of personalities. Modi seems to have borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the American political communication strategies. Modi has the advantage of surprise; a gullible electorate has obliged him and his communication advisers by making 2014 into a Modi versus Rahul contest. The Congress has not fallen into the trap, yet.
2014 is set to witness a subdued, but a definite class war — with corporate India, the upper middle classes and Modi on one side and the centrist, secular and progressive voices and parties on the other. The outcome will define India for decades to come.