Modi of the middle class

He appeals to an urban class with eroding caste identities, increasing religiosity.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Updated: March 24, 2014 9:55 am

He appeals to an urban class with eroding caste identities, increasing religiosity.

The negative reasons why the middle class “votes for Modi” are most obvious. There is a total rejection of the UPA regime, because of corruption and dynastic politics. There is also a fatigue with the government’s style of leadership and distrust vis-à-vis its policies. In spite of the fact that the middle class has benefited from Manmohanomics more than any other social group, it resents his inability to make growth sustainable (growth has declined in all emerging countries, including China, but that’s no reason for not blaming the government) and to counter the erosion of the rupee, which makes life so much more complicated abroad.

The “positive” reasons are more interesting. First, a section of the middle class perceives Narendra Modi as a super-CEO. One of his biographers, Nirendra Dev, points out that he “functions like a modern day CEO laying emphasis on the outcome and often allegedly putting the rules and normal norms in the backburner” (Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth, 2012).

This image relies on a whole set of beliefs: he is less a politician than a manager (an assumption harking back to his past career as an organisation man, a pracharak) and he is for the liberalisation of the economy (didn’t he claim that he would transform Gujarat into “the SEZ of India” as early as 2007?). This last quality has affinities with the middle class’s trust in the private sector to modernise the economy. The upper layer of this class already lives in new towns where education, health, security, water, electricity etc are privatised.

If the middle class wants a super-CEO at the helm of India, it is also because it does not valorise parliamentary democracy as much as before, compared to a more managerial decision-making process. In 2008, the CSDS survey on the State of Democracy in South Asia showed that in India, 51 per cent of the respondents from the “elite” “strongly agreed” and 29 per cent “agreed” with the proposition: “All major decisions about the country should be taken by experts rather than politicians”. Among interviewees from the “mass”, 29 per cent “strongly agreed” and 22 per cent “agreed”, probably because they were not prepared to undermine one of their main assets: numbers.

Five years later, the popularity of democracy among the middle class has probably eroded further. The aggregated data that the CSDS has just made public show that, as a whole, satisfaction with the working of democracy has declined from 55 per cent to 46 per cent, a clear reflection of the impact of corruption and the criminalisation of politics, which affect almost equally all the political forces that have governed a state for some time.

There is also a caste element in the middle class’s affinities with Modi. He is perceived to be opposed to reservations, a preoccupation among the merit-oriented middle class ever since the Mandal moment. Reluctance towards reservations is common in the BJP, but it is naturally more remarkable in the case of Modi, given his OBC background.

For the upper caste middle class, he demonstrates that OBCs can succeed in life without positive discrimination and can even reject this policy as counterproductive. This assimilation of Modi into anti-reservationism has something to do with the fact that he comes from the state where the first massive anti-quota movement took place in the 1980s, while he was at the helm of the RSS in the state as prant pracharak — before becoming organising secretary of the state BJP in 1987.

Last but not least, the political culture of the Hindu middle class is more and more imbued with ethno-religious connotations. This development has resulted from the need to compensate with some religiosity an increasingly pervasive form of materialism that has crept in after years of high growth rate. But it also reflects the influence of years of Hindutva politics and the fear of Islamism, especially after the terrorist attacks of the last decade.

Modi, who, before becoming an RSS full-timer, is said to have been a “world renouncer” for some time in the Himalayas and who has always been closely associated with religious movements like the Swaminarayan sect, embodies the “Hindu hriday samrat” who can protect India from Pakistan and the majority community from “the fifth columnists”, as is evident from the 2002 killings.

But Modi’s appeal for the middle class is not sufficient to win the general elections. The BJP has learnt this lesson from its defeat of 2004, when it got the vote of the “shining Indians” (in 2009, the rich voted for the Congress more than for the BJP). Modi is able to rally around the party what he calls a “neo-middle class”, which is made up of newcomers to the urban economy. In Gujarat, OBCs are voting for the BJP in semi-urban and urban contexts while those who live in villages support the Congress.

These urban OBCs are former peasants who have migrated to the city or who have been incorporated in the rapid process of urbanisation that Gujarat has been undergoing. In this process, their caste identity has been eroded. Their joining the neo-middle class is related to their work in a factory, a sweatshop in the informal sector, as a chaiwala (à la Slumdog Millionaire) or as a driver (like the key character in Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger). They may not earn much since the wages of the labourers are very low in Gujarat, but at least they have jobs (since the unemployment rate — perhaps correlatively — is also very low), and they have hopes of a brighter future. The “neo-middle class” is an aspiring category.

This group is imbued with forms of intense Hindu religiosity. This is true not just of Gujarat. Everywhere in India, plebeians who experience some upward social mobility, especially when they come from “a low-caste background, adhere more strongly to the ritualistic forms of Hindu practice” (Middle-Class Moralities: Everyday Struggle over Belonging and Prestige in India, M. Saavala, 2010). Saavala attributes this attitude to a new form of Sanskritisation. In Gujarat, it has developed at the expense of caste-oriented identities.

Can this Gujarat “model” be replicated elsewhere? In other words, will caste identities be submerged in a new sense of belonging to a “neo-middle class” among the urban OBCs, who may then identify with Modi-the-former-chaiwala, who promises jobs? And will Hindu majoritarianism prevail more, further eroding caste divisions? This is one of the main questions for analysts of the coming general elections. Urbanisation may indeed play a key role for the first time.

Not only because of the socio-economic changes it implies, but also because of its cultural impact, since this process also results in less religious syncretism and more exposure to Hindu nationalist propaganda. In a village, Hindus and Muslims who have been neighbours for centuries share rituals and beliefs, even if they do not mix. Hindus would go to Muslim shrines (including dargahs) to benefit from the “baraka (powers)” of the Sufi saint, and vice versa. In cities, these practices are less likely to take place, not only because of a more individualistic lifestyle, but also because of the ghettoisation process that diminishes the chances of interaction.

Second, city dwellers are easily targeted by ideological messages and images. Politics is on television, on the internet, on mobile phones, and those who know how to use these new media have an advantage. But even if caste identities are not submerged by the brand of Moditva that has worked in Gujarat, Modi will probably be able to cash in on his OBC background in parts of the Hindi belt.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
express@expressindia.com

 

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. R
    R Sai
    Jan 25, 2016 at 2:09 pm
    Modi has severely disappointed middle cl people. Middle cl thought that some thing wonderful will happen after Modi becomes PM, but their life is getting more miserable with increasing inflatiDoubling of ticket cancellation charges, land bill, high prices of petroleum products inspite of deep reduction of petrol prices are some of the factors over which middle cl is 200% angry with him. His policy to set up nuclear power plants in India is disgusting. No sensible man will go for nuke. There are many options like wind,solar,tidal and thermal to produce electricity.
    Reply
    1. S
      Srinivasan Gopalarao
      Mar 24, 2014 at 12:07 am
      So is Modi's appeal to middlecl ethos the only thing?People are terribly upset with congress looting the nation
      Reply
      1. L
        Leo Frank
        Mar 31, 2014 at 8:05 am
        Modi and the BJP ahve struck the right notes with their pre-Election pitch being core issues-based. Modi & other BJP leaders' speeches are based entirely on issues concerning the common man. Yes! Modi does not spare even a single chance of referring to the ills of Congress and its UPA leadership; and teh pseudo-secular counterparts alike. Still his development pitch and persistence on core issues such as employment, electricity, water & roads are the real enabling factors, which are increasingly drawing middle-cl support towards BJP. Not only Hindus, even Muslims are increasingly liking Modi's leadership. Let the pseudo-seculars fire communal barbs at BJP & Modi. These barbs will only enable furtherance of BJP's political interests and decline of pseudo-seculars'.
        Reply
        1. G
          guest
          Mar 25, 2014 at 3:15 am
          The discourse should focus on future rather than past. Today which party/leader has vision/execution capabilities to double the GDP in 10 years, create 1 crore jobs every year and improve quality of life for every body. If UPA has used the $500b stimulus ( over last 5 years) for infrastructure spending such as linking rivers, railway freight corridor, Agriculture supply chain including quality storage facilities & Power generation as did by china rather than by giving doles ( NREGA, Loan waiver etc ), GDP would have grown 10% and inflation controlled at 5%, but today we have 10% inflation and 5% growth which means real growth is negative 5% when USA is growing at positive 2%. Today the government is bankrupt and any party coming to power has to dismantle these doles to meet daily expenses before thinking about growth. If the writer can point out alternate option other than Modi who have any vision for future then it would help.
          Reply
          1. L
            LOKESHRAINA
            Mar 25, 2014 at 1:52 am
            Jaffrelot has always been prejudiced about Hindus and BJP. He tries give it respectability by giving an academic veneer to his argument, like most leftists. If Hindus have become more religious what about Muslims?? That's something you will find Jafferlot always giving the skip. Let's see if he has the guts to write on that.
            Reply
            1. N
              Nikhil
              Mar 24, 2014 at 6:35 pm
              Dear Mr. Rip Van Winkle, discard your foxpro database and open your eyes. India has changed!
              Reply
              1. P
                Paresh V
                Mar 25, 2014 at 6:57 am
                Utterly ignorant comment from a professor. There is virtually no religious language used in current campaign by Modi. Even in last 2 election in Gujarat, the Modi government clearly asked for votes on development platform. It even caused heartburn among the local VHP and Bajrang Dal, which were made irrelevant in the elections. Yet, this author continues to play up the religious aspects, either deliberately to support his earlier writings or in ignorance. Today, even in other states, the people at gr root levels want development and jobs. They do not want slogans.
                Reply
                1. R
                  Rahul
                  Mar 24, 2014 at 8:19 am
                  Please elaborate on the 'vice versa' in the last but one paragraph. That is an untrue generalization, because while Hindus may visit many dargahs, Muslims do not visit temples. So, do not try to balance out events in an untrue manner.
                  Reply
                  1. Load More Comments