Modi of the middle class

Modi is able to rally around the party what he calls a ‘neo-middle class’, made up of newcomers to the urban economy. Modi is able to rally around the party what he calls a ‘neo-middle class’, made up of newcomers to the urban economy.

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
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