“Majoritarianism” and “demagoguery” have been the most frequent terms used to describe the 2019 elections results. However, the dominance of the will of the majority and the appeal of a leader with the ability to incite passions has also been a common feature — in different degrees — at other times in our history. The current appeal of these strategies to gain power requires different explanations, ones that are not as easily arrived at through surveys and exit polls that seek to gauge the voters’ political intent. Certain socio-cultural changes over the past two decades or so have re-made Indian identities across class and caste divides in ways that allow us to understand the appeal of contemporary political strategies. If “Narendra Modi” has been the answer, what are the grounds for the questions that are being asked?
It is frequently said — particularly by supporters of the ruling party — that these elections are about the lessening of caste factors and the rise of class consciousness. Given that both the distribution of tickets as well as voting has stayed true to the arithmetic of caste, this statement is not difficult to disprove. What is actually crucial to understand is the upsurge in desire for both caste and class identities: It is not as if caste identities have been abandoned in favour of class ones, rather there is as much pride in asserting caste identities as there is the desire to display the markers of, usually, middle class-ness. There is a specific desire for a “better” class identity along with retaining the older caste one. This is a significant factor that attracts many to the persona of Modi.
Unlike Rahul Gandhi, he has a distinct caste identity, and, he champions the cause of class. The desire to inhabit multiple worlds — for that is what class and caste desire is — has a broader history. It has to do with the growth of a very particular vision of Indian globalism. Modism has been a way of demonstrating how to be global with Indian characteristics. Here, one can be part of the world — global goods and commodities, travel, food, lifestyles — and yet, have the capacity to ensure that the home remains “Indian”. The ways in which this is expressed are diverse: Karva Chauth along with pilates classes, Game of Thrones as well as obsequious biopics of the PM, and the choice of multiple “themes” for weddings. But, not necessarily the ability to choose whom one marries.
Socio-cultural change of the scale we have witnessed in the past two decades — changes in the nature of work, altered media landscapes, new gender and sexual politics, among others — have become causes of great social anxiety. And the answer that Modi offers is that one can have the world on one’s own terms: Unlike the older (“Westernised”) middle classes, a newer, more Indian version of modernity. In this world, the choices are about what one buys, wears and eats, without the fear that these might alter the existing structures of power. Young women aspire to be cabin crew and must conform to the dictates of dressing and co-mingling — but when the flight lands, they return to a home apparently untouched by the turbulence of change. The idea is that one’s family and social life can be quarantined from the effects of social and cultural change.
In a recent television interview, a female Modi supporter proclaimed that just as a family needs a strong husband and father to “protect”, so does the nation require Modi. This pithily captures the idea that while we may want the world — international holidays et al — its influence must be must be balanced with “traditional values” that regulate what comes in.
Finally, very significant at a time when the power of the electronic media is paramount, there has been a particularly potent process of normalisation of war and violence. Advertising has been a compelling force in this regard. It is now common to see martial metaphors as sales strategies across a range of products that are an intimate part of our lives. Advertisements for butter refer to “surgical strikes”, cars are sold through appeals to military masculinity and the quality of bathroom tiles are compared to the nationalism of army personnel. When war and militarism become banal aspects of everyday life, then the leader who can embody their practice becomes an irresistible object of admiration. When combat becomes the dominant way of imagining life, then the absolute annihilation of differing opinions — rather than negotiation — becomes the norm. In such a situation, the appeal of the leader who is a “warrior” is overwhelming.
In the backdrop of all this, the manner in which we process change and utilise the instruments of change to think about the future is fundamental to the manner in which we vote. Any fundamental understanding of voting behaviour, thus, requires that we understand the ways in which it is but a subset — rather than an independent variable — of all the different ways in which we live our lives. This does not, of course, provide quick answers regarding “better” politics. However, if we do not start from this level of analysis, then any insight into what people do — and why they do it — becomes impossible to grasp.
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