Most commentators in the English-language media are celebrating Narendra Modi’s electoral victory as expressing a post-ideological New India. Four assertions follow from these commentaries: a) Modi’s electoral victory stems from his promise of development; b) His endorsement by the electorate represents the will of millions of ‘aspirational’ Indians tired of the feudal ways of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the Congress; c) Primordial identities such as caste do not matter, as evident from the voters’ rejection of the so-called caste parties; d) With this victory, it is clear that Indians are now transformed from pleading populations into active citizens, demanding equal opportunities.
The first assertion is based on the false assumption that development was the centrepiece of the BJP’s campaign and that it did not take recourse to any identity-oriented appeals. The BJP combined its promise of development with appeals to religion, caste and threats to national sovereignty. In rural northern India, the BJP’s campaign was replete with invocations directed to Hindu voters. In West Bengal, Modi declared that only those who celebrated Durga Ashtami were welcome, while others were not. The BJP even declared India, a ‘natural home’, it said in its manifesto, for persecuted Hindus from all over the world. Modi and his party flaunted his caste identity to woo voters from among the OBCs. In Bihar, I met many people who said they hoped he would become ‘India’s first OBC PM’. In fact, in Bihar, it was Nitish Kumar who ran the campaign about roads, mass communications and girls’ education while the BJP leaders talked mostly about identities, commenting variously on the so-called ‘pink revolution’ and Modi’s own supposed affinity with Yaduvanshis.
The commentators’ second assertion is that the vote for the BJP is the expression of an ‘aspirational society’, tired of the feudal ways of the Congress and other political parties. Mani Shankar Aiyar’s obnoxious remark about Modi’s ‘chaiwala’ origins was a clear example of such elitist attitudes. Rahul Gandhi’s claims about the success in poverty-reduction during the UPA regime, even if correct, were plainly disrespectful of the poor. “We have made the poor stand on their own feet,” he told a rally. There is no doubt that the election results reflect a well-justified antipathy of millions of Indians towards the elitism of the Congress.
However, the image of the ‘aspirational society’ that the media and its commentators have painted needs to be tempered. The rising numbers of the neo-middle class identified by the BJP, having just risen out of poverty and not yet stabilised in the middle class, do not only have aspirations. They also face constraints and uncertainties. With little prospects of formal employment and social security, they have no option but to hope for miracles to keep them from slipping back into poverty. Modi’s promise of growth assuages precisely these fears and insecurities. However, other than vague promises of handholding in skills-development, it offers little concrete. If and when there is a conflict between the neo-middle classes and big business, Modi’s key backers, on whose side will he be?
The third misleading assertion being bandied by the commentators is that caste identities are dead. Delhi School of Economics economists Ashwini Deshpande and Rajesh Ramchandran have analysed the data from the National Sample Survey Organisation to examine expenditure and income differentials among the OBCs, Dalits and other Indians. In their working paper, available online (http://bit.ly/1myqFiu), they argue that the monthly per capita consumption expenditure for the Dalits and OBCs was, respectively, 51% and 65% of that of the ‘Others’. Similarly, the average wage earned by the Dalits and OBCs is 42% and 55% of that of the ‘Others’. Note that the category ‘Others’ includes groups such as Muslims of underprivileged castes. Thus, the above data in fact understates the extent of caste-based inequality prevalent in India today. It is a mockery of facts to say, then, that caste has ceased to matter.
The fourth assertion about the vote for the BJP as heralding the transformation of hapless populations into active citizens is disrespectful of the fierce struggles for social justice. The farmers’ movements, anti-caste movements, environmental and forest protection movements, feminist movements, movements against land acquisition and the gay rights movements — all of these have battled State and societal prejudices in their demands for equal citizenship without, and often despite, the BJP. The BJP knows this history of struggle. Not for nothing did Modi declare that the forthcoming decade belonged to the OBCS and Dalits.
While espousing equality of opportunities, both he and his party maintain a stony silence on equality of outcomes that India’s masses, including those who today comprise the neo-middle class, have been demanding for the last several decades. They keep quiet about the fact that although the OBCs comprise between 41 and 52% of the population, they hold, according to the 2011-12 Annual Report of the Indian government’s ministry of personnel, less than 15% of government jobs and 8.4% of all Grade-A government jobs. They have nothing to say about the fact that the overwhelming majority of the country’s manual scavengers are Dalit. The election results show that the BJP’s ascendance has, at least temporarily, contained the citizenship claims of the oppressed and exploited sections. Far from heralding a post-ideological new India, the electoral verdict reflects the Right-ward shift that we in India are taking.
The India Modi will govern is full of opportunities. But it is also a country where social inequality persists and where, as the Asian Development Bank notes in its 2012 report titled Confronting Rising Inequality in Asia, economic inequality is on the rise. Modi has made clear that he will pursue development. Whether this will be at the cost of social justice will determine how future Indians will judge him.
Indrajit Roy is Research Fellow, St Antony’s College, Department of International Development, University of Oxford
The views expressed by the author are personal