Around two decades ago, Prem Shankar Jha wrote a prescient piece about the coming of the new prosperity. Jha’s argument was that as India’s growth rate accelerated, this would lead to the rise of a new middle class comprising people who had benefited from the higher growth.
This class, Prem argued, would be different from the traditional Indian middle class that had been brought up on the Nehruvian consensus of liberal/Left policies, secularism and gentleness in public discourse.
Because the new middle class had not grown up within this consensus, it would be more focused on making money and showing it off and less interested in the welfare of those less fortunate.
Because Muslims would not benefit equally from the new prosperity, the new middle class would be overwhelmingly Hindu. It would argue that secularism was a way for politicians to appease Muslims and ignore Hindu sentiments and religious beliefs.
I am quoting from memory so it is possible that I am overstating Jha’s case but I do remember the two basic points he made.
One, a new middle class is coming. And two, this middle class will reject the Congress way of doing things and will embrace the BJP.
As the years went on, there was little doubt that Jha had got it right. A new middle class did emerge. It did reject the Nehruvian consensus. It did embrace conspicuous consumption. And yes, it clasped the BJP to its collective bosom.
The party, which had hovered around the fringes of national politics for decades in various guises, suddenly became the party of a certain kind of educated Indian. The new BJP pandered to middle class sentiment, to middle class prejudice and to middle class grievances.
By 2002 or so, things had got to the stage where history books were being re-written, where Jawaharlal Nehru was being routinely derided as the man responsible for India’s poverty, and where LK Advani could confidently proclaim that the BJP was now the natural party of governance.
And yet, just seven years later, the party seems to be over.
If you have followed the news over the last week, then you will know that the BJP is being torn apart by an existential crisis. I wrote last Sunday that it has now become a party with no core beliefs, a party where everything is up for re-definition and re-negotiation. Almost on cue, Jaswant Singh went on TV on Wednesday to say that he did not understand Hindutva or know where the term had come from.
All parties go through bouts of introspection during periods of adversity. But rarely do they question the very basis of their existence. For example, the Left is doing some soul-searching now and the Congress did a lot of it in the early years of this decade. But no party ever says: let’s junk the beliefs our party is based on. The Congress has never renounced Nehru. And the Left still clings to the increasingly discredited view that Karl Marx got it right.
And then, there’s the other thing that intrigues me. I am continually surprised by how normal middle class people, who are not especially politically aware, seem to be so relieved because of the Congress victory. Not only are there no tears for the BJP but fewer middle class people seem to identify with it any longer.
So, here’s my question: never mind what the crisis of the BJP tells us about the BJP. What does it tell us about the Indian middle class?
Or, put another way: what happened to the new middle class and its affinity with the BJP? Over the last five years, prosperity has actually increased. And yet, the rejection of the Nehruvian consensus has tapered off. Nor do the issues that once defined the new middle class now seem to matter that much.
We see this most clearly in the change in the middle class approach to the Hindu-Muslim issue. In the 1980s, the BJP built on Hindu anger. It said that Hindus had been humiliated by Sikhs in Punjab. Now, they were faced with fanatical Muslims who refused to return the sacred birthplace of Ram, preferring to protect a mosque that was itself a symbol of Hindu humiliation. Worst of all, the secular Congress was backing Muslims against Hindus.
Because that approach worked for so many years, the BJP tried a variation in this election. Hindus were being attacked by Muslim terrorists. These terrorists could easily be locked up but the Congress refused to re-impose POTA for fear of losing Muslim votes.
But this time, the middle class paid no attention. And as for the whole Ayodhya issue, middle class voters seemed embarrassed that in the 21st century they should be asked to debate India’s future on the basis of a dispute over a medieval mosque.
We see the change in the way the middle class has rejected the BJP’s definition of Indianness. In 2004, Sushma Swaraj was able to go on TV to declare that she would shave her head in protest if a foreigner became Prime Minister. Now, nobody cares about the foreign origin issue. When you watch TV footage of Sushma’s outburst today, she just seems silly and overwrought.
So it is with ‘Indian culture’. The last BJP government demanded that DD newsreaders increase the sleeve-lengths of their blouses and routinely denounced MTV. Throughout the BJP’s term in office, cinema halls were regularly attacked and film shootings disrupted on the grounds that Indian culture was being undermined.
Now, when the Ram Sene attacks women for going to pubs or the lunatic fringe of the Parivar tries to disrupt Valentine’s Day, the protests come from the entire middle class. Nor are the attacks on cinema halls and film crews that common. For instance, Deepa Mehta could easily shoot Water in today’s India.
Even the every-man-for-himself mentality is changing. The BJP spent the last five years attacking the government for its social welfare schemes and loan write-offs. These were socialist measures initiated by jholawallahs, it sneered.
But this position found few takers within the middle class. The well-off are now much more willing to accept that the less fortunate should also get their share of the pie.
Nowhere is the transformation clearer than in the attitude to Narendra Modi. I accept that most middle-class people do not necessarily regard him as a mass murderer in the way that I do. But equally, you cannot deny that his brand of hate-filled demagoguery makes the middle class nervous.
People want stability even more than they want development. They do not want the politics of hate and communal tension. And at some level, they are embarrassed by the way the world looks at us after the Gujarat riots and by Modi’s pariah status in many Western countries.
What’s made the difference? Here’s my theory. I reckon that the middle class today is more homogenous and more mature than it was even five years ago. The new middle class has lost its sense of grievance; it has lost the outsider’s desire to overturn the ruling consensus; and it has gone past the issues on which the BJP’s appeal is based.
Today, there is less of a distinction between the old middle class and the new middle class. As India seems on the threshold of becoming a great global power, we have become a more inclusive society looking forward to our future.
In the process, we have less time to look back at the past. And less time for a party that seems obsessed with our differences and with the grievances of the past.