Indian elections are notoriously difficult to predict. In 2004, the conventional wisdom had it that the BJP was set to return to power. (“AB Vajpayee seems unbeatable,” I wrote, getting it wrong, as usual!) And the opinion polls predicted a BJP landslide of such staggering proportions that the government actually called elections a few months early to capitalise on what everybody believed was a BJP wave (‘India Shining’ and all that). In fact, as we know, the BJP was defeated and the Congress defied the pollsters and the pundits to come to power.
So I won’t risk making too many predictions about this election. Once again, the pundits say that the Congress will be lucky to get more than 100 seats and the BJP is regarded as unbeatable. But commentators and pollsters have been wrong before. And in the light of recent disclosures, perhaps we should treat polls with a healthy scepticism.
Despite these qualifications, however, one thing seems certain: the Congress has lost the educated middle class. Every single poll shows this (and they can’t all be wrong) and all of us in the middle class have heard our friends and neighbours talk. Anecdotal evidence is not always the most reliable but when it is overwhelming, it is time to take notice. And the reality is that the educated middle class has given up on the Congress. It is disappointed by UPA 2 and sees no reason to believe that things will change for the better in the future.
Even within the Congress, there is a somewhat belated recognition that the middle class has turned hostile. But many Congressmen find rationalisations. The middle class is selfish, they say. It opposes any move to improve the condition of the poor. And it is not secular enough: which is why Narendra Modi is a middle-class hero.
These rationalisations make no sense. First of all, the middle class is not selfish. When UPA 1 was in office, it orchestrated the greatest transfer of wealth to the poor in modern Indian history. Thousands of crores worth of farmers’ loans were written off. The NREGA scheme provided a living wage to the rural poor. Subsidies on fuel, diesel, cooking gas and kerosene rose to protect the poor from the rising global price of oil.
All of these steps were criticised by liberal economists and even by Manmohan Singh himself who fought to have subsidies slashed and bitterly opposed the write-off of farmers’ loans. But they were not opposed by the greater middle class, which believed, at some subliminal level, that the prosperity of the last decade needed to be shared with the poor.
Had the middle class disapproved of the government’s generosity towards the poor, then the UPA would not have returned to power with more seats in 2009. And it certainly would not have done so well in urban constituencies. So, whatever else the middle class is, it is not selfish.
So why are educated Indians fed up of welfare schemes in UPA 2? The answer is simple. To redistribute wealth you first need to create wealth. And UPA 2 ran the Indian economy to the ground, drove away investment, refused to take decisions and caused the world to turn its back on India. What looks like economic justice in times of prosperity starts to look like profligacy directed at winning votes when things are going wrong.
As for the secularism argument, the reality is that the Congress miscalculated. The greatest drawback in Narendra Modi’s record is not the 2002 riots. It is that after the riots he continued to harp on pro-Hindu themes in his speeches and did not do enough to reassure Muslims that he believed in an inclusive vision of India.
The Congress reckoned — in common with many political commentators — that Modi’s campaign for the 2014 election would recycle the same old themes and that he would inflame Hindu sentiment to create a Hindutva wave. At that stage, the middle class would turn away and the Muslim vote would consolidate behind the Congress.
In fact, Modi has refused to play the Hindu card. He has based his campaign not on Hindutva but on the most glaring failures of the UPA 2’s record: an absence of decisive governance and any kind of leadership. And while many educated people are still uncomfortable with Modi’s communal record, they support him in the absence of any alternative. (Arvind Kejriwal could have been an alternative middle-class favourite but he chose to abandon this constituency.)
The consequence is that this general election will not be fought on Hindu-Muslim issues but on the UPA’s dismal performance. When riots are discussed, it is the 1984 Sikh massacres that have come to the fore thanks to the Congress’ own ineptitude.
Looking back it almost seems as though the Congress wanted to lose the middle class: the invisible prime ministership of Manmohan Singh; Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to go public a year ago and to tell us what he stood for apart from internal democracy within the Congress; and the government’s unwillingness to even consider non-economic reforms that would have made life easier for educated Indians. (Nobody would have objected if instead of wasting months pushing for Walmart, the government had overhauled the judicial system so that ordinary people could get speedy justice or if it had implemented police reforms.)
Most shamefully, the party that had ushered in the computer revolution allowed the BJP to rule unchallenged in the social media space to the extent that a new generation, brought up on Facebook and Twitter, thinks of Congress leaders as crooks, buffoons and inept dynasts.
So while I’m still unwilling to make any forecasts about the election — which, given my record of getting it wrong, is probably wise — I will stick my neck out and make one prediction: it will take at least five years for the Congress to recover its credibility with the Indian middle class.
The views expressed by the author are personal