Each time an election verdict is analysed, it is easy and convenient to describe it as a new beginning. This is always true because any process of winning and losing, of choosing and rejecting, inevitably involves fresh starts.
Some elections also indicate a closure. While the Lok Sabha election of 2014 is certainly a beginning — though exactly what it has begun is something we will really and realistically figure out only in the coming years — we do know what it has ended. It has brought to a close a 20-year cycle of politics that has dominated one-and-a-half generations of Indians.
In the early 1990s, three social trends came to capture political imagination in India. There was the BJP’s ascent on the back of Hindutva, of Hindu anger, prejudice and assertion.
There was the Mandal project that symbolised the political empowerment of the OBCs, particularly in north India, a phenomenon later extended to Dalit pride by Mayawati and the BSP. Finally, there was liberalisation and economic reform, the explosion of expectations and the politics of growth. Mandir, Mandal and Market: So often in the 1990s, political assessments in India resorted to that lazy phrase.
Narendra Modi’s dramatic rise to power in 2014 and the impressive mandate he has won have made that three-way split and that careful separating of one motivation from another completely redundant. He is a Hindu leader and mascot. He is an OBC from a traditionally underprivileged caste background.
He is also the most passionate advocate of market-based solutions, of enterprise and of the energies of the citizen — as opposed to the eviscerating qualities of statism — that mass politics in India has seen in a long, long time.
There is no point arguing whether Modi would be Right-wing or capitalist in a western economic context, and whether he agrees with every semicolon of Milton Friedman and every paragraph of Margaret Thatcher. He doesn’t; but he shares their essential instincts and buys into their broader logic much more than any other mainstream and electable political leader in India today.
While Modi has made those abstruse debates about an ideological battle between three (or more) ideas of India seem silly if not irrelevant, what has he actually introduced and brought to the table? The principal appeal of Modi in contemporary India is not religion or caste or even hyper-nationalism.
It is class. The narrative of a self-made man, of the son of a father who sold tea at a railway station and a mother who went house to house washing dishes to pay school fees for her children, is a compelling and extraordinarily powerful one.
The Congress leadership and the media completely missed how the Modi narrative was resonating with the people. Mani Shankar Aiyar’s puerile comment that the Congress would open a tea stall for Modi came to showcase his party’s — and his peer group’s — complete alienation from a certain popular urge and aspiration.
Aiyar saw it as a clever-clever line; the message it sent was one of an unfeeling elite, happy to mock lesser citizens. It made being a chaiwallah a badge of honour for Modi.
It established him as the underdog — a role he plays best, and has played in successive elections in Gujarat, even while being chief minister.
If this election was about Modi capitalising on a class revolt, that expression has to be understood. The reference here is not to class in a Marxian sense.
It is simply to primarily young, small town, semi-urban people — or even rural folk, exposed to or associated with city life and the city economy — usually from non-English speaking backgrounds. They are hungry to learn the language, though — not to read Milton and join the Anglosphere but simply to get a job.
They are too well-off to be satisfied by the rural employment guarantee programme but too poor to be genuinely middle class. They see themselves as socially underprivileged and perceive their progress to be thwarted by an elite that has shut the gates and framed complicated, impossible rules for entry — for professional advance as much as political office — that usher in only the initiated. Remarkably hamhanded in their politics, the Congress and the UPA allowed themselves to be seen as the embodiment of this elite.
Modi’s voters make for a complex set of emotions.
There is undeniable ambition here, completely justified for talented people who have simply not been given the opportunities they deserve. There is also a degree of resentment and an anger, sometimes overdone. Yet, it is equally true that this cohort, this middle India, represents a far greater section of the Indian population than the narrow apex of the pyramid that surrounds the Nehru-Gandhi family, constitutes its reference points and writes its policies and legislation in chambers in Delhi.
In that sense, this class divide is not between Bharat and India — it is between Delhi and the rest of the country.
Such a binary has caused upheaval in other societies as well. In several countries of Africa and Asia, the first generation of genteel post-colonial leaders and elites usually gave way to more angular native (or nativist) politicians who grasped popular hopes and fears more easily simply because they had lived these themselves. India has been lucky and has landed on its feet. It has accomplished a similar change through the voting machine.
Where other second-generation leaders of post-colonial societies can be populist and even dictatorial, Modi is cut of a different cloth.
He has been schooled in Indian democracy and sculpted by a decade of tests in governance and storms in politics. These have made him an economic change-agent, not an economic waster; these have made him authoritative, but not authoritarian. Fifty years after Jawaharlal Nehru died, in the very month, Narendra Modi may as well have inaugurated India’s second Republic.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.