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This election is a blowback to elitism in India

The class and cultural divide that has kept India’s elites at a safe distance from change is about to come crashing down. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Feb 15, 2014 04:06 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times
Barkha Dutt,Narendra Modi,Arvind Kejriwal

Anti-incumbency, misgovernance, corruption and a crisis of leadership — these are typically among the theories employed to explain a widespread sentiment of anger against the outgoing UPA government.

The energy and organisational strength of Narendra Modi’s campaign has only underlined the likelihood of a staggering Congress defeat — one that most of its own leaders forecast in private. Yet the current ‘charcha’ has missed one crucial message while reading the tea leaves.

Whether it’s Modi who’s embraced his modest origins as the son of a tea vendor as a political badge of honour or Arvind Kejriwal who says his politics is all about wrenching open the steely union of vested interests – one of the resonating themes of the 2014 is a revolt against elitism. Whether its lineage, pedigree or privilege — the neatly-arranged hierarchies of India’s social structure are all being challenged by status-quo smashing politics. Be it the swipe by Modi at the finance minister –“Hard Work, not Harvard matters” — or Kejriwal’s repeated assertions of being a “chhota aadmi” — a small man battling giants — never before has not belonging to a perceived circle of influence been better for the public image.

If the advent of caste-based parties was the first wave of rebellion against a conventional and discriminatory pecking order of politics, then this time, in the second wave of change, what’s being contested, even defied, is a class-oriented notion of power and culture. If Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad were among the prominent social engineers of the first wave, in this moment of political churn, both Modi and Kejriwal, in very different ways are tapping into both the resentments and aspirations of a post-caste (but not yet post-religion) middle India. Of course both of them have had prominent supporters among the traditional elites — corporate and intelligentsia — yet in both cases, while they may have nothing else in common, the two leaders have positioned themselves as outsiders to the cosy clique of power.

In 1956, social scientist C Wright Mills first explored the inter-locked organisation of power in the US in his seminal work, The Power Elite. “There is a kind of reciprocal attraction among the fraternity of the successful — not between each and every member of the circles of the high and mighty, but between enough of them to insure a certain unity..,” he wrote. These words that could be just as true of India today. “Members of the several higher circles know one another as personal friends and even as neighbours; they mingle with one another on the golf course, in the gentleman’s clubs, at resorts, on transcontinental airplanes, and on ocean liners. They meet at the estates of mutual friends, face each other in front of the TV camera, or serve on the same philanthropic committee; and many are sure to cross one another’s path in the columns of newspapers, if not in the exact cafes from which many of these columns originate.” Think of the “power lists” routinely drawn up by popular magazines and newspapers and you know that what Mills held for America in the 1950s is also the truth of India in the 21st century.

Of course the anger against India’s power elites need not always be manifested in ways that are rational or constructive. In every instance the narrative cannot claim to be built on the romantic pursuit of a more equal society. Take the recent row over alleged sex workers and drug addicts in a neighbourhood of Delhi. The squeamishness over the contentious vigilante intervention by the new law minister was seen to be the whine of the privileged minority, not the popular chorus of the majority. In other words, this campaign is not just testing the customary political dispensation; it is also pushing the debate on other socio-cultural issues further than before.

Just like politicians who first became symbols of empowerment to caste groups that were once on the margins of public discourse discovered that good, clean governance was needed to travel further, the new age anti-elite warriors too shall have to find a way of not allowing their politics to represent the brute force of majoritarianism . After all, surely the problem is not that P Chidambaram studied at Harvard (as his riposte also countered) but that the dismal state of school education in India permits such few people the opportunity of an Ivy League dream. It is in these terms that the elitism debate should be framed.

Admittedly the undercurrent against the elites is an urban discourse. But in a country where almost 33% is already urbanised, it is certainly not an irrelevant thread in the larger conversation about our contemporary politics. It’s the reason every single party, including the Congress, has suddenly woken up to the burgeoning neo-middle class.

What has changed, and perhaps irrevocably so, is that people expect something much more than invocation of noblesse oblige from those who govern them. It is no longer enough for the politician to be the noble, kindly patron who makes benevolent interventions on behalf of the masses while leaving the aristocracy of the elite untouched by change. The truth is that People Like Us can longer condescend to People Like Them. The class and cultural divide that has kept India’s elites at a safe distance from change is about to come crashing down. Winston Churchill could get away with the rhetorical irreverence of saying that the “best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.” But keeping the average voter outside of the dominant discourse for decades in a top-down model of preachy democracy is an idea that has failed as well. This election is a blowback to that elitism.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 14, 2014 23:24 IST