By Sagarika Ghose
When it comes to elections in particular and politics in general, the orthodox wisdom is that the middle class—loosely defined as educated people living in small towns who may be either first or second generation urban, simply do not matter. The middle class is supposed to be politically irrelevant. It is the aam admi, the below poverty line voter, the “rural masses” out there in their faceless hordes, crowding into rallies and swarming into maidans, far away from the world of Twitter and Facebook, who matter during elections. They are held to be the arbiters of political destinies.
The Gujarat assembly elections of 2012 however could introduce a radical change in the demography of elections and indeed in the political vocabulary of elections. In a vocabulary marked by the aam admi, caste votebanks, rural voters, for the first time a shrewd politician like Narendra Modi is directly addressing what he has called a “neo middle class” constituency, talking of a “neo middle class” manifesto and hoping to win on the support of this “neo middle class” or first generation middle class. To talk of “class” and not of caste in any Indian election, is itself a significant divergence from dominant political discourse.
Modi has declared that he will start a range of programmes for the “neo middle class” if re-elected. If Modi wins on the basis of this so-called neo middle class support, it will signal the arrival of the middle class in Indian politics as a decision maker in elections. If Modi loses support by an over- dependence on this so called “neo middle class” support, then it will prove once again that real decision making lies in the countryside and an urban voter-oriented politics can only meet the same sorry fate as the BJP’s Shining India campaign of 2004.
However Gujarat today has a 43 percent urban population and almost half the assembly seats are urban or semi urban. Modi’s open wooing of the urban middle class voter could thus be a natural outcome of a rapidly industrialising demographic.
Modi says his definition of “neo” or “new middle class” means those who have recently risen out of the poverty line and benefitted from Gujarat’s industrialisation over the past decade. It is to this constituency that Modi has addressed his promises of low cost housing in urban areas, a constituency which the Congress is also hoping to woo with its "Own Your Home" promises.
The question still remains though, is this "neo middle class" large enough to be politically significant? More importantly, does this class even vote? After all, tales of India’s apathetic urban middle class are well known. Mumbai’s middle class ever ready for candle light vigils and televised protest marches, barely turned up to vote even after so shattering an event as the terror attacks of 26/11.
Yet dismissing the middle class as only bit players in elections may be a psephological conceit that needs a re-think. However much the Congress may like to believe that the UPA’s 2009 victory was the result of NAC-inspired pro- poor schemes, it was the middle class’s preference for Manmohan-economics and promises of high growth that led to the strong Congress showing in urban areas.
The massive majority that Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya received in the West Bengal Assembly elections of 2006—an even bigger victory than Mamata Banerjee’s --was also result of the thumping endorsement that middle class voters gave to Buddha-economics and politics of development. Sheila Dikshit’s hat trick in Delhi showed that urban voters can and do influence elections when they want to vote for a development- oriented chief minister. The Gujarat results of 2012 may thus further rewrite the rules about the middle class’s rapidly growing role in elections.
Another long-held rule of Indian politics is that those chief ministers seen as openly favouring big business, corporates and globalisation normally bite the dust. Declarations of a Shining state are met with an angry rebuff from those who feel left out from the bright lights. If an openly pro-corporate, pro-big-business stance does not become a political liability for Modi, if he does not bite the dust like other business oriented chief ministers such as Chandrababu Naidu and Vasundhara Raje , then this rule of Indian politics could also be re-written in Gujarat 2012.
An openly pro-business chief minister like Modi elected by an urban middle class electorate, in an election without any large scale communal rhetoric to unite the Hindu vote bank, could be a significant milestone in Indian elections. It would also show why Modi is so suited to the Gujarati idea of politics. In Gujarat, politics is not as an ideological contest of ideas but is a service delivery mechanism for business.
As a regular visitor and traveller to Gujarat since the early 90s, I have always been struck by the deep roots of social conservatism in the state. Sociologist DL Sheth writes that a “Mahajani-Gandhian upper caste” ethos was prevalent until the late 1960s in Gujarat. This ethos created a culture of pragmatism where the individual ideal was to lead a life of sadgrahastha (a good householder) and the collective ideal was to lead a life of pragati (progress) or accumulating wealth and building non-state self- help organisations in relative communal harmony.
Sheth believes this "Mahajani-Gandhian" ethos was destroyed by Hindutva mobilisation after the 1969 communal riots in Ahmedabad. A new folk, urban Hinduism, uniting Dalits, tribals and OBCs developed as a result of fast spreading urbanisation and migration. This folk Hinduism made possible the emergence of political Hinduism and created Gujarat’s overwhelming Hindu consensus. However, even though the Mahajani Gandhian ethos may have been replaced by folk Hindutva, Gujarat still remains a society based on conservative utilitarian values of dhanda or doing business.
Individual capitalism, where the profit of the individual is seen as directly linked to the well- being of the community, free from state intervention, has always been a hallmark of Gujarat. That successive Gujarat politicians have for decades been giving industrialists appointments within 24 hours, that state governments have even invited the corporate sector of Bombay to take over sick textile mills is part of the same mentality which relies on individual dynamism—not state control—as the transformer of society.
In Gujarat there has always been a relative lack of dependence on the state and on state assistance. Gujarat has always had large number of farmers co- operatives and self-help projects of which SEWA is the most well- known. Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA, is herself a Gandhian from Gujarat and an exemplar of Gujarati individual endeavour for community upliftment.
Ten years after the riots, sections of the Muslim community shows the same dynamism, individual endeavour and enterprise as all Gujaratis. The state is absent from the lives of the Muslims. But paradoxically this has spurred self- reliance and a renewed commitment to self-help.
Thus, Gujarat today remains true to its traditional character as a socially conservative, urbanised state where significant sections are moving into the “neo middle class” and who may be inclined to vote for a chief minister who makes possible individual enterprise by providing necessary infrastructure. Modi’s politics is rooted in Hindu majoritarianism, he remains a communally polarising figure, has still not uttered a word of remorse on the 2002 riots and is an autocratic leader who curbs press freedom and bans books on Gandhi. But at the same time, he creates conditionals ideal for the Gujarati rate of growth.
India’s western state is one of the oldest business areas in the world where a lively entrepreneurial culture developed between the 15th and 19th centuries. Gujarat saw the earliest emergence of the cotton mill in 1861. A centuries old commitment to wealth creation is the leitmotif of Gujarat, not the evolution of a caste based politicised society like UP, a state marked by anti-elite caste movements like Tamil Nadu or a state run according to ideology like the erstwhile West Bengal.
If Modi wins a big victory in Gujarat this year four conclusions can be drawn: 1) the arrival of the urban middle class in electoral politics 2) the electability of a pro-corporate government 3) the possibility for Hindutva to shift focus from the cultural right to the economic right and 4) that a larger than life personality who delivers on wealth creation and self-help can still win votes, even if he almost decimates his own party, stamps out democratic freedoms such as an independent media and dissent in his own government.
As one of India’s most rapidly industrialising and urbanising states, are these future trends for rest of India? That’s why the Gujarat results will be so very interesting to watch out for!
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor CNNIBN