In crediting Narendra Modi with disempowering India's elites, TIME cover story ignores regional parties' achievements

Time Magazine’s cover story on Narendra Modi declaims him as India’s ‘Divider in Chief’ but its lead essay, written by journalist Aatish Taseer, seems to credit the BJP with disempowering the elite, a feat actually achieved by the many regional parties of India.

In the very first paragraph, Taseer writes, ‘Narendra Modi … was elected to power by the greatest mandate the country has seen in 30 years.’ Starting from this fact, Taseer goes on to read Modi as a member of the wave of ‘populism’ taking over the world, and says ‘his election was nothing short of a class revolt at the ballot box’. This class revolt is seen as rising up against an entrenched English-speaking elite, and seizing the destiny of India from the hands of left-leaning liberals.

Taseer, like many of the English-speaking liberal elite, feels guilt for our class position, and this guilt puts him ‘in sympathy with Modi’s cultural diagnosis of what power looked and felt like in India’. Taseer’s guilt makes him see in Modi’s rise a narrative as old as the hills — that of an unjust power being overthrown by the underdog, of rightful comeuppance for an oblivious ruling elite. But in constructing or replaying this narrative, Taseer ignores some key facts — and, even while denouncing Modi’s first term, buys into and amplifies some of the prime myths that the BJP propagandist machinery wants us to believe.

 In crediting Narendra Modi with disempowering Indias elites, TIME cover story ignores regional parties achievements

TIME Magazine's cover story on Narendra Modi

The first fact Taseer ignores, which has been extensively discussed, is that Narendra Modi did not receive a historic mandate. The ‘largest mandate in 30 years’ is misleading because it only takes into account the number of seats won. If we consider vote share, then the picture changes considerably: Modi’s election becomes an outlier, where its vote share of 31.3 percent was the lowest in independent India to win a Lok Sabha majority. The INC secured a higher share in both 1989 (39.5 percent) and 1991 (35.66 percent); although their share fell to 28.6 percent in 2009. At the coalition level, the NDA won a higher vote share under Vajpayee (40.7 percent) than they did under Modi (39 percent).

The second fact Taseer does not account for has also been written about extensively. In casting BJP as the underdog that is overthrowing an elite, he forgets just how much the elite are implicated in the BJP’s rise. The elite in India is hardly restricted to what Modi calls the ‘Khan Market gang’ and a handful of academics and students at JNU and other central universities. We also have an economic elite, that made continuous noises of support for Modi in 2014. Even sections of the media, including Shekhar Gupta, Swaminathan Aiyer, Taveleen Singh (Taseer’s mother) and Pratap Bhanu Mehta had spoken in favour of him then.

It is the support of this economic elite that has translated into tremendous amount of cash in the BJP’s coffers. The BJP earned five times what the INC earned in donations in 2017-18. This money is not coming from poor people missing a meal to support a class revolt.

The third and the biggest error Taseer makes is to forget that Narendra Modi’s BJP is hardly the originator of this ‘cultural diagnosis’. The entrenched elites had been roundly critiqued and upended long before 2014 — by what have now become the regional parties. Ignoring their role in the decline of the Congress is to fall for the myth of a history that begins with Modi’s rise to power, a claim he makes regularly. It is also to fall prey to an elite myopia that disregards figures like Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh, as well as the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Each of these leaders and parties has provided a much more complete critique of English-speaking, and — lets for once name it — upper-caste elites, than the BJP ever has.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh and Nitish Kumar all emerged from the Jayaprakash Narayan movement, and at various points stood against the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Mulayam Singh led the OBC charge in Uttar Pradesh, while Lalu became the first non-upper-caste Chief Minister of Bihar to serve a full term. Rising up from small villages, they presented an antithesis to elite leadership in dress, speech and their connect with their respective bases, and did so in a way that makes the BJP look every bit the party of elites — the upper caste, so-called middle class (who belong in the top quintile in terms of incomes) — that it is.

Meanwhile, the anti-Brahmanical Periyar Dravidian movement, and its political successor, the DMK, ended Congress rule for good in Tamil Nadu all the way back in 1967.

But perhaps the figure who most completely symbolises the upending of the elite is Mayawati. When Kanshi Ram extricated Mayawati from her dream of becoming an IAS officer, and raised her in his Bahujan movement, he created a leader as far from the elite corridors of power as can be imagined. The Bahujan Samaj Party was built from the ground up by both these figures. Mayawati was so far outside the established structures of power that she even lost her first three elections. That her party was the third largest by vote share in 2014 — even though she didn’t win a single seat this time — shows how far she’s come.

Taseer’s exclusion comes at a time when the poll moves of regional powers have become a key point of discussion, from K Chandrasekhar Rao’s TRS to Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. It also comes at a time when the roots of this non-Congress, non-BJP front are also on Narendra Modi’s mind.

In ignoring this group of parties and in erasing their history, Taseer falls prey to seeing the election as what Sudipto Mondal called the ‘present-day dharama yuddha … between Sitaram Yechury and Rahul Gandhi’s Hinduism against the Hinduism of Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi’. Mondal went on to ask, ‘What about those who want neither?’

Mondal’s question reveals this is a false dharma-yuddha, in which those truly fed up of the entrenched elites are continuing to be casualties. As an Indiaspend analysis of the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh showed, these citizens have been swinging from one party to another, mostly punishing the incumbent for their continued neglect.

Even if Modi had lost ground in these elections (and the results don’t countenance that possibility), it would not have been the elites who returned with a vengeance. That is what Taseer loses sight of, very unfairly.

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Updated Date: May 25, 2019 09:46:19 IST