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Narendra Modi's 'Khan Market gang' jibe sums up disempowerment of elites, rise of new middle class with a voice

With his "Khan Market gang" jibe, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced a new lexicon in political discourse that appears to have rubbed his rivals and critics the wrong way. Not that Modi would mind. The apparently innocuous phrase elicited an acerbic and a vehement response from certain quarters, including politicians, journalists, activists, activist-journalists, etc. This needs a bit of explaining — why did the reference to a shopping district in Delhi, where apparently they sell overpriced items, trigger such a response?

One of Delhi's poshest locations for dining and shopping in the heart of the city, Khan Market has become a signifier of superciliousness and an idiom that may loosely be equated with the Beltway Washington Consensus — a set of free-market policies American institutions propagated that eventually represented a sign of elitism. Among other things, US president Donald Trump's victory was a counter to this elitism that had long gripped and dominated American politics.

 Narendra Modis Khan Market gang jibe sums up disempowerment of elites, rise of new middle class with a voice

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Former columnist and now Press Secretary to the President of India Ashok Malik coined the term 'Khan Market consensus' in a column for the Hindustan Times, where he elaborated on the unanimity among "self-appointed intelligentsia" on a particular "idea of India" that, for a long time, was considered unassailable, relegating to the fringes all competing ideas that never found expression.

These competing ideas about and of India belong to a sizeable section of people who had remained voiceless because of the centralisation of power by the 'Khan Market gang' — a minority of powerful elites with colossal sway over the destiny of 1.3 billion people. They controlled all levers of power and avenues of discourse, forcing their own "idea of India" to be mainstreamed while excluding those of others.

As Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser to the Government of India, had written in Project Syndicate on these elites who belong to entrenched family dynasties of India: The country "…has long been dominated by a tiny elite — a couple of hundred extended families, totaling perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 people. Many countries have powerful elites with outsize influence, but in India, dynastic elites control the top echelons in every sphere of public life — politics, business, the media, and even Bollywood."

This top-down imported "idea of India", based on Nehruvian secularism and Fabian socialism as its economic principle, came to define the lens through Indians were forced to evaluate themselves and made to feel unfit in their own country for having a different set of notions about the nation and its culture, identity and religion. The vast majority, proud of its Hindu heritage, were made to feel (in Manu Joseph's words in Mint ) "like the freak fringe, like delinquents for having a set of reasonable thoughts".

The flip side to this power-wielding by the deracinated elites is that they suffer from a sense of entitlement and become eventual victims of their own delusion. The 'Khan Market gang', as Modi referred to them in an interview with The Indian Express, had started believing that they can continue to hold sway over 1.3 billion people simply by nurturing an ecosystem that perpetuated their reign even if political power turned intermittent.

What Modi's ascension to power did in 2014 was strike a fell blow to the foundation of this 'Khan Market consensus' and free voices on the other side, bringing to the fore contrasting notions of nationhood. In this, technological aides such as social media supported Modi, simultaneously empowering the voiceless and disempowering the elites. No longer were the elites able to control the avenues of political discourse.

Modi's rise, in part, was a result of a Hindu awakening that was slowly coming to terms with new assertiveness in its voice. Due to the grounded nature of the "idea of India" — as opposed to the peripatetic "idea of India" of the deracinated elites — that made Modi's rise possible and empowered him, the prime minister grew more and more confident as Hindu nationalism took firmer shape.

This was reflected in Modi's reference to the 'Khan Market gang' in his interview to The Indian Express, where he dismissed Congress president Rahul Gandhi's attempt to "dismantle his image".

"Modi ki chhavi Delhi ke Khan Market ke gang ne nahin banayi hai, Lutyens Delhi ne nahin banayi hai. 45 saal ki Modi ki tapasya ne chhavi banayi hai. Achchi hai ya buri hai (Neither the 'Khan Market gang' nor Lutyens Delhi created Modi's image, but 45 years of his toil did… good or bad), you cannot dismantle it."

The pejorative reference to the 'Khan Market gang' stung Modi's critics as he reminded the elites that they are disenfranchised, disempowered and progressively irrelevant in the new scheme of things. The mocking that Modi received from some of his critics are an expression of their own frustration rather than a counter to his argument.

The trouble for Congress, the Grand Old Party of old elites and entrenched dynasties, is that it has been unable to change itself even as India underwent rapid change since economic liberalisation. The rise of a new middle class has meant that old fault lines no longer work. The new voters are impatient, ambitious and scornful of those who suffer from a sense of entitlement. They are also proud of their civilizational heritage. And this isn't restricted to urban areas alone.

As Tavleen Singh writes in The Indian Express: "While travelling during this election, I have, for the first time heard ordinary people in small villages speak of how wrong it is that the doors of politics are open only to those who come from privileged families… One reason why Modi remains hugely popular in the vast hinterland of rural India is because he is seen as a man who is working for the country and not his family."

The elites are aghast at the 'Khan Market gang' jibe, all the more because this paradigm is here to stay. If Modi returns to power on 23 May, Khan Market, too, may fall to the rabble waiting at the gates.

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Updated Date: May 14, 2019 09:28:39 IST