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After all the pomp and circumstance of poll strategy and campaign bluster, it’s the voters that count. Mayank Jain has never voted. But 2014 may be the first time this 35-year-old finance professional from Mumbai casts his ballot. If he does, it will be for Narendra Modi and with hopes that he becomes the next PM. “He is about good governance and good results. He is focused on the economy, on getting things done, driving entrepreneurship,” he says. “If someone like him rises to national prominence, I’ll vote for him. Gujarat has changed so much under him, we need more states like Gujarat. If he is PM, maybe he can do this on a larger scale.”
“The aspirational members of the middle class would align with any leader who assures them of growth and development.”
Besotted with growth and disillusioned with the UPA’s failure to ensure enough of that panacea, many members of India’s teeming urban middle class, including those who aspire to be included in it, want to see Modi lead India. Like Jain, they dream of new Gujarats on India’s map. With Modi’s third consecutive win, the clamour to have him contest the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate may well spill over to territories outside Gujarat.
Mindful of its untapped political potential—perhaps an aggregated 100-odd Lok Sabha seats—Modi wooed India’s urban middle class this time. Even, in a significant departure, speaking in Hindi at his victory rally. His 2012 avatar is all about development, an idea dear to the middle class. Less of a politician seeking votes, more of a salesman pitching dreams to consumers, marketed by a slick PR campaign that made a brand out of him. This is unlike his Hindutva-saturated election rhetoric in 2002, something that puts off many who vote for stability and progress. Even his 2007 spiel, based on affronts to Gujarat’s ‘asmita’, has been mothballed, its appeal having little resonance, if any, outside the state.
“Governance is a major concern for the middle class. Its delivery has an appeal that transcends all classes.”
The new BJP manifesto touts, above all, the state’s “historical development, powered by efficient and transparent administration”. Yes, there is the obligatory reference to Lord Rama and the cow, but it is loaded with promises of “All Inclusive, All Pervasive and All round Development”—the right noises that would endear him to the Indian middle class. To increase its numbers, the party even addressed the ‘neo-middle class’ in its manifesto—those who recently benefited from Gujarat’s growth and joined the middle ranks—and promised sops like low-cost housing. And it is also a bait to the several million families outside Gujarat waiting to move up. “These are the aspirational middle class, those waiting at the door to join in and enjoy the party. They would align with any political leader, be it Nitish Kumar or Narendra Modi, who is seen to deliver and assures development and growth,” says Alam Srinivas, whose book The Indian consumer—One Billion Myths; One Billion Realities deals with the middle class.
Writer and columnist Santosh Desai adds that Modi can expect some support from the middle class because he is seen as “coherent, someone who represents strength and clarity”. This is bolstered by the disenchantment with the present regime. “With Rahul Gandhi, the middle class isn’t even sure if he wants to lead or not. In this sea of political expediency, the idea that Modi can lead it out of this mess is an attractive idea,” he says. “But this has limited traction, as the middle class has never determined political outcomes, and the neo-middle class is an untested political formulation. We tend to overstate the power of the middle class—always have, always will.”
“Modi is seen as coherent, one with strength, clarity. The idea that he can lead India out of a mess is attractive.”
The promise of an efficient government is Modi’s biggest draw, Pavan K. Varma, author of The Great Indian Middle Class, points out. “Governance is a major concern for the middle class in the working of our democracy. Its delivery has an appeal that transcends all classes.” But is it enough to see him through to Delhi in 2014? Varma acknowledges that the idea (governance helping a candidate win an election despite the odds) has never been tested. “There are issues with Modi. Something that is possible in Gujarat, with a large commercial class, cannot be assumed to be so in India that has a diverse ethnic base,” he adds.
What may help Modi further is his humble origin—he is an OBC and helped his brother run a tea stall as a teenager. Seen as one who has risen thus, it makes him one of the ‘neo-middle class’. “He is someone who has not had it easy,” says Ahmedabad-based social scientist Ajay Dandekar. “Rahul Gandhi has made honest efforts to reach out to the aam aadmi, but Modi is likely to have an edge just because of his humble background.” When Modi was featured on the cover of Time magazine earlier this year, the state BJP talked him up as the first Indian OBC leader to get that distinction.
“Rahul Gandhi has tried to reach out to the aam aadmi, but Modi is likely to have an edge due to his humble origins.”
But how does this endorsement square with the taint on Modi from 2002 and his refusal to apologise for having failed to prevent the riots? “This is 10 years old now. He may have done something, however reprehensible, to kickstart his career. I look at it more as a means to an end. We need to have a holistic view and not look at things in isolation. Modi’s accomplishments (since 2002) are something to be proud of and for others in power to aspire to,” replies Jain. “Overlook, condone, forget, move on,” is what he prescribes. This segues in with what sociologist Shiv Visvanathan wrote: “He is shrewd enough to realise that consumption, development and progress are all modes of forgetting. He asks that people forget his past to accept the future he is offering.”
However, Gujarat’s growth story has dark zones, such as its poor human development indices or the fact that it has the highest number of critically polluted areas, but this matters little for a middle class bent on improving its lot and, as political psychologist Ashis Nandy argues, dreams of the kind of development authoritarianism seen in Singapore and China. “The glittering Gujarat story has acquired an image they are willing to fall for uncritically,” adds Dandekar. Whatever critics say, Modi’s followers have a new slogan—Dilli dur nist.