National

The Tsunamo In Their Heads

Why a Modi win is seen as inevitable in urban India, especially among left-liberal pundits

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The Tsunamo In Their Heads
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If urban middle class opinion in India is to be believed, Narendra Modi will be sworn in as India’s next prime minister before the end of this month. Curiously, this opinion is widely shared across the ideological spectrum, enthusiastically by some and fearfully by others. While support for Modi and the BJP among the urban middle classes is understandable, how do we explain the responses of those in the same milieu who are opposed to Modi, especially those who designate themselves “liberals” or “leftists”?

For some context, it is instructive to return to 2009. A turn to the archives reveals a smug Pratap Bhanu Mehta gloating after the UPA’s victory that “the post-Mandal age of identity votebanks is over.” Fulsome in his praise for Rahul Gandhi, Mehta wrote that “at the moment people see Congress as a party of the future” with the dynastic scion as its concrete manifestation. Equally revealing is the historian-turned-political-guru Ramachandra Guha’s vociferous claim on CNN-IBN that the 2009 result was “the most sensible verdict in an Indian election since 1977 .” Nearly three years later, pollster Yogendra Yadav spoke of a “Rahul effect” that abandoned “the staple language of caste-community equations” in favour of “governance and development.” No Modi wave seemed on the horizon, and “liberal” political commentators imagined that the noise emanating from their expensive hats made some sense.

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Yet everything seems to have changed now. Pratap Mehta has written recently of “miscalibrated expectations” and that “the hype in 2009 disguised a number of real weaknesses” in the economy. Since then, he has proceeded to shout down Modi’s critics who call the prime-minister-in-waiting a “fascist.” Ramachandra Guha, not one to be left behind, has rushed to say that those who call Modi a fascist “underestimate the strength of our democratic institutions.” In other words, with a Modi victory absolutely certain, there is nothing to fear. Another well-known “liberal” intellectual André Béteille is hopeful that the BJP comes to power under Modi’s leadership. In a similar vein, the media pundit Shiv Visvanathan penned a “reluctant recommendation certificate for Modi,” ostensibly swayed by urban middle class, especially youth, sentiment across the nation.

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Even among the ranks of the much-derided and beleaguered left, a Modi victory is apparently on the cards. Many leftists in India and abroad worry about the “frontrunner” in India’s national elections, and urge others to worry, too, at the grim future that lies ahead. There is scarcely any room for doubt amidst such prophesies of doom and gloom. Closer to the seat of power in New Delhi, the columnist G. Sampath writes forebodingly: “If the Indian political landscape is under the dark clouds of fascism, it is not because of what Modi might do if he comes to power but because there could be a mass endorsement of what he might do if he comes to power.” According to Sampath, “a dynastic Congress full of parallel political entrants with little grassroot connect" can hardly match up to the challenge presented by the Modi-supporting masses. Ominously, he adds, the “rage of the masses, as the sub-continent knows too well, can wreak terrible havoc.” Fear-mongering among leftists, bereft of mass support, has thus come to coexist with elite liberals coyly awaiting their new patron in Delhi.  

Despite their vastly different motivations, how have these intelligent men and women come to accept the half-truths and falsehoods churned out by Modi’s billion-dollar propaganda machine? The most obvious explanation lies in the utter disconnect between the intelligentsia in this country and the vast majority of Indians who live, work, and vote without being caught up in an illusory Modi wave. For the likes of Pratap Mehta, this is an ideological matter, underwritten by a deep-seated aversion to the post-Mandal politics of democratization, which threw up popular politicians such as Laloo Yadav and Mayawati. But if this aversion to plebeian leaders afflicts “liberal” patricians, the same can be said for the so-called “left” in India too. From stratospheric heights, both view and prescribe solutions for the undifferentiated “masses,” fighting mock battles against each other with a ferocity only the deluded can conjure up.

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But there is something more that has made the illusory Modi wave plausible to those who are not traditionally BJP supporters in urban India. Simply put, let us call it “patronage.” A change of regime in New Delhi would undoubtedly penalize those who had grown accustomed to the patronage of the Congress Raj. Memories of the 1999-2004 period under NDA rule certainly shape the hopes and fears of the intelligentsia that the Congress has nurtured and nourished over the decades since decolonization. As Garga Chatterjee has written, harshly albeit perceptively: 

“Long well-fed by Congressite doles, the professor/activist nomenklatura and other managers of such Delhi-based government-subsidized ‘liberal’ fortresses feel (falsely) that the party might end.” 

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But the fears of those accustomed to Congress patronage are not entirely unfounded. A well-known left-wing research institute in Kolkata, for instance, was forced to operate on a shoe-string budget during Murli Manohar Joshi’s stint as human resources development (HRD) minister. It is, in fact, precisely the legitimate nature of these left-liberal fears that reveals the extent of corruption among our state-funded intelligentsia in India. Under the circumstances, the only two plausible responses are to embrace a new patron, as liberals have done, or to blame the “fascist” masses, as those on the left have done.

Last but certainly not the least, let us consider how Modi reflects a hegemonic strand of urban middle class opinion today. Even for those of us who insist that there is no Modi wave, the upper-caste Hindu proponents of Brand India will outlive this election. Consider a recent book titled Righteous Republic, which reworks earlier Congress narratives of the nationalist movement into an American-style tale of founding fathers, albeit with deep roots in Hindu “traditions.” Another righteous Hindu gentleman writes: “I am myself a Hindu and a patriot. That is to say, my private life bears the signs of my upbringing in a family that was reformist and heterodox, but unmistakably Hindu.” What follows is an agonizing attempt to explain why his brand of Hindu nationalism is less pernicious and more attractive than Modi’s. Other celebrations of the “idea of India,” or what the historian Perry Anderson has derisively labelled “The Indian Ideology,” are similarly marked by caste and religion, and unabashedly seek to project their version of Hindu nationalism as a respectable one in foreign eyes. These celebratory narratives will outlast this or that election. The difference between these narratives and those generated by the Sangh Parivar is only a matter of degree, not one of kind. When we are reduced to quibbling over decimal points, is it such a surprise that Modi has captured the urban (Hindu) middle-class imagination so spectacularly?

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Once we appreciate these deeper reasons for why a Modi win is seen as inevitable in urban India, especially among left-liberal pundits, it is not difficult to appreciate that the electoral fight against Modi and his politics begins and ends in the regions and localities where the likes of Mayawati, Laloo, and Mamata emerge. Upon their humble and all-too-mortal shoulders, the hopes of millions of Indians rest even as they are written off by urban commentators. If things were left to the urban and the urbane, alas, we would have been fed to the wolves long ago.

Dr Uday Chandra is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Goettingen (Germany)

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