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Why the Indian middle class gravitates towards Modi

Nagesh Prabhu | Updated on December 07, 2020

Out of touch: The Congress, despite claiming to be the ‘manufacturer’ of the middle class through its economic reforms, has not been in sync with the aspirations of this 500-million-plus population   -  VV KRISHNAN

‘Middle Class, Media and Modi’ unravels the rise of the BJP and Prime Minister Modi from the middle-class perspective avoiding adulation or virulent attacks

*The book painstakingly sketches an unbiased picture of a very complex story — of how the middle class transformed the political landscape in post-liberalisation India

* Besides the enormity of anti-incumbency feelings among the voters, there was diminishing appeal of the anti-poverty schemes of the Congress in 2014 and 2019

***

India’s middle class attracts media attention on earmarked occasions: When Central or state budgets seek to hike prices of fuel, essential commodities or electronic gadgets leading to inflation, or when banks raise the rate of interest on housing loans, and perhaps during elections.

Surely, much has been written about India’s middle class from its consumption and lifestyle perspectives. But the visibility, influence in moulding public opinion, ideological leanings and political assertiveness of the middle class in profoundly changing the country’s political culture, especially after the introduction of liberal economic policies, have not been much debated.

We have come across pre-poll and exit poll surveys capturing the voting preference of the middle class towards a political party during the elections. These surveys were largely based on social cleavages such as caste, region, ethnicity and religion, and not class. The importance of factors such as education, income, occupation, class and ideology among voters in shaping election results is now gaining currency.

My book Middle Class, Media and Modi: The Making of a New Electoral Politics published by SAGE traces the role of the middle class in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral success — which is largely an understudied subject. It breaks new ground and studies a new hypothesis based on middle-class moorings and media provocations. It painstakingly sketches an unbiased picture of a very complex story — of how the middle class transformed the political landscape in post-liberalisation India.

No doubt, there are a good number of books on Modi. But most of them were written either by Modi loyalists or critics and hence biased one way or the other from an ideological perspective. My intention is to unravel BJP and Modi’s rise from the middle class perspective avoiding adulation or virulent attacks that seems to have become the main pastime of a section of the media in recent years.

Middle Class, Media and Modi: The Making of a New Electoral Politics / Nagesh Prabhu / SAGE / Non-fiction / ₹1,395

 

Though I did a small research project on the composition of India’s middle class and its politics in the early 1990s, it took me many years to pen the book while successive Congress-led governments largely focused on the poverty removal paradigm with Garibi Hatao as a poll plank and remained mute to the middle-class’s interests. The Congress, despite claiming to be the ‘manufacturer’ of this middle class through its economic reforms during the regimes of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, PV Narasimha Rao in the 1990s and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004-14, has not been in sync with the aspirations of this 500-million-plus population, thanks to the growing service sector and increased women workforce.

Based on the feedback on research papers I presented in half a dozen seminars, and discussions with politicians across parties, I started exploring how the rise of the middle/new middle class along with the media changed the dynamics of the Indian democratic politics in the last four decades. Why did the middle class vote for the BJP led by Modi in the 2014 and 2019 elections? The book examines the factors that resulted in the disillusionment of the middle class towards the Congress and how it changed to espouse the ideology propagated by Modi and his party.

Besides the enormity of anti-incumbency feelings among the voters, there was diminishing appeal of the anti-poverty schemes of the Congress in 2014 and 2019 owing to increased social mobility among the middle classes. With an improved economic situation, many people, who were once poor, graduated to the middle class or new middle class. The construction sector, infrastructure projects, and cab services, e-commerce firms, and security agencies appear to have lifted several households out of poverty by providing jobs and they itched to claim their rightful place in the middle class. The saffron party cleverly tapped the anxieties and aspirations of this new entrant to the segment.

The Congress, on the other hand, appeared clueless and unsuccessful in reaching out to the new demographic that emerged during its own rule! The middle-class anger as a result of UPA’s stalled economic growth and endless corruption scandals created a hunger for change. The media contributed significantly by provoking young middle-class voters on these factors.

The middle class walked into mainstream political activism with the spark released by the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in New Delhi in 2011. The Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial nominee Modi had a better understanding of the middle-class constituency. Born in a middle-class family, he began to sell the dream of achhe din (good days) to the people. By drawing public attention to himself as the vikas purush (the development-oriented man) during his rule in Gujarat, he promised to bring alive the middle class dreams of prosperity, opportunities and a better standard of living. The war of words over Modi’s humble background as a chaiwala (tea seller) only added to the agony of Congress. All these changed the electoral dynamics in the 16th general elections.

I have traced the election campaign and media strategy of BJP and Modi. They were aided by experts and meticulous planning contributed to their electoral success. Narratives around religious nationalism, national security, including surgical and aerial strikes, too, have been widely discussed. One can find adequate insights into the strategy Modi adopted from social engineering to communication with the electorate and reasons for the middle class rallying behind him for securing the historic mandates in 2014 and 2019.

That Modi’s management of mainstream media and social media — the primary consumers of which is the middle class — played a key role in his emphatic victories has been acknowledged. The electoral outcomes of 2014 and 2019 certainly changed the way India imagines itself and how the rest of the world sees India.

Nagesh Prabhu is deputy editor, The Hindu, Bengaluru

Published on December 07, 2020

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