Why the poor backed the politics of Hindutva

Tanweer Fazal | Updated on June 14, 2019 Published on June 14, 2019

Nationalist fervour apart, it projects the Muslim as a competitor for jobs and the elite as recipients of undeserved privileges

A range of explanations are currently on offer for the results thrown up by Elections 2019 — the cult of Narendra Modi, the Hindutva juggernaut, aggressive jingoism, big money, and superior skills in product branding. Most of these address the immediate, turning the elections into a singular event. The elections though are also a context, a site of conflicting aspirations, alliances and social mobilisations, which only a longue durée view can unearth.

There is a lingering question: Why did the poor vote the way they did? Post-poll surveys show that while BJP remains overwhelmingly a choice of the affluent, its increasing popularity among the poorest cannot be discounted. This is attributed to a catalogue of schemes: Ujjawala, toilets, rural electrification, etc., the efficacy of which remains contested. Moreover, is the poor’s political consciousness so acquiescent, supple and greed-driven that all it requires to enlist their support is the offer of sops and concessions?

There is also a false consciousness thesis — that is, the poor acted on their own, but fundamentally against their own interest, giving in to xenophobia and war hysteria. The poor’s political behaviour is thus seen as a mix of innocence and ignorance. The opposition strategy was supposedly to draw the voters’ attention to the ‘real issues’ — unemployment, the decimation of the informal economy through demonetisation, agrarian distress and indebtedness, or the GST implementation that hit small businesses. Accordingly, the elections supposedly symbolised a struggle between the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’, the material and the metaphysical, in which the latter emerged triumphant.

Social, political processes

Looking beyond these binaries forces us to shift our analysis towards the social and political process that have unfolded over a period of time. Thus, what do the poor look for when they vote, and how has it changed over the years? To grasp the political praxis of the poor it is imperative for a counter politics to emerge.

Oppositional politics today is in the throes of a deep crisis, the making of which goes farther than simply the resounding loss in the last two general elections. Conventionally, three streams of politics have competed to offer ameliorative strategies and, accordingly, mobilise the impoverished masses. Each proposed a utopia, an idea of justice beyond the limited aim to acquire state power. Post-independent Congress, converged developmentalism with nationalism, offering to pull a large section of the Indian people from their prevailing misery. Its success was limited as the party busied itself in balancing competing class interests. The Communists were instrumental in propelling working class movements, but ignored largely the informal sector, the mainstay of Indian economy. A rudimentary class framework reduced a whole range of extra-economic exploitative relations marked by caste, religion or even gender as auxiliary concerns.

There were significant victories, but the costs proved to be steep. It required sacrifice, and the poor, after initial signs of attraction, preferred to remain bystanders rather than the vanguard. Thus, anthropologist James Scott termed revolution a dream of the middle class intelligentsia, while what interests the ‘subordinate classes’ most is in ‘working the system to their minimum advantage’.

In its glorious phase, the plank of social justice held out hope for the poor. It primarily addressed status deprivation and caste stigmatisation, and the poor who largely filled the ranks of lower caste groups, found in it a more comprehensible answer to their woes. In its early conceptualisation, social justice promised a blend of both, recognition and redistribution

The poor sought liberation from their everyday humiliation and deprivation, and the new set of leaders appeared more intimate and endearing to them. But as justice got confined to representation, which benefited the relatively better off resulting in the sharpening of intra-group inequality, their hopes turned to despair. For the vast majority of India’s poor, there was little improvement in their perilous existence.

Lately, there is much talk about India’s achievements in reducing absolute poverty. A UN report affirmed that between 2005-06 and 2015-16, poverty rates had nearly halved. At the same time, however, inequality climbed insurmountable folds. Besides, there is increasing informalisation of work. There is too, a significant rise in the middle class, much of it now populated by the historically excluded groups and communities.

But again, a disaggregated analysis will show that this swelling is mostly in the category of lower middle class whose daily per capita expenditure is merely $2-4 a day. The flooding of market with consumer options has seen simultaneously the introduction of new kinds of classificatory practices by the elites.

A weariness with the politics of the past propels the poor to the politics of Hindutva. In times of uncertainties, this new nationalist fervour relentlessly produces enemies. While the Muslim serves as the enemy external to the Hindu nation, there are imaginary enemies within as well — the Khan market gang, Lutyens’ elite, Nehru and the secularists, and the tukde tukde group.

Unlike the Muslim, the latter lack clear ethnic markers, and therefore may be spared individualised violence. For the poor, the Muslim is a competitor in the labour-market while this imaginary elite, the exploiter and recipient of undeserved privileges. This politics also offers an imaginary horizontal comradeship in the Hindu nation that serves as a new utopia.

The writer teaches Sociology at JNU, New Delhi

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Published on June 14, 2019
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