Even the foremost successful of politicians misjudge popular appetites and overreach. and that they typically overreach once they overestimate the facility of the very approach that brought them success. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political approach is rooted during a Hindu middle-class universe — a mix of cultural essentialism, political majoritarianism, and economic aspiration — which shapes much of his politics. What the backlash over the three farm laws proves is that India isn’t , as of yet, that middle-class universe.
Modi’s narrative on the farm laws — of unshackling people from the chains of vested interests and giving them the trail to prosperity — was perfectly in line with the politics that has repeatedly bolstered his popular support. an identical upending of established order and quashing of entrenched interests were at the core of the recognition of schemes from demonetisation to Article 370 abrogation to the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) regime. The agricultural reforms push had all the features and sensibilities of Modi’s distinctive middle-class politics of aspiration. Yet this point , he seems to possess misjudged the favored mood. What happened?
Fundamentally, what Modi has overlooked is that his middle-class constituency is actually a coalition of two strikingly distinct classes — the normal middle classes and thus the neo-middle classes. These two classes are bound together more by a sensibility and a loose ideological orientation instead of any concrete interests, and therefore, Modi’s middle-class politics is circumscribed by hard limits, which became apparent now.
The two middle classes
The traditional middle classes are the skinny sliver of the population — the school educated and professionally employed people whom you see consuming English news and opining on social media. The neo-middle classes, a term popularised and politicised by Modi, are all the large masses of individuals who have escaped poverty and self-identify as bourgeoisie but haven’t yet reached bourgeoisie living standards. As social scientist Christophe Jaffrelot had noted in 2014, it were the neo-middle classes which had powered Modi to victory.
The political brilliance of Modi has lied in fusing these two distinct classes during a politics of aspiration. This has given him an outsized area of catchment on which to base a dominant politics — 58 per cent of surveyors self-identified as bourgeoisie during a CSDS-Lokniti poll of 2019. Even Modi’s welfare policies towards the poor are framed under a middle-class modulated vocabulary of empowerment and development instead of as poverty alleviation schemes. during this political framework, when the expanded Hindu bourgeoisie comes together together — like on Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), demonetisation, lockdown politics — it exerts a hegemonic force, which lends Modi the cloak of irresistibility.
However, because the furore over the farm laws shows, these two middle classes can sharply depart in political positions due to different material interests. While the normal middle classes have lauded Modi for the
‘politically tough’, ‘forward looking’ agriculture reforms, the position of the neo-middle classes seem to range from indifference or ambiguity to being openly against the govt actions.
This position of the agricultural neo-middle classes (at least) are often gauged not just from the mass protests at Delhi’s borders but even more so from the very fact that no major party except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is standing up for the farm reforms. Political parties, quite anyone else, have their ear to the bottom and when the allies of the BJP and therefore the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) own farmer wing openly support the protests, popular opinion becomes fairly clear. Even its ally in Haryana, the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), is being constantly pushed by its legislators to back the protests.
Middle classes’ State dependence and reform mindset
Rapid rise of incomes, urbanisation, and therefore the spread of mass media had forged a standard sensibility among this expanded bourgeoisie , a sensibility that pervades Modi’s politics. One a part of it’s political style — a managerial, de-politicised approach to governance, demonstrated in Modi’s disregard for Parliament and other constraining institutions, as was also witnessed within the passage of the farm bills. A 2005 CSDS poll found that 80 per cent of the upper-middle class felt that “all major decisions about the country should be taken by experts instead of politicians”. Similarly, a 2009 Pew survey among 13 countries revealed India to be the sole country where the poor were more concerned about democracy than the center classes. altogether other countries, the center class was the more progressive class.
The other part may be a loose ideological orientation — like favouring growth over redistribution and being allured by the politics of ethno-majoritarianism. As Nagesh Prabhu has argued in bourgeoisie , Media and Modi, this expanded and ‘hegemonic middle class’ lies at the guts of the Modi phenomenon.
However, what’s often missed is that albeit the ‘aspirational middle classes’ or neo-middle classes might share a number of an equivalent critiques of State corruption and State inefficiency because the traditional middle classes, that doesn’t necessarily make them votaries of economic reforms, especially because it affects their own interests.
As social scientist E. Sridharan had demonstrated, a majority of the broad middle classes (58-75 per cent at the turn of the century) are either public employees or rich peasants that were themselves hooked in to State subsidies. Therefore, unlike Western countries where the center classes advocate economic reforms that cut subsidies for the poor, in India, much of the center classes are themselves hooked in to the State.
In fact, the continued protests in Punjab and Haryana were initially led by rich farmers who would ordinarily be assumed to support an expansion of personal economic opportunities. But they not only remain deeply invested within the minimum support price (MSP)-mandi infrastructure, they actually demand an expansion of the MSP regime, and thus the role of the State in agriculture. Meanwhile, the smaller and marginal farmers, who have also joined the protests in large numbers, seem even less enthusiastic at the prospect of being left to barter with big agricultural interests.
Therefore, the middle-class lenses of politics applied to the countryside, which assumed that the promise of less State regulation and greater economic freedom would attract the support of certain entrepreneurial classes of farmers, has shown itself to be unmoored to reality.
This should not have come as a surprise. A Lokniti poll of 2014 showed that only 16 per cent of individuals engaged in agriculture were against government handouts. Even more broadly, 45 per cent of all people supported government handouts as against 20 per cent who opposed them. A more aspirational electorate isn’t necessarily like a more reformist electorate, a minimum of in practice. In fact, the one “reform” where the center classes and therefore the neo-middle classes stood most firmly behind the govt was demonetisation, which was rooted in populist rhetoric instead of in any economic philosophy.
Modi’s misreading of constituency
Some commentators have argued that if PM Modi stands firm like Thatcher did with labour unions, he might emerge stronger from this episode. this is often unlikely because India isn’t Britain of the first 1980s. Whereas the expanded Indian bourgeoisie is inchoate and bound together by sensibilities, British bourgeoisie was also more coherent and bound together by interests. The interests of the skilled workers, managers and property owners that Thatcher cultivated and socially engineered into an expanded bourgeoisie were distinct from the unskilled workers that protested her rule. during this fight, Modi only has the numerically insignificant traditional middle classes by his side.
However, it’s clear that Modi cannot backtrack without losing the messianic strongman image that’s at the core of his appeal. What would be even worse is to disperse the protesters by force and generate a good more damning narrative. The course of action with the smallest amount political costs is perhaps to tire the protesters then wrangle a face-saving compromise. In any case, for the primary time since 2015, Modi seems to possess fallen off to the incorrect end of a political narrative. And he got there by misreading the very constituency that has raised him to unparalleled heights.