Understanding the ‘moderate’ urban, middle-class Modi supporter

By Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav


Modi appeals to the middle-class

In a country as vast and diverse as India, it is difficult to analyse the various reasons why people are supporting Narendra Modi. Nevertheless, this article is an attempt to do so. The following observations are not based on detailed surveys ‘in the field’, but on conversations and debates with persons who can be seen as partially representing Modi’s urban, middle-class support base.

To these persons, Gujarat without a doubt represents the best model for economic growth. Although some of Modi’s supporters unabashedly state that they stand for ‘business interests’, many in fact portray themselves as supporting his ‘model’ for the sake of India’s poor. The rationale is that it will increase the overall size of the pie and it is only by doing so that we can have anything to distribute to the poor. This is a vision of simple trickle-down economics in which ‘growth’ is inherently positive and beneficial to all, including India’s poor and destitute. Poverty is seen as the product solely of ‘politics’, of corrupt politicians who siphon away that portion of money generated by ‘economic growth’ that is allocated for the poor. In this imagination, the Congress alone represents this politics of corruption and cronyism that betrays India’s poor. Despite the BJP having been embroiled in corruption scandals involving illegal land deals, iron-ore mining and even the purchase of coffins for Kargil soldiers (to name a few) it is seen as representing a pristine politics cleansed of obstacles that hamper ‘economic growth’, allowing not just the unhindered generation of wealth but also its smooth distribution among everyone including the poor. That poverty and economic inequality might also be the outcome of the type of economic growth India may have chosen to follow does not seem to have entered this imagination, and the question of how far Modi deviates from or conforms to this model of economic growth naturally does not arise. Modi, to them, simply represents the positive ideal of ‘economic growth’ par excellence.

Arguments and data that consistently reveal other states as ahead of Gujarat on various economic indicators (including HDI) are awkward and are dealt with either by ad hominem responses questioning the objectivity of the source or by pointing to Modi’s other ‘plus points’. He alone represents the strong leader that India sorely needs. Even among those who do not declare that ‘India needs a dictator’, there is a belief that a little bit of ‘authoritarianism’ may be good for India. The word does not make them anxious – for them, it only conjures images of efficient, decisive leadership. They comfort others by saying it is not going to be like it was under Hitler because India is a multi-party democracy with multiple checks and balances. Modi cannot kill each and every person belonging to a religious minority, he cannot purge politics of all dissenters and cannot muzzle the entire press.  The point is not invalid: India’s vastness, diversity, long democratic tradition and multi-party scenario indeed make it difficult for it to ever resemble Hitler’s Germany.

But as long as the extreme scenario – of an absolute dictator engaging in total ethnic cleansing, controlling the entire media and throwing all political opponents in jail – can be rejected, all other concerns about more subtle and insidious ways of eroding democratic norms and procedures are also dismissed. To those of Modi’s young middle class supporters who still believe in the value of democracy, India has been one for their entirety of their lives and is imagined as always remaining so. For them, voting is like the act of consumption: they tried a product for ten years, learnt that it is ineffective, and now they wish to try a brand new product. Why not? If they dislike the new product, they will simply switch back.

Democracy in India, for them, is like a well-oiled machine that simply is. It is not something that has to be sustained and kept alive; it is not something that can be eroded. In what seems to be a surprisingly unflinching belief in the resilience of Indian democracy, the possibility of the erosion of checks and balances, the undermining of separation of powers, the stifling of deliberation and dissent, and majoritarian nationalist chauvinism is rejected as impossible. Those who raise these concerns are deemed to be naïve and paranoid. It is unclear whether these persons are alive to the erosion of democratic norms or procedures in the past under non-BJP rule, but it seems clear that the question of this process accelerating under Modi does not arise, despite his hitherto dismissive attitude towards criticism and dissent, deliberation and consultation, negotiation and collaboration – values which form the core of any democracy.  This privileged section of the Indian populace that has never had to struggle to wrest or preserve its democratic freedoms seems to take them for granted. Their unquestioning faith in Indian democracy may belie complacency that can never be harboured by the underprivileged or marginalized, who have fought hard to retain their democratic rights and freedoms as the only means to ensure that their voices may be heard. Unlike them, the privileged seem to be unaware of the fragility of democracy and seem to be unable to even imagine their lives without certain freedoms they now enjoy. They support ‘dictatorships’ and ‘authoritarianism’ without a clear understanding of what this will imply for their own freedoms.

While some of Modi’s urban middle-class supporters may view the words ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ with scorn, some claim to be both. They genuinely felt for the Delhi Gang-rape Victim and supported the protests for women’s rights. They would not hesitate to aver that minorities are equal citizens of India and claim to be proud of India’s diversity. But at the same time, they angrily object to the 2002 riots being harped on about. For them, the Gujarat riots are part of the perpetual and inevitable conflict arising from the ineradicable differences between the primordial religious identities of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’. Contrary to what historians or analysts of riots may say, they believe that riots an inescapable part of India’s past, present and future, thus negating the possibility of violence ever being politically mediated (Although they bring up the Congress Party’s role in the 1984 riots as a counter against any mention of 2002, their belief in perennial Hindu-Muslim conflict inadvertently absolves it of all responsibility). They say they do not care about riots because this diverts attention from more important future-oriented issues of development and progress. But the ‘progress’ they envision presumably entails a vision of India where rule of law prevails and rapists are punished. Indeed, this is what they demanded in the aftermath of the Delhi Gang-rape. But their minds can somehow separate ‘riots’ from notions of ‘crime’ and ‘law’.  The same people who demanded justice for the crime of sexual torture and rape of an urban, middle-class woman from Delhi seem to be unmoved by strikingly similar accounts of sexual torture and rape of women in Gujarat where it is estimated that 250 girls and women were gang-raped and burnt to death. Some of them had metal rods shoved inside them just like the woman from Delhi, and most of them still have not received justice even more than ten years later. But because these crimes occurred during ‘riots’ they are somehow treated as divorced from ‘law’ and ‘crime’ and part of the regrettable but inevitable fuzzy chaos of religious conflict. And this somehow dilutes the sense of injustice felt by them regarding the violation of women’s rights in these cases.

Do the raped and murdered women of Gujarat become unimportant because of a lapse of time? Or because they are Gujarati? Or is it because they are Muslim? One wonders whether these persons would have dismissed crimes that occurred during the Gujarat riots in the same manner if ‘Hindu’ women had been raped or killed by ‘Muslim’ men. Their adherence to principles seems to be inconsistent and ultimately hypocritical. Does it reveal a latent majoritarian mentality? Are violations of principles of rights, liberties, justice, equality and law when the effected belong to the religious minorities being rationalized as the unfortunate but inevitable cost of democracies in which the majority alone matters? Are these principles being seen as ultimately really applicable only to the majority (which is somehow being undemocratically defined in terms of religion)?

Curiously, great offence is taken when one points out the possible bias that may underlie this selective adherence to principles because these persons genuinely see themselves as secular, liberal and humane. It is true that many of them do not exhibit any hostility towards minorities. But upon introspection, they may find themselves slipping into subliminally thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, in terms of an India that is essentially Hindu, and where religious minorities have interests distinct from those of the ‘Hindu majority’ and are the concern of minorities alone. Perhaps they feel that beyond a very basic level of politeness and inter-personal decency (when they ever do interact with a member of a religious minority), they do not have to concern themselves with whether the interests or rights of the ‘Other’ are being undermined.

This inability to empathize with fellow Indian citizens fighting for justice against a state which fails to guarantee it even to themselves perhaps reveals them not only as inadequately liberal, insufficiently secular and morally insensitive to the plight of their fellow-citizens, but also as poorly vigilant citizens. One wonders if they consider the possibility that enabling a culture of impunity for politicians by ignoring the predicament of fellow-citizens may also belie a profound misunderstanding of their own self-interest.


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