Friday, March 1, 2024

Method of victory: Tradition, Modi, middle-class

Narendra Modi/X

Saddam Hussain & MD Osama

In their famous work, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India, Rudolph & Rudolph argued that tradition and modernity are not separate conceptual categories representing different spheres of socio-political life but rather shape and reshape each other with the help of political agents. The traditional elements become mobilizing agents through which the course of direction of any country can be determined. 

With the coming of Modi, we have witnessed a rising tendency of traditionalism as exemplified in the case of the Ram mandir and several other incidents and events like the introduction of Sengol into parliament, sensitisation of Hindutva belief, politicization of cow and the continuous mob lynching of Muslim.  On the other hand, we are faced with rising economic disparity, and high degree of inflation and unemployment as well as gender and caste-based violence, posing a unique question: how does the current political dispensation manage to consolidate power repeatedly? And what are the socio-cultural and economic configurations they condense to sustain their regime?

Unlike the West where the rise of populist conservative parties and right-wing nationalist movements was on the back of the working-class revolt against neoliberal policies and austerity measures. Since the 1980s, as working-class incomes stagnated, employment opportunities were also diminished, as producers shifted their operations to African and Asian countries, particularly India and China, where labour was cheap and tax norms were laxer. Social expenditure cuts as austerity measures were implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which further hit the income of these social groups. 

It became the watershed moment which sharply affected the political landscape of these countries. The middle classes which had benefited from neo-liberal policies supported progressive regimes, while the worker classes moved to the right, finding representation in right-wing parties as class and ethnicity coalesced, giving rise to white nationalism and consolidating the right-wing party to power. But in India, the nature of populism and the modality through which power is consolidated is different.

The neo-liberal regime had a similar economic condition but a different socio-cultural configuration in India. Its policies, beginning as early as 1980 with the weakening of labour laws, found their mature expression in the ‘LPG’ reform of 1991. GDP growth rate accelerated by the end of that decade driven by a rapidly growing IT and Service sector. However, the benefit of this growth was reaped mostly by the middle classes who had the technical training for such jobs. 

French economist and professor Thomas Piketty points out that working-class incomes between 1980 and 2020 grew much slower than those of the middle and upper classes, exacerbating inequality. The mean income of the bottom (working class) 50% grew only by 90% while that of the top (upper class) 10% grew by 435%, and that of the top 0.01% by 1690%. While the upper classes grew rich at an exponential rate, and a powerful middle class took shape, lower-income groups saw their already stagnating income dissolve through the effect of inflation.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a massive middle-class and ‘neo-middle class’ had emerged, located in India’s rapidly expanding cities. This middle class, composed mostly of the Upper-caste and upwardly mobile dominant OBCs, had begun to move away from the politics of welfarism, secularism and social justice espoused by the ruling Congress party and various regional parties. Electoral data shows that it was this middle and ‘neo-middle’ class that successively turned out to be the voters of the populist right-wing party like the BJP.  

Apart from the support of a large chunk of the middle-class population which benefitted from neoliberalism and gradually, deviated from the politics of welfarism and secularism. right-wing BJP under the Modi leadership successfully utilizes the traditional elements of Indian society. By mobilizing the traditional element and removing the tag of regressiveness imposed upon by the liberal elite of the country, he was able to identify and appropriate the strain of the postcolonial discourses by redefining colonialism itself as beginning from the Muslim invasion.

Moreover, the dominant idea of progressiveness and development that finds its root in the discourse of modernity fades off with the rise of post-modern paradigms. So, by using the contradiction of modernity, he disrupts the basic premise of Indian modernity that was based on the ideas of economic development and presents an alternative version of Hindutva modernity that traces its base in traditionalism for his benefit. While penetrating the social system, rather than political as primary, Modi’s political victory is more a realisation of India’s modernity of tradition.

With the disruptive economy in which only one class of the Indian population ascends and leaves behind a large portion of the population into impoverishment. At the same time, acute polarization increases based on the sentiment of communalism which may cause the political decline of current dispensation. Modi has tactically invoked the Indian tradition to create collective euphoria among the Indian masses before the world. This present system of socio-cultural and economic configuration and the manipulation of tradition in the political realm is what constitutes the room for their political survival. 

Saddam Hussain is a postgraduate student in Sociology at Jamia Millia University, New Delhi. MD Osama is a postgraduate student of French language and literature in the school of language at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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