The Politico-Cultural Elite Are Mere Fodder for the Right-Wing

The Indian secular forces need to re-think their strategy. They must be inclusive and have a clear vision to deal with communalism and polarisation.

As the results of the elections to form the 17th Lok Sabha and a new Central government are awaited, it is time to contemplate what is at stake. More importantly, it is time to introspect what exactly drives the hatred and vitriol that have become normalised in India today. The crucial questions to be asked here are: what sentiments actually lead to such a spike in hatred these days? And why have our public debates become ‘trollified’ and bitter?

Like most populists, Narendra Modi too attacks dynasty politics, elites, ‘Lutyens’ class’, the English language, diversity, liberal thought and secular ideals. Much is written about his RSS background as an explanation for this behaviour. But the moot question is: Does it really explain the behaviour of an elected prime minister? The answer is yes and no. The RSS has been around for a very long time now and it never shied away from openly expounding its ‘Hindu Rashtra’ theory in which minorities are merely second-class citizens. However, it has never gained momentum in a country that deeply believed in democracy, inclusion and secular values. What has changed now?

India’s anger with the elite 

After the Nehru years, Indira Gandhi had lost her patience in a system that can electorally defeat the elite by declaring a national Emergency. Her attempt to create an autocracy for her ‘dynasty’ came too late as Nehru had already paved the way for a robust democracy. Her attempt to suppress dissent and muzzle the opposition by brute force also came to naught. Eventually, democracy re-emerged even more vigorously.

The re-emergence of democracy came with some crucial caveats. It had left a wound in the life of democracy and the Nehru-Gandhi family had lost its supposed ‘divine right to rule’. India became eternally angry with the elite after the Emergency as it did with the British after Jallianwala Bagh. When Congress brought Narasimha Rao, a family outsider, after the Rajiv Gandhi era to partially repair the harm and the mistrust of the masses, India still responded angrily by sending into the seat of the prime minister a number of leaders from diverse political formations including a completely non-Lutyen figure – Deve Gowda. These were signs of India’s anger directed at the de-facto royalty in particular and the traditional elite in general.

Nehru’s India consciously decided not to indulge in nationalisation and expropriation of both domestic and foreign investment. Credit: Paul Hudson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

However, the forces unleashed by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were just about to manifest themselves: free-market capitalism and liberalism. It was meant to be an outlet for the pent-up anger of the masses but it created a new class of elite – the Nouveau riche. Capitalism, in their hands, turned out to be an immensely potent weapon with which the traditional elite could be attacked. The post-1992 era saw a reality unfolding in India.

The Babri Masjid was gone and sectarian hate took deep roots. The bureaucratic strangleholds with which the Congress governments kept the masses poor, illiterate and subservient until then were loosened. It became possible for many people to become rich and enter into the middle classes. The many millions of first-generation college-goers, emerged from the numerous private schools and colleges that sprang up, were discovering India fundamentally differently. The white colonisers, English-speaking and aristocratic, whose educational system they still followed, had left a strange fascination in their minds for them. That fascination was already renewed and forced upon the people of India in the decades after independence in the figures of a highly anglicised Nehru and his family members.

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Capitalism was no solution to India’s problems but it definitely created large islands of wealth and prosperity. A large section of people were perpetually mired in great poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically. The new elite have understood that the traditional elite were simply there at the right place and at the right time and not a ‘better race’ in any manner.

It should be remembered that by calling Rahul Gandhi a naamdar (dynast) and by branding himself a kaamdar (the one who works), chowkidaar (watchman) and a chaiwala (tea seller), Modi was merely invoking the aforementioned sentiments of the new elite.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

While it is true that the social welfare programmes of the Congress governments lifted millions of people out of poverty and led to the situation in which relative prosperity was possible, millions were left in the lurch. The poor had the worst deal of all. Their children dropped out of schools and the economic boom passed them by. Even if some of their children somehow managed to progress from a regional-language school to a university, they were either forced to quit or alienated by both the traditional and the new elite. The ancient caste-based hierarchy too thrived alongside a new class-based hierarchy. Nepotism was rampant too and all the good jobs, including in media and even in the ‘intellectual’ academia, were grabbed by the offspring of the traditional elite.

Anger amongst the ‘new elite’

A sense of betrayal persisted both amongst the poor and amongst the new elite. The Congress party, still a ‘dynasty’, was seen as responsible for all the harm and disillusionment. The traditional elite are now no longer limited to Lutyens’ Delhi, the Congress party or the Nehru-Gandhi family. The new elite vent their anger at those who traditionally acquired wealth and cultural capital. They also attacked everyone who looked or spoke like the traditional elite – about liberal values, democracy, inclusiveness, socialism and enlightenment branding them as ‘pseudo-sickulars’, ‘libtards’ and ‘anti-nationals’.

It is not difficult to understand that the current NDA government has targeted not just the Nehru-Gandhi family but also the institutions they nurtured. The important institutions in question include the Reserve Bank of India, Planning Commission of India and the Jawaharlal Nehru University – all of which have been unmistakable bastions of the traditional elite economists, bureaucrats and professors from families that had gone to college for generations.

For the new elite, the illiteracy and disregard their ancestors had had been forced under the rule of the colonial, and the traditional elite continued to remain as a constant source of anger. Nevertheless, it became technically feasible to enter into an elite realm using the tools of capitalist modernity such as the internet and the mobile phone. Though they have discovered the ‘true nature’ of the elite/ruling class lives, theirs were not the same yet. There was still disappointment, joblessness and uncertainty and everything about climbing the economic or educational ladder up was not great or gladdening.

Not many of them could penetrate the feudo-colonial wall to be really ‘there’ shoulder to shoulder with the traditional elite. They also understood that elitism is not just about making money or getting an education – it is also a feudal experience and it has to do with family history and ancestry. The Nouveau riche had no glorious history and they had nothing much to boast about. Therefore, when the Nouveau riche entered into the erstwhile fortresses of the now threatened traditional elite, there was a strong pushback. At the same time, the well-established pattern of the traditional elite ruling the illiterate masses from above was undergoing a transformation.

How RSS appealed to the masses

This is where the RSS comes in as it could pointedly hit where it hurts: at the renewed sense of identity and the feeling of victimhood that accompanies it. It has appealed to the middle class’ most crucial of existential crises: a sense of loss and the need to recover it and the lack of a great tradition and the need to create it. The RSS, thus, became the best bet as it always assumed an almost illusory past, a history that never existed and a certain sense of loss as a result of persecution at the hands of the real or imaginary enemies.

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The RSS knew that the new elite are bound to follow this narrative now more than ever before. It only had to magnify their worries and fill the vacuum with its ideology. A narrow version of nationalism – hyper-nationalism – in which everyone disagreeing with the government automatically becoming an ‘anti-national’ and ‘urban-Naxalite’ gained momentum. The new middle-class correctly diagnosed the symptoms of India’s diseases but asking the right-wing to treat it was akin to going to the wrong apothecary to take even more dangerous medicine.

The Indian secular forces need to re-think their strategy. They also need to be inclusive and have a clear vision to deal with communalism and polarisation. More than anything else, they need to get rid of their snobbery, nepotism, elitism, condescension and dynasty politics. And for all that to happen, a re-designing of the political system is a must.

The NDA government clearly failed to satisfy the angry citizens but it thrives on the hatred against the elite, their ideas and institutions. The Modi-led government knows well that the forces it has unleashed – hatred, Hindutva ultra-nationalism and sectarianism – are beyond mere elections and government formations.

More than who wins or who loses in these elections, the actual threats aim to dismantle the cohesive and multi-cultural life of a diverse and complex country. Once they stop being mere threats and solidify as reality, elections and government formations would not make much sense.

Vinod Kottayil Kalidasan is an independent researcher who holds a PhD in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He taught at JNU, Delhi University and at the central universities in Kerala and Rajasthan. He teaches and studies forms of culture and literature. He can be contacted at vinodkk07@gmail.com.