Modi and the ‘Urban Middle Class’

Notes in response to Arnab Ray’s ‘Deconstructing Modi’, published on his blog.


— At the risk of being modeled, according to your schema, as a congenital Modi-basher, I must say that I abhor the person and much of what he stands for. Before Feb/March 2002 I did not. Fact is, Modi wears the killings as a badge of honour, and has usually simply refused to answer questions on the matter, and when–quizzed by foreign media–he does ‘open up’, Modi refers to 2002 through bizarre analogies, which call into question, at best, the person’s sincerity. Point is, for myself, and many others, Modi will remain tainted unless acts meaningfully in a way consistent with someone truly sorry for what happened (>2000 deaths is very serious, even by Indian standards). Lest one jumps to certain conclusions, it is for the same reason that Sajjan Kumar will remain tainted by 1984, no matter what the judicial outcomes are: the man’s bravado and absence of regret is undeniable.

What I would like to know is through what logics have a substantial number of Indians–who are not true blue ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’ crowd–come to believe in and support Modi despite 2002? Is it simply that 11 years have passed, and our collective memory has faded?

— You’re very right, in my opinion, in your critique of the Modi-as-PR-hype narrative. Political identities aren’t unilinear, but surely the blitz does have some effect: the Gujarat-story, whatever that is, has been rid of its problematic aspects (poverty, cronyism, ecology etc) and has been centered around shiny highways and 24-hr electricity. The parallel here would be Sheila Dixit’s Delhi, where again you hardly have powercuts now and there are all kinds of flyovers, but even though she’s been the CM longer than Modi, there is no ‘Delhi-model’ to speak of, even accounting for the fact that its a smaller state. In short, I won’t dismiss the PR strategy entirely, just as it cannot be singularly deployed to explain Modi’s rise.

— Finally, I think a deconstruction of the ‘Indian urban middle class’ (IUMC hereon), which forms a basis of your analysis, is in order. What do we know about it? Is there any kind of general logic that holds it together?

By definition it simply refers to a supposed group of people in cities with reasonable, if not secure, income and particular patterns of consumption that have intensified since 1991. Does this imply a political outlook? Can it be spoken of as–pardon my use of evil-Marxist vocabulary, ‘class for itself’?
What about the geography of the IUMC (Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali, Bihari etc UMC)? Its religious belonging (Muslim, Hindu, Christian, atheist etc UMC)? Age of the members? And very importantly, their caste (does the Dalit UMC have same political outlook as the Brahmin UMC?)? Even a brief interaction with Municipal sweepers (lower caste) and security guards (usually Brahmin) is enough to shake the foundations of this ‘chaotic concept’.

What all this may mean is that the Urban Middle Class is as much a specific discourse as Modi’s popularity within it is: it may well be true that to a question ‘who would you like to see as PM’, more socially mobile urban residents answer Modi–but that is to be shown and disaggregated, rather than be taken for granted.

The Urban Middle Class may very well be the foundational myth on which the Modi story is hinged.


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