City City Bang Bang, Columns

New Elite vs Liberals: The Rift Widens

Narendra Modi’s resounding victory is above all his own. This is a vote that has risen above regional and caste considerations, and signalled its strong preference for a single leader.

But Modi’s win-all marks other victories. The TV anchor has won over the opinion columnist, the CA over the economist, the chowkidar over the watchdog journalist. If 2014 marked the defeat of the old liberal elite, 2019 underlines its irrelevance. In spite of the less-thanspectacular performance of the Modi government and notwithstanding the higher levels of opposition unity, not only did the old elite lose, it did so resoundingly.

Till this particular government came to power, two different realities coexisted in the Indian political landscape. Electoral politics required one set of rules, with own codes and its very particular grammar, based on caste and regional factors. However, once a government got elected, a different reality came into play. The Delhi darbar culture operated regardless of which party was in power and the narrative was set and influence wielded by the socalled Lutyens’ set.

There had been a possibility, even if it were a slim one, that the new regime, like all previous governments, would succumb to the old elite’s charms. After all, in Arun Jaitley, it had someone who was an adept insider who more than knew his way around. But that was not to be. The Modi project to dismantle the power of the old elite began from the very start of his term and continued determinedly through the rest of his term. Refusing to carry a posse of journalists on his international trips, using a decidedly non-Lutyens person as his key media interface, not submitting to anything that could be construed as questioning unless it was tightly scripted, the Modi playbook left little room for those that previously shaped the mainstream narrative.

Apart from the journalist-academic-think tank set, in a larger sense too, those espousing liberal ideas and using its vocabulary too found themselves shut out. The contempt for their world along with its pre-occupations came in several ways. Appointing Pahlaj Nihalani as the head of the Censor Board and Gajendra Chauhan as the Director of FTII was one sign. Conferring Padma Awards on a completely new set of people was another.

But in spite of this determined shift that has been effected, this dispensation continues to display a very thin-skinned response to those Modi calls the Khan Market gang. At one level, the apparent resentment is tactical, in that it allows the BJP to create an enemy that looms large in the consciousness of its own base, but lacks any real power. The media has in a very real sense been tamed and brought to heel, and thus much of the anger directed at the old elite is nothing more than a profitable form of posturing.

But that is not the full story. Underneath the strategy, it channelises a real and visceral anger. There is a sense of exclusion that propels this vitriolic resentment, and this is also what animates the section of people that are today the engine that drives the BJP behemoth. The new elite has access to both education and money but had historically found itself on the wrong side of the cultural divide. Underpinning the appeal that the idea of Hindu resurgence carries is a desire to reclaim the right to speak as the rightful representatives of the country. The sense of feeling small and of having their value system delegitimised propels a virtually insatiable need for redressal. From their perspective, it seemed that their way of life was described using little but polysyllabic invective. Lacking a vocabulary of selfdefence, as well as a platform where their views could get an airing, the anger lacked an outlet. The coming of Narendra Modi as well the explosion in social media options changed everything. There is an assertive pride felt in the very sources of identity that were deemed communal and casteist in an earlier era.

The essential gap today is a cultural one. The present dispensation is culturally aligned with mainstream society, with all its divisions and hierarchies, in an unselfconscious way which the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is not. Moreover, under Modi, if on the one hand, it sees social continuity as its default setting, it is also able to plausibly hold out the promise of economic progress to large sections of society. Where the liberals see active discrimination, it sees natural differentiation. Where liberals see hierarchy, it sees identity. Liberals are preoccupied with social reform, the right is focused on social continuity.

What this election indicates is how far this difference in perspectives has gone. When a Pragya Singh Thakur gets elected as a mainstream candidate, we can discern that even the most extreme version of right-wing resentment is deemed palatable today. If nothing else, it serves to underline the unbridgeable divide between the perspectives.

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