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Modi’s moment is about middle class dignity

If Indians won their political freedom in August 1947 and their economic freedom in July 1991, they have attained dignity in May 2014. This is the significance of Narendra Modi’s landslide victory. The hopes and dreams of an aspiring new middle class have been affirmed for the first time in India’s history. Modi has made millions believe that their future is open, not predetermined, and can be altered by their own actions. In a fine book, Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey explains that the same thing happened during the great transformation of the West in the 19th and early 20th century when the industrial revolution created a middle class that changed the master narrative of western societies.
The typical voter who elected Modi was not a Hindu nationalist. He was a young, middle-of-the-road person, who had recently migrated from a village to a small town. He had got his first job and his first cellphone and he aspired to a life better than his father’s. The stocky, selfmade , son of a station chai-walla inspired him with his message of development and governance, making him forget his caste, religion, and village. The young man became convinced that his battle was not against other Indians but against a state that would not give him a birth certificate without paying a bribe.
The chai-walla assuaged his other Indian middle class insecurities. Our young aspirer discovered that he did not have to speak English to get ahead. “If the chaiwalla can aspire to lead our nation without English, there is nothing wrong if I am uncomfortable in it,” he thought. “I too can be modern in my mother tongue.” When he witnessed Modi perform aarti on his television screen in a riveting performance at the Dashashwamedh ghat by the Ganga in Varanasi, he felt deeply moved. Suddenly, he did not feel ashamed of being Hindu. The “secular” English speaking intelligentsia had heaped contempt on his “superstitious” ways and had made him feel inferior and inadequate. During his long campaign of political theatre, Modi decolonized his mind and thus bestowed dignity on him.
Modi mentioned the word “development” five hundred times for each time he mentioned “Hindutva”, according to a computer analysis of his speeches by Dr Walter Anderson, a US state department official. For a young person who belongs to the post-reform generation, and who has risen through his own initiative and hard work, “development” is a code word for opportunity in the competitive market place that Adam Smith called a “natural system of liberty” . This system flourishes in Gujarat, and not surprisingly the state is ranked number one on the Freedom Index among all Indian states. The government in this system helps create an enabling environment that allows free individuals to pursue their interests peacefully in an open, transparent market. After that, an “invisible hand” helps to gradually lift people into a dignified, middle class life, raising living standards all around.
Underlying dignity is the freedom that reforms bring when economic decisions move from the offices of politicians and bureaucrats to the market place. When Modi said that we should make development a jan andolan, a mass movement, he legitimized rules-based capitalism (in contrast to crony capitalism). In this respect he is like Margaret Thatcher and Deng who made their people believe in the market. It was the job that a reformer like Manmohan Singh was supposed to perform. But he didn’t even succeed in selling economic reforms to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party. Modi should learn from his failure and convert the RSS to his “development” agenda, marginalizing its Hindutva agenda. McCloskey explains that the same thing happened in the West in the 19th century when the narrative of middle class aspirations for a better life triumphed over all other narratives as people became comfortable with market institutions.
Unlike the mood of diminished expectations in the West, ours is the age of rising expectations in India. Having attained hard-fought dignity, the aspiring voter is filled with self-confidence after electing Modi. But he is also impatient and unforgiving. If Modi does not deliver on his promises for development and governance, he will not be shy to boot him out at the next election. The ball is in Modi’s court.

Gurcharan Das, June 19th 2014

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