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HomeOpinionFarmers' protest shows Modi's politics is caught between India's two middle classes

Farmers’ protest shows Modi’s politics is caught between India’s two middle classes

The agricultural reforms push had all the features and sensibilities of Modi’s distinctive middle-class politics of aspiration. But he seems to have misjudged the popular mood.

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Even the most successful of politicians misjudge popular appetites and overreach. And they typically overreach when they overestimate the power of the very approach that brought them success. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political approach is rooted in a Hindu middle-class universe — a blend of cultural essentialism, political majoritarianism, and economic aspiration — which shapes much of his politics. What the backlash over the three farm laws proves is that India is not, as of yet, that middle-class universe.

Modi’s narrative on the farm laws — of unshackling people from the chains of vested interests and giving them the path to prosperity — was perfectly in line with the politics that has repeatedly bolstered his popular support. A similar upending of status quo and quashing of entrenched interests were at the core of the popularity of schemes from demonetisation to Article 370 abrogation to the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) regime. The agricultural reforms push had all the features and sensibilities of Modi’s distinctive middle-class politics of aspiration. Yet this time, he seems to have misjudged the popular mood. What happened?

Fundamentally, what Modi has overlooked is that his middle-class constituency is essentially a coalition of two strikingly distinct classes — the traditional middle classes and the neo-middle classes. These two classes are bound together more by a sensibility and a loose ideological orientation rather than any concrete interests, and therefore, Modi’s middle-class politics is circumscribed by hard limits, which have become apparent now.

Also read: Art 370, CAA, triple talaq, Ram Mandir are just one cycle of Modi’s ‘permanent revolution’

The two middle classes

The traditional middle classes are the thin sliver of the population — the college educated and professionally employed people whom you see consuming English news and opining on social media. The neo-middle classes, a term popularised and politicised by Modi, are all the huge masses of people who have escaped poverty and self-identify as middle class but have not yet reached middle class living standards. As political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot had noted in 2014, it were the neo-middle classes which had powered Modi to victory.

The political brilliance of Modi has lied in fusing these two distinct classes in a politics of aspiration. This has given him a large area of catchment on which to base a dominant politics — 58 per cent of surveyors self-identified as middle class in a CSDS-Lokniti poll of 2019. Even Modi’s welfare policies towards the poor are framed under a middle-class modulated vocabulary of empowerment and development rather than as poverty alleviation schemes. In this political framework, when the expanded Hindu middle class comes together as one — such as on Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), demonetisation, lockdown politics — it exerts a hegemonic force, which lends Modi the cloak of irresistibility.

However, as the furore over the farm laws shows, these two middle classes can sharply depart in political positions owing to different material interests. While the traditional middle classes have lauded Modi for the ‘politically tough’, ‘forward looking’ agriculture reforms, the position of the neo-middle classes seem to range from indifference or ambiguity to being openly opposed to the government actions.

This position of the rural neo-middle classes (at least) can be gauged not just from the mass protests at Delhi’s borders but even more so from the fact that no major party except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is standing up for the farm reforms. Political parties, more than anyone else, have their ear to the ground and when the allies of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) own farmer wing openly support the protests, public opinion becomes fairly clear. Even its ally in Haryana, the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), is being constantly pushed by its legislators to back the protests.

Also read: Modi faces no political costs for suffering he causes. He’s just like Iran’s Ali Khamenei

Middle classes’ State dependence and reform mindset

Rapid rise of incomes, urbanisation, and the spread of mass media had forged a common sensibility among this expanded middle class, a sensibility that pervades Modi’s politics. One part of it is political style — a managerial, de-politicised approach to governance, demonstrated in Modi’s disregard for Parliament and other constraining institutions, as was also witnessed in the passage of the farm bills. A 2005 CSDS poll found that 80 per cent of the upper-middle class felt that “all major decisions about the country should be taken by experts rather than politicians”. Similarly, a 2009 Pew survey among 13 countries revealed India to be the only country where the poor were more concerned about democracy than the middle classes. In all other countries, the middle class was the more progressive class.

The other part is a loose ideological orientation — such as favouring growth over redistribution and being allured by the politics of ethno-majoritarianism. As Nagesh Prabhu has argued in Middle Class, Media and Modi, this expanded and ‘hegemonic middle class’ lies at the heart of the Modi phenomenon.

However, what is often missed is that even though the ‘aspirational middle classes’ or neo-middle classes might share some of the same critiques of State corruption and State inefficiency as the traditional middle classes, that does not necessarily make them votaries of economic reforms, especially because it affects their own interests.

As political scientist E. Sridharan had demonstrated, a majority of the broad middle classes (58-75 per cent at the turn of the century) are either public employees or rich peasants that were themselves dependent on State subsidies. Therefore, unlike Western countries where the middle classes advocate economic reforms that cut subsidies for the poor, in India, much of the middle classes are themselves dependent on the State.

In fact, the ongoing protests in Punjab and Haryana were initially led by rich farmers who would ordinarily be assumed to support an expansion of private economic opportunities. But they not only remain deeply invested in the minimum support price (MSP)-mandi infrastructure, they in fact demand an expansion of the MSP regime, and thus the role of the State in agriculture. Meanwhile, the smaller and marginal farmers, who have also joined the protests in large numbers, seem even less enthusiastic at the prospect of being left to negotiate with big agricultural interests.

Therefore, the middle-class lenses of politics applied to the countryside, which assumed that the promise of less State regulation and greater economic freedom would attract the support of certain entrepreneurial classes of farmers, has shown itself to be unmoored to reality.

This should not have come as a surprise. A Lokniti poll of 2014 showed that only 16 per cent of people engaged in agriculture were opposed to government handouts. Even more broadly, 45 per cent of all people supported government handouts as opposed to 20 per cent who opposed them. A more aspirational electorate is not necessarily equivalent to a more reformist electorate, at least in practice. In fact, the one “reform” where the middle classes and the neo-middle classes stood most firmly behind the government was demonetisation, which was rooted in populist rhetoric rather than in any economic philosophy.

Also read: Teflon Modi does not have one Achilles heel, but two

Modi’s misreading of constituency

Some commentators have argued that if PM Modi stands firm like Margaret Thatcher did with labour unions, he might emerge stronger from this episode. This is unlikely because India is not Britain of the early 1980s. Whereas the expanded Indian middle class is inchoate and bound together by sensibilities, the British middle class was also more coherent and bound together by interests. The interests of the skilled workers, managers and property owners that Thatcher cultivated and socially engineered into an expanded middle class were distinct from the unskilled workers that protested her rule. In this fight, Modi only has the numerically insignificant traditional middle classes by his side.

However, it is clear that Modi cannot back down without losing the messianic strongman image that is at the core of his appeal. What would be even worse is to disperse the protesters by force and generate an even more damning narrative. The course of action with the least political costs is probably to tire out the protesters and then wrangle a face-saving compromise. In any case, for the first time since 2015, Modi seems to have fallen off to the wrong end of a political narrative. And he got there by misreading the very constituency that has raised him to unparalleled heights.

The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. NRI s also have a vested interest —
    All freebies , subsidies , tax exemptions meant for the small /marginal farmers are usurped by the Rich / Super Rich farmers. NRI owners of agricultural land in Punjab who have not set foot in India for years , bribe Patwaris and show themselves as ‘ Khud Kasht ‘- i.e. Actual Tillers , in the Revenue Records . Such NRIs and others then take free electricity .
    Why bribe Patwaris and make misdeclarations in Revenue records – Girdawaris – regarding Khud Kasht – Actual Tiller status . All facilities including Income Tax Exemptions , are meant only for Khud Kasht and not for the lessee etc benefits

    • Also remove subsidised social security schemes like PF, pension etc. for the salaried middle class both private sector as well as those in government and public sector. This will increase disposable income and lead to more spending thereby more growth and jobs. Tax paying middle class in India should financially plan for their own retirement.

      Announce a scheme where for expensive items the GST is reduced for those individuals who actually pay substantial income tax. That way those rich subsidised farmers and rich self-employed who hide their incomes pay more for buying an expensive car or house as compared to a salaried income tax payer.

  2. With the economy in a tail spin and predicted to go down further, the newly emerged middle class will disappear of its won accord, and go back to the poor class. This class emerged as a result of the growth of MMS’s best years. But ironically, this class is communalised and follows Modi. But as the economy shrinks, this class will disappear. They may still subscribe to Modi’s communalism and go along with him for sometime at least, even after losing their economic gains.

    There will be the super rich class. It has become richer – Gujarati oligarchs like Ambanis and Adanis. The govt. is run by unscrupulous Gujarati Hindus and it is their policy to concentrate wealth in the hands of Guajrati oligarchs. The oligarchs in turn finance the govt’s election, and run the media. Ambani owns 20 channels. The remaining Indians will be in the poor class.

    Already, Bangladesh’s per capita income has over taken India’s. Bangladesh may not have Ambani and Adani, but it will be a country with a better distributed income. This is better, social stability will be higher and indeed now BD’s image has turned more positive while India’s has become more negative due to Modi and Hindu extremism. It is Hindu day dreaming to make India a global manufacturing hub. In countries that go forward, the majority is sensible. Here the majority breeds cow vigilantes, rapists and rioters – and it is proud of this ! It is hardly likely such people will make India a First World Nation.

    All these attempts at western style corporatisation in a society driven by caste will not work. The caste system breeds inequity and the Hindus have done everything to preserve caste. The Congress did not eradicate it and the BJP wants to strengthen it, like it was in Vedic India. Corporatisation in India will only accentuate the inequity, it is not going to make India like the west, like Hindu NRIs living in America imagine.

    • Caste is actually an Indian problem, not just a Hindu problem. Though this social evil originated in Hinduism/Hindusthan, it is not eliminated in spirit by almost all other religions in India as well. Buddhism is probably the only religion in India where Dalits are genuinely accepted.

      Elites in Muslims and Christians too propagate separation of Dalits. You may not call it casteism but it is discrimination nevertheless. Elites in Islam and Christianity will not intermarry with Dalit converts but they want to claim those Dalits as part of their religious brotherhood.

  3. nonsense. Modi won Bihar, rural elections in Rajasthan, Hyderbad muncipal elections (10 fold increase), recent by elections around country. only farmers from Punjab, Haryana are protesting. people trust Modi as he is personnaly not corrupt, come up hard way in life, no dynasty.

  4. many of the farmers are not middle class. They are extremely rich. Much of the protest is driven by the fear that a captured market will slip ou of control.
    Badals for example declared their assets as 217 crores. but still they are poor farmers we are expected to sympathesie and support them.

  5. Writers like him are responsible for the defeat of opposition. They always give them the false sense that Modi’s popularity is going down and they go into wishful thinking rather than working on ground.

    • Whereas you know Modi is infallible and his popularity cannot ever go down.

      Modi is the Great Hindu Hope of much of the traditional middle class and the nouveau riche. The latter will sink back into the poor as the economy shrinks from demonetisation, Covid and expenditure on defence. Then we shall see.

  6. The confidence of bhakts in this comment link amazes me , after “sucess” of demonization and GST ..dragging economy down every single quarter after gaining power and now into the negative many still believe that the reforms of this government are in “right direction”

  7. I truly have stopped giving a “F” where they end up with their foul mouth. I just hope they learn to control their rhetoric before they outdo themselves and someone calls their bluff

  8. This protests are mainly by Kulaks and their cronies. They have pocketed all government subsidies for decades. Now they are shedding crocodile tears.
    Why money should go in low return sector of economy.

  9. History will see Modi as PM who tried some bold reforms after PV Narasimha Rao. The latter has to bear the brunt for 1991 reforms but millions of today’s youth whose jobs in the Information Technology Should be grateful for such reforms. If opposing this bill just for fear of corporate influence is really silly. Let these laws roll in and we can amend them in future whenever required. Annadaataa Sukhibhava

    • You from the traditional middle class, now thoroughly communalised, and greedy and hoping for more.

      It is not going to materialise. The economy sank after demonetisation and GST, and inept Covid handling has finished it.

  10. MODIJI Thanks for implementing farm reforms that will ensure maximum benefits to 94 percent farmers versus benefiting 6 percent farmers by stocking food grains which eventually go waste and is a major cause of ground water depletion and over use of carcinogenic fertiliser.

    MODIJI ensure farmers are taken proper care of as they are very hard working and super patriots.

    Also ensure proselytizers and Chinese funded illiberal leftist who are trying to whip up frenzy are dealt with the full extent of the law.

  11. The author belongs to a think tank that is almost exclusively funded by foreign money and whose CEO is Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar’s daughter. That such an author will perpetually find reasons to rubbish Shri Narendra Modi and look at tea leaves for his downfall is not surprising. But what he does not realise that he is laying bare his partisan politics by not telling the truth behind this agitation; that it is driven by a motley collection of rich farmers from Punjab and some from Haryana, who have benefited because of these laws and at the expense of the rest of us. Farmers in other parts of the country have welcomed the changes as have the ordinary people.

    • @all – when people say Rich Farmers – what do they mean in money terms?

      Most farmers I know just about get by after paying debts even though they may have 20 acres of land.

      Can we have numbers? ie how much they actually make after all costs.

  12. The current agitation is a proxy -agitation unleashed by the defeated politicians belonging tol non-BJP parties to bring some dis-satisfaction against Modi regime. Firstly, last year ,they tried their luck with anti-CAA protests . Those protests were also based on a totally wrong assumptions that majority of the people can be misled by leftists in the name of secularism, as major point of protest against CAA was that this legislation is anti-secularism as a particular community {– Which in reality never required such type of legislation– } , and is against the interests of that particular religious community. As protests were managed behind the scene by so called left liberals and ex-ruling party s hidden faces, it completely failed to tarnish the image and stability of Modi Government due to lack of support from common people.

    Now when Modi regime wanted to bring in some far-reaching reforms in the marketing of farm products , the section of defeated opposition leaders started fear-mongering about the per-assumptive loss on the assumption that Modi Government or any other future Government , may dispense with the practice of declaring MSP for various crops in future and in future farmers may incur losses. All this agitation by the farmers is being fought to avoid future losses. The rich peasantry of Punjab , Haryana, and some parts of western U..P. has been roped in to fight proxy war of politicians against Modi ji. But Bharat Bundh has shown how much popular support is there for this agitation as except cardholders of the political parties, none from common people came forward to support the Bharat Bund . But one thing which political leaders unleashing proxy agitation has not cared to keep in mind that , if this agitation succeeds , they themselves will be replaced by a new breed of farm -leaders –La, Tikait- style and have to vacate the very space , they presently are occupying. So early retreat this tome will be in their own interests. Election 2024 is 36-40 months away. Leaders working from behind the scene may get another chance/ topics to attack Modi to keep themselves in news -headlines . As current agitation is not based on any economic logic and will not benefit farmers at all-India level, it is bound to fail . The oppositions leaders should do some home work, do some research , to find some new talking point to keep on their FIGHT-MODI ,campaign endlessly.

    • The CAA protests did not end. They petered out – only due to Covid. Now the govt. itself has lost steam and is unable to roll out NRC. By holding out the protesters took out the wind.

      The farm law protest will not peter out unless Modi backs down partially. Communalising it and blaming Sikhs will not help.

  13. For those who don’t know ground reality……No Farmer is supporting these laws…….no one from Haryana and Punjab.

  14. By and large, the views of the writer cannot be faulted. But, he has focused too much on society rather than economics of agriculture. Two days back, in CTC, Shekar Gupta has juxtaposed the statistics of agricultural economy of Punjab and Bihar and convincingly demonstrated that Punjab is way behind the so-called Bimaru Bihar and is dragging down India’s agricultural performance. It is also noteworthy that most vehement protest is coming from Punjab and not from the farmers from rest of the country. Blame Punjab’s laidback style of living, its monoculture of Paddy-Wheat and political leathergy for the current crisis. These have more to do with the present agitation than with Modi’s miscalculation about the new middleclass.

  15. Agri reforms are intrinsically difficult to implement. Modi has taken on the vested interests in one go directly rather than by stealth and incremental approach. Punjab has always been well organised in protecting the benefits. Modi’s assumption was that under covid pandemic situation, he could push these reforms through. But this has not happened due to various factors.

    Modi is unlikely to cave in now. Also, farmers have pitched their demands in binary frame making it a difficult choice for Modi. So long as agitation remains peaceful, it can go on but the moment there is any violence, it willbe a trying time. Besides, someone can always file PIL to clear road blockade etc. If SC intervenes, it will give face saving option to the agitators. Further, as farm work picks up in next two weeks, many will return to their farms.

    The article tries to explain the issue in politico ideological framework which is unnecessary.

    One more Balakot or Galwan can change the scene in one day. Everyone knows that this is agitation for benefits to be continued mainly for Punjab farmers, who gobble up 90 per cent of govt subsidies and MSP from central government. So all India sympathy is likely to wane soon. It is one thing to come together for a day to shout against Modi!!

    There is a broad consensus that reforms are required and indeed further reforms for increasing farmer’s income are required.

  16. Well written but this farmer protest is not as much by middle class but by political and financial losers who have vested interests in keeping the APMC going and pulling Modi down. It’s plain and simple.

    • Any reform will create gainers and losers. But for urbanisation raw food prices needs to come down and value addition needs to go up.

  17. Fake narrative alert! A couple of thousand farmers from Punjab don’t define the national mood. This writer should stop lying and make an honest living for at least a single day.

    • Honest living? Very difficult when you are dependent on foreign funding and your boss is Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar’s daughter. Can anyone honestly say what good do these foreign funded think tanks do , our country?

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