Eminent sociologist Yogendra Singh, 84, is the architect of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems, which was recently ranked 51st in a global ranking of sociology departments around the world. His book, The Modernisation of Indian Tradition was published way back in 1973, but still remains a must-read for anyone wishing to understand Indian society.
In this interview with Scroll.in, JNU’s Professor Emeritus talks of the rise of the Indian middle class, its passion for nationalism, its anxieties, and the psychology behind its fondness for the Bharatiya Janata Party, besides explaining why he wanted the CSSS faculty to be a microscopic representative of India. Excerpts:
What is the socio-cultural basis of the fondness that the middle class has for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
The kind of social transformation India has gone through has been one important reason for the rise of BJP-kind of ideology – which is nationalist, capitalist, and communication-oriented. This ideology also promotes hope and aspirations.
For whatever reasons, other political parties, particularly the Congress, which was the beginner in sponsoring change, lagged behind. Because of the socio-economic conditions prevailing (when the Congress dominated), the orientation then was towards removing poverty. That paradigm hasn’t disappeared, but its appeal is less now.
What explains the diminishing appeal of the poverty-removal paradigm?
It is because of the social mobility in India – a large number of people who were once poor can today at least aspire for better jobs. I have seen in my study of villages that people try for agriculture innovations to improve their conditions, but they don’t find support and linkages to the market. So they move to the cities.
This move to the cities led to an aspirational bulge in India. The rise of the middle class has brought about social mobility and class transformation in India. Those who were poor now constitute the lower middle class. These factors in combination do not have people applauding poverty-alleviation programmes. Instead, they want to know from the political parties their agenda of development and transformation.
It is here that the BJP has had an advantage. It was never bound to the poverty-removal paradigm. Its worldview lacked the romanticism of Nehruvian ideas.
So this shift from the poverty-removal paradigm happened because of the expansion of the middle class and the changes in it.
Yes, the shift happened because of two inter-related factors. One is the rise of the middle class, which, by its nature, share a few important features globally. An important attribute of the middle class is that it celebrates nationalism. A French writer once asked: What made France a nation? He listed three factors – the French educational system, the French Army, and the French middle classes. The middle class has always played an important role (in creating the idea of nation).
It is so in India as well. When new knowledge emerged, for instance, in the agriculture sector because of the Green Revolution, it brought new technological sensibility among farmers who constituted the rural middle class. It made them sensitive to (the need for) market and innovations. They were successful to an extent, but were also mostly frustrated.
What were the reasons for their frustration?
Their frustration was because the innovations they wanted to introduce did not succeed because of lack of infrastructure support. For instance, since there was no adequate electricity supply, there were no cold storage facilities where they could stock their produce.
The rural middle class was made to feel that they would have to leave this space – the village – to go to a new space. They migrated in large numbers to small towns, big cities, and other regions in different parts of India.
They tried to apply and adapt their entrepreneurial skills to the new space – urban India. They got linked to the market – their weak linkage to it was the reason for their exodus from villages. Any attempt to grow economically without market linkages ipso facto is bound to fail.
When technological and information revolution took place and became a global phenomenon, the Indian market too became more integrated than before. This facilitated the rise of the entrepreneurial middle class in India.
Was it that once people joined the urban middle class, they were attracted to the BJP which was anchored in that class.
Right from the beginning, the BJP hasn’t been peasant-oriented. It has always been ideologically a middle class party. Its roots were in shakhas, seminaries, and the youth, and orienting them to a nationalistic ideology. Its ideology was not only Indian but para-India, or beyond India. Their slogan was that India was very great, it declined, and has to become great again to regain its old status. It was a myth, which along with religion was also incorporated into its ideology.
This has had a great appeal. It was earlier confined to younger groups in small towns, but its ideology has migrated to villages. In fact, the BJPs rise has led to the growth of more middle classes. (Conversely), since the classes share the BJP’s ideology, it helps the party in the polity. In this sense, its growth is anchored in the grassroots. Earlier, the anti-poverty ideology constituted the grassroots.
Given that a large percentage of people in India are still poor, why has the anti-poverty paradigm lost its appeal?
They are poor, but their self-image is not of being poor. “What poverty,” the poor says, “I will overcome my poverty to achieve my goals.” That is now an overwhelming ideological orientation. This is why parties appealing to people whom they characterise as poor and backward don’t have much resonance.
Also, the state’s control on economy has progressively weakened and corporations today control more market space than the former. Nor does the state have the capital to promote the economic agenda which is not only large, but also global.
Is it that people have the confidence in themselves that they will grow economically once adequate infrastructure is in place?
Ya, ya, actually, when I studied Charu Khera, a village in East Uttar Pradesh, in 1971, I found most people expected the state to help them. They had many suggestions on what the government should do. But when I interviewed the villagers of Charu Khera in 2007, I didn’t find this at all. They wanted the government to create space for them – for instance, build good roads and provide 24-hour electricity so that they could be linked to the outside world, to the market.
Did this view cut across all castes?
Yes, even the poorest of the poor – the Dalits – too voiced this demand.
But why is it that the same middle class is showing signs of increasing religiosity?
The BJP’s rise does not necessarily mean increase in religiosity, which is embedded in Indian society. Unlike European or American societies, religion was a way of life in India. It was not cult-oriented. The BJP’s growth is not around the cult of Hinduism, but around the ideology of Hinduism. (Laughs) And the BJP defines Hinduism as equal to nationalism. It is as simple as that for its leaders. (Laughs again)
How do we distinguish between the cult and ideology of Hinduism?
The cult of Hinduism involves rituals, presence of religious structures – temples and sacred spaces – and how a person “travels” between the secular and the sacred. However, in India, unlike Europe, secular signifies a space where religious factors, even though present, do not have primacy. It doesn’t mean the complete absence of religious rituals. For instance, economy in India hasn’t been completely areligious. No one interfered in religious practices.
(By contrast), the ideology of religion is when religion is used as a medium to acquire political power – or for expanding it. Religion becomes a mean and is not considered an end in itself.
Why is that the ideology of religion appeals to the middle class?
Empirical studies in Kolkata have shown that during the examination time and such other stressful moments in life, the number of people going to temples and performing pujas increases. But when normalcy is there, their anxiety subsides and so does the number of people going to temples. Anxiety and religiosity are always linked. Students of religion have said that anxiety is the basis of religion.
But isn’t the middle class more anxious today?
Actually, the middle class is the most anxious of all classes.
How do you define middle class?
Middle class are those whose status will be lower than that of their parents and peers if they don’t continuously strive. This makes them extremely anxious about their future. Therefore, they take corresponding remedial steps.
Can you give me an example of the remedial step you are talking about?
Studies in South India have shown that education is treated merely as a vehicle for economic progress. Earlier, upper caste children would study humanities and social sciences. But when the poor and quota students began to study those subjects, upper caste students switched to technical education – engineering, informatics and such like.
But when the poor classes too started opting for technical education, then most Brahmin and upper castes started sending their children to the United States and other countries. They are the people who are in the global market now – they are the people who are sponsoring change.
Do these anxieties get expressed in socially pathological ways as well? Have these anxieties changed social structures – family, for instance?
Definitely – a little bit. Family in India has slowly come under stress in the process of economic transformation. For jobs, people had to go out from where they were located (or grew up). They had to leave their families, which therefore witnessed stress. So structurally, the person (the migrant) and the family were not linked. But they were linked functionally, because of remittances and ritual purposes. For special purposes, they would go home or offer opinions.
This link persists even today, but it is weakening because of pressure of work, attraction of the new locale, and despite the communication revolution, the ability to communicate does become weak over time. This brings about alienation from the family. One type of alienation occurs because the person has to go out to work. Another type of alienation is when the person is jobless. It is this segment which gets involved in random crimes and where undesirable types of (political) mobilisation take place.
But family still remains an important relationship in India. Family gives sobriety, a worldview which dissuades a person from getting rid of social responsibility.
But considering the project of the middle class is transformation and modernity, why does it also support conservative values. Is the middle class schizophrenic?
(Laughs heartily) The very rich people don’t have anxiety as they have enough resources to bank upon in adversity. The poor are sill engrossed in going up. By contrast, the middle class has people who have attained objectives they had set out for themselves. But this space is slippery as it is full of risks, of adversities delivering a blow to them. This risk generates anxiety. The more the risks, the greater are the anxieties. It isn’t schizophrenia in the medical sense…
I meant schizophrenia as in a class of people having a split social consciousness.
It does indeed have tremendous anxieties.
Is the anxiety of the middle class an important reason why the BJP’s ideology of religion appeals to it?
Very much so. The BJP’s ideology appeals to the middle class because of its own anxieties. Let me give you an example.
Five-six years ago, I gave a lecture in Srinagar. A student in the audience asked me, “Sir, what do you think will happen to Kashmir? Will we succeed in gaining independence from India?”
I said, “Look here, there is some hope for you if global powers – China, the US, Japan, Britain and European powers – combine to support you and mount pressure on India. Otherwise, I don’t see any hope for you.”
So the student asked me, “Why no hope?”
I replied, “One big change that is happening in India is that the middle class is expanding. The more time passes, the more Indians will become middle class. By nature, global studies show, that the middle class is the most nationalist class. It is also the most narrow-minded in its nationalism.”
Why is this so?
This is because the middle class assumes it is responsible for transformation in any nation. It resents any force which it thinks (threatens to) disrupt its agenda of transformation. Anxiety is a natural consequence of it. But this anxiety makes the middle class more self-conscious of its role in the transformation. Its anxiety, in turn, inspires it to promote nationalism.
Is social conflict in India on the rise?
I think the visibility of the conflict has become more. Conflict was always there, as pernicious as it is today. But what is different now is that the mass media, mobile phones and the internet have made the presence of social conflicts very, very visible.
Is it why local conflicts tend to have pan-India resonance now?
Yes. Inter-ethnic and inter-regional conflicts haven’t been very strong in India, but inter-religious conflicts have been. That is because it has such a long history.
Do you think communal conflicts are growing?
We think it has increased because the media exposure to them is very high now.
I suppose this visibility has minus and plus points. It makes us anxious, but also makes us sensitive to their occurrence, to counter them.
Yes, you are right.
Has caste competition and conflict grown?
I think it has dimmed. There is lot of space now where you can get work without your caste being taken into account. That space is expanding. It will ultimately lead to a situation where caste will be present but caste will not be recognised.
What about religion?
Religion will be there. But it will be more subjective and religious conflicts will come down. The space in which the religion and the secular will be separated is going to expand. It should give great hope to India. It will integrate.
Is this idea of integrated India reflected in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems, which you built from scratch and is now ranked 51st in the world?
My idea was that the CSSS would be different from other centres as it was to be field-work oriented. A field-work oriented faculty ought to have members from different regions. When I study Kerala, it is one thing, but a Kerala person studying it is another thing. With the view that there should be an authentic, organic link between the place and the study, I recruited the faculty from all regions and of different denominations – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians – and also from social groups such as Dalits.
The idea was to have the diversity of India represented in the faculty. In recruitment, I consciously controlled this aspect. My idea was to link field work, experience, and research. I think the idea has worked very well.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.