Is there a middle ground between Narendra Modi and his political rivals? Is it possible to admit to having voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014 without being vilified, or to express qualified support for the Congress and not be labeled anti-national? As the discourse in India grows more polarised and another General Election inches nearer, millennials are increasingly asking these questions.
Some, like Kazim Rizvi, 30, a public policy entrepreneur from Lucknow, confront this dilemma with a pop culture reference. There is a scene in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight, in which the villain, the Joker, pours water on the idea that a big fight will solve everything about their city, Gotham. “You didn’t think I would risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you?” the villain says in his final stand-off. Rizvi echoes this sentiment.
“India’s polity is turned the other way, where the liberals and the conservatives, in their fist-fight, are missing out on building the soul of India,” he said. “In our daily face-offs, we have missed out on the larger picture.”
Rizvi is one among a group of largely urban, upper caste millennials who identify themselves as “centrist”. These people may be among those who had wanted to give the BJP a chance in the 2014 elections, but the acrimony of the subsequent years, in which people on either end of the political spectrum were labelled “commie”, “sanghi”, “bhakt” and “libtard”, seems to have driven them to opt for what they perceive to be a pragmatic, solution-oriented middle path.
“I cannot fully identify with the totalitarian rhetoric that the far Right brings [or] the absolute chaos that the Left leaves behind under the garb of freedom,” said Richardson Wilson, 27, a lawyer from Chennai. “The Right clamps down on individual liberty and cannot tolerate contrarian views. The Left encourages it to an extent where nothing can ever get done. I look at centrism as a way to balance the two.”
This disillusionment with ideological camps seems to be a major factor in pushing these youngsters to occupy space on the fence. Centrism is therefore seen as an amalgamation of effective policies from both the Right and Left, and also a competent counter to the highly charged discourse, since centrists believe it enables engagement without taking sides.
“Urban millennials may be drawn to centrism out of compassion,” said political researcher David Adler, who has authored a paper titled The Centrist Paradox. “Insofar as educated urbanites have long held a privileged position in Indian politics, it would be little surprise to see urban millennials offering themselves to heal the nation.”
Centrism, regardless of its scattered definitions, also wields considerable influence over young voters, especially those on the internet.
“Being a centrist, definitely means more people can relate to me,” said Dhruv Rathee, 24, from Haryana, a young political commentator who describes himself as centrist and has 1.6 lakh followers on Twitter and nearly a 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube. “I do not agree with all opinions of any particular ideology, therefore I do not want to be classified as either Left or Right.”
Abhishek Asthana, known as GabbbarSingh on Twitter where he has 1.2 million followers, said he was a centrist who believed in “issue-based support”. “I would call out the Modi government for harbouring elements like Yogi Adityanath who believe in divisive politics, and also laud the same government for the rapid pace of highway creation or a fast train,” said Asthana who grew up in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.
Economically, many centrists see the Congress and the BJP as more or less the same – as leaning centre-left and pro big business.
“Nehru unleashed the socialist era, it peaked during Indira, a lot of BJP stalwarts praise Indira, Rao brought free market economy, BJP opposed it tooth and nail,” said Siddharth Bhaskar, 35, who grew up in Delhi, Patna, Kolkata, Assam. “Today, both parties are pro-crony capitalism and work for the big party funders.”
Modi’s Achilles Heel?
According to the 2014 National Election Study post poll survey, nearly a third of the 300 million registered voters between the ages of 18 and 35 voted for the BJP.
Zeba Warsi, 26, a journalist from Mumbai, was part of this massive group. “I am not a BJP or a Congress supporter,” she said. “I chose development in 2014 as the right thing for the country.”
This time around, however, the urban youth are being seen as “Modi’s Achilles heel” – as Centre for Policy Research Fellow Rahul Verma described it, saying the BJP’s majoritarian rhetoric is not playing out well with this demographic. A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti survey from January 2018 found that the sharpest decline in support to the BJP came from the youth.
Some, such as Abhishek Yadav, 23, once a member of the Bajrang Dal from West Bengal, are beginning to see Rahul Gandhi and NOTA, or the none of the above option, as worthy alternatives to Modi and the BJP.
Unlike five years ago, when their clear electoral choice was the BJP, centrists see 2019 as a confusing time for those without ideological allegiances. “I am still not sure how I am voting,” said Varun Sood, 28, who works with a renewable energy company in Delhi. “I want BJP to remain but with less of a mandate. I want them to chill out, I do not want power to change or Congress to come. But I want them to have a slightly more fractured mandate. To move away from where they are going just now. If they actually meant development they should get back on track.”
Because of the very nature of centrism, its adherents do not necessarily hold the same positions on every policy decision. Yet, there is some consensus too: Demonetisation is unanimously seen as a resounding failure, but the Goods and Services Tax an important move, after the initial implementational hiccups.
Young centrists largely have the same opinion on the Rohingya crisis. Anurag Sahay, a 29-year-old currently studying in the US, acknowledged the severity of the Rohingya refugee crisis, but said India cannot afford to take in refugees because it has enough people to take care of already. “Yes, we can help settle the Rohingyas but not within India and especially [not] when there is a real possibility of national security getting compromised,” he said.
On the conflict in Kashmir too, centrists more or less agree that dialogue and engagement with the youth is key. “Centrist ideology can effectively solve this issue by bringing all stakeholders on [the] table, and table talk is the only forward moving solution,” said Bilal Ahmed, 24, from Rajouri, Jammu. “Divert the energy of the youth in a positive stream by bringing them in the mainstream instead of tagging them as anti-national and scanning their characters in TV studios.”
Active vs passive
Rajshree Chandra, associate professor at the Department of Political Science, Janki Devi Memorial College in Delhi, says there are active and passive centrists. “Passive centrists take the convenient position of not taking a moral stand on certain issues, but active centrists are wary of both extremes and seek answers for themselves by probing and engaging,” she said.
Akriti Bhatia, 26, could be described as an active centrist. She works on labour issues on the ground and has formed her ideology after years of study and analysis. “I have seen how a lot of working class people join the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh or BMS [the labour wing of the RSS],” said Bhatia. “They are not buying the Hindutva ideology, but it is the BMS that is easing the paperwork for them... Functional decisions of life do not depend on leftist and rightist. The analysis has to be issue-based and individual-based rather than taking a position that you begin with.”
State control and recognition
In their book Ideology and Identity, Rahul Verma and Pradeep K Chibber assert that ideology in multi-ethnic countries like India broadly revolves around two basic indicators – the politics of statism (the extent to which the state should dominate society) and recognition (whether the state should work on the upliftment of the marginalised).
The position a centrist would take on statism, Verma said, could be a problematic area for the BJP in retaining the youth vote. “Even if people prefer traditionalism, they do not want anyone to monitor it,” said Verma. “So a centrist on statism would be someone who wants modernity with tradition.” This is what leads them to accept certain right-wing policies and leaders, but reject the politics of say, Yogi Adityanath or the Bajrang Dal.
On recognition too, most centrists favour a leg-up for the marginalised in some form. They support reservations, if at all, with caveats – such as an economic basis. This popular position is perhaps what the Modi government intends to capitalise on with the introduction of a 10% quota for economically backward upper-caste candidates in government jobs and educational institutions.
“The way we provide reservations is not right and does not work. We should have a constitutional amendment and have reservations on a financial basis,” said Rishi, 25, a lawyer who spent most of his childhood in Hyderabad.
Asthana added, “Multigenerational doles is what I am against. [I] do not wish to see an IAS’ kid get reservation in an IIT.”
Women centrists hope to see a different kind of affirmative action. “I myself identify as a minority as I am a woman,” said Tarini Pal, 28, from Delhi. “I think the Women’s Reservation Bill is an important one, as there need to be more women in governance, especially in a sexist country like India.”
Privilege and convenience
Despite their varied positions, one thing that may be common to those who self-identify as centrist is that they tend to be well-off – either socially or economically.
“Centrism is actually a position held by the privileged,” said Chandra. “It is only when you have not faced deprivation, you are not a minority, you are not a farmer of Maharashtra or Madhya Pradesh when you are able to say I am a centrist and I will vote Modi.”
And while many young centrists agree with this statement, they believe it must not be discounted on this ground alone.
“My opinion is shaped from consuming English media, going to decent colleges and schools…and interacting with people who come from a similar background,” said Zahaan Khan, 27, from Chennai. “But I do not think it should be discounted simply for that reason since neutrality [in the discourse] is important.”
A question that is now being asked globally is whether centrism is really just a soft centre-right stance that most young people are open to.
Chandra believes that over the years, the snobbery of the Left-leaning academic and journalistic discourse against the political Right have alienated young people in India. “There is a disdain for everything that is not well thought out or layman-ish,” she said. “We have not been able to engage with them, so their insecurities have been tapped by the Right.”
Khan agreed that the gatekeeping of academia and intellectual discourse by the Left in India has led to the violent emergence of the right wing. “Before 2014, I believe we did not really have right wing intellectuals,” he said. “People like Makarand Paranjpe or Hindol Sengupta, had been disregarded. As a centrist I think this is very wrong because by virtue of their ideology, they were not given the limelight like intellectuals on the Left.”
Young centrists, fragmented as they may be, offer capacity for engagement. Their influence on the internet, their capital in terms of education, access in terms of global information and ability to effectively disseminate ideas and ideology might make the fence – a space seen as indecisive – a strong deciding and mobilising force in the 2019 elections.
“I think only centrists can counter a polarising figure like Modi,” said Wilson, the Chennai lawyer. “A leftist would not support an aggressive military stance, whereas a centrist will. Similarly, the left will not permit the suppression of individual minority rights for religious beliefs, a temporary suspension of which, in some cases, may be justifiable. Those who support Modi are more likely to switch sides to a centrist leader than a left-wing leader. They can justify it to themselves more.”