Some of the commentary following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive Lok Sabha election vistory has mimicked an American political storyline by suggesting that India’s elites are out of touch with the true sentiment of ordinary people. This argument makes it seem as if the country’s most influential voices completely missed a popular wave and were unable to predict Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return to power with an even bigger mandate than 2014.
Is this true? Before the May 23 results, the conventional wisdom did not maintain that the BJP would garner more seats than it did five years ago. This opinion was based not just on the feelings of commentators but also on the results of pre-poll surveys. However, it is also the case that practically every mainstream analyst and poll said that the BJP was the clear front-runner. No one expected an upset.
The underestimation of the party’s numbers may have come from presuming a regression to the mean, that is, treating the 2014 “Modi wave” election as an anomaly and expecting the numbers to moderate in its aftermath. So it is true that observers, from across the board, underestimated the BJP’s popularity.
Was this a case of the elite being out of touch with the masses? Or of “elitists” opposing the BJP? That depends on how you define elite. If by that you mean the richest sections of the country or those with most influence, the data suggests that these people are actually the BJP’s most loyal supporters.
- Sixty one percent of upper-caste voters picked the BJP, according to the National Election Study 2019, even though no other caste group crossed the 50% mark.
- This is also reflected in representation in Parliament. The upper castes are over-represented in the Lok Sabha in general and within the BJP cohort. They also corner more than half of the ministerial posts.
- As Rukmini S has explained, despite the BJP’s insistence that the Congress relies on Muslims as a vote bank, members of the upper castes are actually much more loyal to the saffron party.
- Forty four percent of the upper middle class and rich voted for the BJP, the highest of all the class groups, according to the NES 2019. Only 36% of the lower classes and the poor picked the saffron party.
- Among urban voters, 41.1%, presumably with relatively higher wages, voted for the BJP, ahead of rural voters at 37.6% and semi-urban at 32.9%, according to Mint’s reading of the Election Commission data.
In other words, the BJP drew in the most support from rich, urban, upper-caste voters and put together a government dominated by upper castes. If you’re taking voters at large then, the BJP is clearly the party of and for the elite (even though it draws plenty of support from others as well).
Another way of looking at it: it is the poor, lower caste and rural Indians who can be accused of being “out of touch” with the Modi wave.
A final data point in this regard, though it will take more time to fully examine this, is the amount of money spent on the campaign. The Centre for Media Studies estimated that about Rs 60,000 crore was spent overall in the Lok Sabha elections, of which the BJP accounted for at least Rs 27,000 crore – a whopping 45%-55%. The Congress, per this report, was responsible for only about 15%-20% of the spending.
Not only did the BJP get most if its support from the rich and end up putting together a government dominated by members of the upper castes, it was also the richest party in the fray.
Of course, some of those propounding this narrative about an elite stuck in their ivory tower insist that they are talking about the “liberal elite” or the “cultural elite”, suggesting that there is a section of the commentariat dominates the country’s intellectual spaces despite being out of touch with reality.
While that may have been true some time ago, the last decade has delivered an explosion of options for Indians to access information and viewpoints from across the ideological spectrum. There are hundreds of news channels on offer and the smartphone has brought the information revolution to the palms of residents of the country’s remotest corners.
Today, TV channels like Republic TV, Times Now, Aaj Tak and India TV – not channels anyone would insist are filled with the “liberal elite” – dominate the airwaves. Their counterparts in other formats, print and online, get patronage from the state. This presence is leading to changes in spaces traditionally run by the liberals, such as the board of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, of which Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami is now a member.
Despite this, the BJP and its supporters insist that India’s discourse is inordinately driven by “out-of-touch elitists”.
As Santosh Desai points out, Narendra Modi’s denunciation of the “Khan Market gang” – a imaginary group of conspirators who dine and shop at the upscale Delhi commercial complex and allegedly wield a disproportionate influence on national life – “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 aim of this attack, which triumphs in the defeat of a straw-man enemy, is to delegitimise liberal thought, simply because it has not garnered the most votes.
Are there genuine questions to be asked about why reporters, analysts and many others did not see a second Modi Wave coming? Undoubtedly, though that might have as much to do with the difficulty of understanding a country as large as India, the under-developed nature of political science research and political reporting in the country and, yes, the wishful thinking of some analysts.
But it would be incorrect to suggest that India is dominated by disconnected elites who have missed the boat. The elites are in charge, and have been for the last five years.
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