In her Sunday column (‘India’s new elite’, IE, November 24), Tavleen Singh raised a pertinent point about the country’s elite. But her column descended into rhetoric, betraying the pre-conceived notions of the author and her disconnect with society. The elite that has dominated India over the last century was a product of the colonial era, derived largely from the upper echelons of the society. This elite did not just retain power after Independence — its influence, in fact, was perpetuated during Congress rule. The Congress raj was the hegemony of the urban upper-castes, ruling in alliance with feudal elements in the countryside that belonged to the local dominant castes.
The “failure” to substantially alter agrarian relations, despite both social and economic reality demanding such a change, and instead settling for half-hearted tenancy reforms passed off as land reforms, was aimed at preserving the status quo. On the other hand, five-year plans reinforced the economic and social distance between the lower and upper castes, the latter leapfrogged into the modern economy due to higher social and educational capital.
The focus on heavy industrialisation instead of mass manufacturing and the “failure” to promote mass education made the five-year plans, plans of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites. These “temples of modern India” stood as islands amidst the sea of masses surrounding them, even as the temples of old India were thrown open to them. They had neither the education nor the skills for those industries as the focus was on building elite enclaves of IITs and not mass education. In Nehruvian India, the difference between the upper castes and lower castes was increasingly overlaid with the divide between a highly-productive modern sector and a low-productive traditional sector of the economy.
Nehruvian India thrived by blocking socio-economic mobility of the masses, except in matters of token representation like reservations. It was violent, with agrarian elites running amok enforcing begar, grabbing land and capturing booths during elections. Caste violence and discrimination was so endemic that it wasn’t even taken seriously except for the occasional political posturing. The urban elites discussed the great questions of the day like “Can the subaltern speak?” while remaining oblivious to the cries of misery surrounding them. All the while perpetuating the same policies and structures that denied India its tryst with destiny.
It was only after the economic reforms in the 1990s that the situation began to change. A new class of people emerged from smaller cities and towns which was not part of the old landed agrarian elite nor of the bureaucratic and political patronage system of “Lutyens”. Tens of millions, especially Dalits and Shudras, fled from the villages to the burgeoning urban centres in what was one of the greatest migrations in human history and, simultaneously, an act of liberation. Some of them have done well for themselves and it is not uncommon today to see social diversity in urban spaces, from apartment complexes to offices. This is what is driving the great social flux we see today. This new urban middle class is what Tavleen Singh mistakenly calls the new elites “entirely made of lower origins and caste”. And yes, this class is nationalistic because it is not cut-off from its roots. It belongs to “somewhere” and not “anywhere” and thus naturally tilts towards the “Desh and Dharma”. There is now an assertion of the pride in religious identity that comes with economic and material progress.
But trapped in the echo chambers of Twitter, Singh derides them as regressive, as those who rage against people who speak English, even though English is the most sought after language by them. She accuses them of rejecting “books that come from foreign lands” when even a cursory glance at the “Hindu nationalist” Twitter reveals that they extensively quote from the Japanese, German and Chinese scholars and not just from the Anglosphere. She accuses them of wanting Hindu supremacy when they are busy celebrating “chhath puja”, enjoying the open expression of public religiosity after centuries without fear, and at worst, asking for the same constitutional rights/exemptions accorded to minority religions. That she accuses them of disdain for eating meat and drinking wine only shows further social disconnect.
Singh blames them for being blind supporters of Narendra Modi when they are amongst the first to erupt in outrage against the government on policy and ideological issues. The prime minister didn’t create this “parivartan”, as she calls it. Instead, he is a product of the “parivartan” that created this class — economic transformation, democratic deepening and social assertion. But, his policies of universal provision of health, electricity, and social security will certainly end up creating the foundations for the rise of this new class from among those who are still at the margins. And there is no reason why it would subscribe to the values and aesthetics of the “good old India”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 28, 2019 under the title ‘Misreading the new elite'. The writer is assistant professor of economics, Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University.