It learned from the European experience that status war matters more than class war
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A CAREFUL LOOK AT European democracy from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries might help understand why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did as well as it did in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and in large parts of the Hindi-speaking belt. In Britain, for example, the main issues in most elections in those 100 years or so, after 1850, had to do with giving respect to the working classes and not so much creating jobs for them. Looking at BJP’s recent performance and promises, it seems that it has taken, perhaps inadvertently, a leaf out of European, more specifically modern British, history.
In Britain, the move towards improving the status of the labouring classes happened in stages and slowly gathered momentum. First, workers were granted the right to represent themselves, then adult franchise, then better housing, abolition of child labour, limiting hours of work, accident and old-age insurance, and, finally, universal health and education. While Otto von Bismarck may have initiated such measures a little earlier in Germany, there is little doubt that status mobility, and not class war, motivated the British poor at election time.
The ringing calls urging class struggles notwithstanding, what seemed to motivate the working people more was the diminution, if not abolition, of status differences. Narendra Modi encapsulated this fetchingly when he framed the confrontation as one between kamdars and namdars, and not between the poor and the rich. Modi knew that the poor wanted to get rich (who doesn’t?), but they resented their inherent status disadvantages that kept them from achieving what they believed to be their true potential.
It was on the back of the initial status uplift the British poor experienced that they pushed for more status-related claims. In the late 19th century, labour unions demanded that the “luxury of education” be extended to children of working-class families as well. Why shouldn’t they also read philosophy, literature and mathematics, as other middle-class students did, instead of being straitjacketed into vocational training? It was in recognition of this call that the University of Reading was set up as an extension of Oxford University in 1892.
Benjamin Disraeli, though a crusty conservative, fought for better housing for the labouring class as did David Lloyd George campaign for unemployment insurance for the poor. On this latter issue, it needs to be said, it was earlier brought up by the Liberals under Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. This shows that there was a broad-ranging unanimity among major British parties on the need to raise the social status of the workers. Again, in the immediate post-World War II British elections, on social welfare both Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill had identical statements to make.
These were clearly welfare measures and aimed at uplifting status, and not about raising salaries, providing jobs, or controlling inflation. Looked at carefully, these policy interventions were to help people tide over unemployment and rising costs of living and not to free them from these scourges. In fact, as the history of modern Britain shows, leading political parties never really campaigned to remove poverty or provide employment as they did to improve living conditions and social status. That strategy has definite advantages over conducting a class war.
As the history of modern Britain shows, leading political parties never really campaigned to remove poverty or provide employment as they did to improve living conditions and social status. That strategy has definite advantages over conducting a class war. BJP, led by Modi, did something very similar. By opening bank accounts, providing financial aid to build houses, construction of toilets, the provision of cooking gas and increased rations, BJP adroitly put status concerns first
BJP, led by Modi, did something very similar. It kept the issue of class aside and instead attended to status concerns much like what democrats had done in Europe earlier. By opening bank accounts, providing financial aid to build houses, construction of toilets, the provision of cooking gas and increased rations, BJP adroitly put status concerns first, and how. Nothing on this scale had been attempted before, giving Modi’s appeal an audacious ring. This went down rather well, especially in India’s Hindi belt, where poverty is greatest and where public amenities, too, are seriously inadequate.
The poor in these regions have always been poor and have been fed with promises of jobs and better wages for decades and these have never really happened. Over time, the poor turned cynical about pure economic demands as they lay wasted, time and again, government after government. Economic uplift and better wages kept getting pushed back to the long run. Therefore, when BJP sidestepped vexatious class issues and energetically promoted status ones in their place, it found an appreciative audience.
UP, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan were perfect for this purpose as poverty there was compounded by misgovernance and lack of civic infrastructure. The PM-JAY health scheme has also been quite popular, but does not yet approximate universal health in Europe or the UK. However, the scale at which BJP led the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), set up toilets in MP, UP and Chhattisgarh, and in neighbouring Rajasthan and Maharashtra, is truly impressive.
These states, it must be noted, were at the bottom of the toilet per household ratio in the country. Yet, today they can claim to be 100 per cent “open defecation free”. Not surprisingly, these are regions where BJP has done well; some it rules and in others, like Maharashtra and Rajasthan, it was in power till recently. When it comes to making houses for the poor under the PM Awas Yojana scheme, once again, the spurt in construction is the highest in UP, followed closely by MP. A low baseline, of course, helps spruce statistical data.
The Ujjwala scheme for cooking gas is probably the most debated intervention, but even here it appears, according to an RTI enquiry, that cylinder connections went up during recent elections. It is also true that objections have been raised on government data on toilet construction and housing. Yet, after taking these into account, the jump is still enormous and large numbers have actually benefited. Add to this the liberal ration scheme that UP introduced in December last year which has practically doubled the quantities available now to about 15 crore ration-card holders free of cost. Why then should they not vote BJP in gratitude? After all, ground-level deliverables are way more persuasive than economic promises that cling to the horizon.
Status struggles seem to invigorate the poor more than class struggles do and Narendra Modi instinctively realised this. Therefore, while the opposition kept on at unemployment, inflation and job losses, BJP delivered tangible status markers. The poor want a better status first before they can clamour for better wages and get turned on by pure economic issues. Further, in matters of economics there can be many interpretations, many ways to spin a story and sing a number. This is something all parties indulge in and everybody, the pure and the poor, know this. It is for this reason that the class factor, by itself, does not have much of a shine.
BJP gave the poor a blast of status they had not experienced in the past. Reports suggest that Yogi Adityanath did well in delivering welfare schemes at a higher end because he was blessed by a ‘double engine sarkar’ in Uttar Pradesh. Whether Shivraj Singh Chouhan can do something similar in Madhya Pradesh remains to be seen
THE EUROPEAN EXPERIENCE also tells us that better living conditions mandated by law and, hence, status mobility, made the working people stronger and more resilient to withstand adversities. All of this forced employers to pay well or lose workers. Now that the employees had health insurance, better education and better housing, they could easily demand better working wages without fearing catastrophic conditions at home. It is only after status needs are met, that class begins to matter. Workers start getting a better deal not because of minimum-wage mandates, but because they now have the spine to stand up on their own.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) had earlier put a legitimate fear among rural employers that agricultural labourers would want higher wages, and they did. But as this scheme was limited to 100 days and at very low wages, it could not provide the poor with the kind of status mobility they were looking for. With state-aided construction of homes and toilets, increased rations, gas cylinders and bank accounts, BJP gave the poor a blast of status they had not experienced ever in the past. Reports suggest that Yogi Adityanath did well in delivering welfare schemes at a higher end because he was blessed by a “double engine sarkar”. Whether Shivraj Singh Chouhan can do something similar in MP remains to be seen.
To go back about 70 years, the abolition of zamindari in the mid-1950s was also a status intervention. The poor agricultural worker did not earn more on account of this as poverty levels went up and down till the 1970s. In the interim, the poor may have even lost some in terms of patronage. Agricultural growth right till the 1960s was a miserable 0.06 per cent, per capita per year. But as the impoverished agrestic labourers were freed from landlord abuse they experienced clear status mobility, and it was this that boosted the ruling Congress right through that period.
On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that in recent times the Mandal phenomenon indeed fired up economic and class issues, particularly in the elections held in the 1990s. Reservations for jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) led to the rise of many political leaders whose fortunes depended on serving a rural constituency. That said, we must also note that the official criteria for acceptance into the OBC category gave economic backwardness the least points and status-related social backwardness the most. Had it been the other way round, would Mandal have gained as much traction as it did? An open question!
These observations tempt us to conclude that class uplift takes place only after status augmentation happens on an enduring basis. Now that the poor have a glimpse of a better life, it is for them to take the economic fight forward. Class wars are most effectively conducted between employer and employee, with the government playing, at best, the role of referee and not participant. European history also teaches us that class issues, such as inflation, deflation, unemployment, and so on, become emotive election concerns once status issues are met. In Britain, again, it was only in the late 1950s, by which time status concerns were safely in the bag and the National Health Service in full swing, that economic issues gained traction during elections.
We see some indications of that in India too. In states where regional parties have been quite active in providing welfare measures, such as in West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, BJP has quite a fight on its hands. Also, can Shivraj Singh Chouhan perform as well as Yogi Adityanath did in UP in delivering a “double engine sarkar” which increased welfare schemes by a sizeable chunk? The Hindi belt has been underserved for decades and this is primarily because its political masters have relied on family, caste or patronage to win power. This has left wide open spaces for BJP to deliver its welfare measures and grab popular attention. Delivering welfare measures is not the same as announcing them because unless they arrive in a fairly substantial measure, they will not stick in people’s minds.
It was on the back of the initial status uplift the British poor experienced that they pushed for more status-related claims. In the late 19th century, labour unions demanded that the ‘luxury of education’ be extended to children of working-class families as well, instead of straitjacketing them into vocational training
Further, free electricity and credit waivers that most state governments do willingly are not the same as a toilet, a house, a gas cylinder, a bank account, increased rations, and educational support. These latter items are not just tangibles but require actual contact at the household level and cannot be decided impersonally from above. At this level, Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha have done rather well and have kept getting re-elected, largely on their own steam. Patnaik, in fact, holds the record for being the longest-serving chief minister.
Therefore, one might hazard the proposition that if BJP is to succeed in the more populous non-Hindi states, it will have to think differently from what has brought it success in UP. So, if there is a historical trajectory, it is status war before class war and BJP has taken a lead on this matter by a wide margin in UP and in some other states as well, post-2014. Opposition parties in these regions are well behind the curve. They not only failed to deliver welfare measures when in power but they also made it worse, during recent elections, by campaigning hard on pure economic issues like employment and inflation.
All of this goes to show that the slogan should actually read: “Status seekers of the world unite.”