THE central problem – and the great puzzle – of the Indian political landscape today can be stated simply: Why has Atal Bihari Vajpayee suddenly become so widely acceptable? After all it is the same Vajpayee who has been around for over forty years; it is the same Ataljee who has been enticing crowds with his golden oratory election after election. But of late he has been proclaimed as the most acceptable ‘leader’, even as the crowds have got smaller and smaller.
What is more mystifying is that he has given no evidence of becoming a more sagacious or wiser a leader than he was, say, a decade ago; nor has he done anything that can be remotely described as courageous, charismatic or intrepid. He is not getting any younger; if anything, signs of old age are evident and all too visible, particularly in this age of telegenic glamour. All in all, his has been a painfully ordinary political career.
Yet Vajpayee has been successfully projected as the ‘able’ leader, sold as the super-shaman, the man with prescriptions, answers and inspirations for our collective ills, infirmities and doubts. Above all, he has been marketed as the man above party loyalties.
The success of this ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ campaign is as puzzling as is it revealing. After all, if there is little evidence of the ‘product’ having become any better, has, then, the political market changed? And, if so, has it changed so dramatically as to develop a liking for a man who was rejected all these years? Or, have the marketeers become better at their craft of persuasion and conversion? Has Vajpayee changed, or, evolved, if you prefer? Or, has his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party changed? Or, has India changed? Or, has the political space and discourse been disproportionately appropriated by a new set of interests and individuals who have found in Vajpayee the perfect saleable mascot.
A few inter-related propositions can be offered as providing the contextual background for the success of the ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ project. First, the slow incubation of the post-1991 economic reforms process, which saw the leadership of our elites passing from political hands into those of the business classes. This change of leadership of the elites was of course predicated on the end of the Cold War, collapse of the Soviet paradigm, apparent inevitability of globalization, and the American hegemony in the international arena.
Second, this newly empowered business leadership was truly startled by the de-institutionalization of political power at the centre, an unsettling process that began in the last years of the Narasimha Rao regime and continued unchecked during the two spells of the United Front governments. For all the talk of ‘inevitability of the coalition era’, the need for a strong and stable government was not lost on the dominant economic forces and their drum-beaters.
Third, the precipitous decline of the Congress party as a centrist and inclusive political organization, and the fact that the decline looked irreversible once the leadership passed into the hands of the foreign-born Sonia Gandhi. The entirely surreptitious manner in which Sonia Gandhi ousted Sitaram Kesri (the first Congress president from the bania community in a long, long time) from the leadership, overnight alienated the traditional business communities from the Sonia Congress.
And, last, there emerged slowly but surely a pan-Indian middle class. It is this new pan-Indian middle class that has facilitated the fusion of the three developments into a combustible and potent mix, catapulting ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ to the pinnacle of glory and power.
The most dramatic development of the 1990s, then, was the convergence of the above four factors which produced for Vajpayee an acceptability that had so far been denied to anyone from outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. What is more, Vajpayee has acquired and retained an all-India following, despite being challenged by someone putatively from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. And yet, what is interesting is that he is exactly the opposite of Rajiv Gandhi who was the first icon of the middle classes and who began the process of opening up the Indian economy even before the 1991 Manmohan Singh-Narasimha Rao initiative.
Rajiv was young, handsome, with a beautiful and elegant wife; he was apolitical, technology-oriented and totally unencumbered with the memories of the national struggle. Towards the end of his regime, Rajiv was paid a handsome tribute by the Financial Times of London: ‘Whatever the failings of the Rajiv administration, it has earned its place in history as the government that brought about the shift in direction of post Independence economic and industrial policies, away from self-sufficiency and import-substitution and towards a frame-work which is more market-oriented and outward looking.’1
Despite all this mortgaging of his soul to the middle classes’ political preference, Rajiv Gandhi could not retain their affection, partly because these very segments were upset with both his political arrogance and the creeping Marcosism of his regime. Also, the vast expansion of television proved the undoing of the Rajiv regime at the election time in 1989: the masses saw for themselves the difference between the claims made on behalf of middle class oriented consumerism and their own unmitigated poverty.
After the V.P. Singh-Chandra Shekhar interlude came the P.V. Narasimha Rao years. But the business and middle classes were not greatly impressed as the Telugu Bidda seemed incapable of checking the marauding lumpens of the Ayodhya movement just as he seemed unwilling to control the greed and corruption among his personal and political cronies. The Deve Gowda regime and the I.K. Gujral phenomenon were unnatural arrangements, inherently unable to meet the requirements of the newly empowered business elites and their compradores in the pan-Indian middle class. What was more, the Indian business elites needed the protection of a reasonably strong state against the demands of competition from foreign capital and investors who were muscling their way into Indian markets in the name of globalization.
The central task, then, was to find a new political dispensation which, besides attending to and repairing the efficacy of the Indian state, would also be willing to protect the business interests of the so-called entrepreneurs as well as to satisfy the cravings and aspirations of the new pan-Indian middle class. And the task was undertaken in right earnest by inventing new mantras: ‘politics is bad’, ‘there is too much politics’, ‘politics is a hindrance to growth’, ‘populism is dangerous’, ‘investors’ confidence is a must’.
The judiciary was encouraged to take on the political class; the bureaucracy was bad-mouthed; demands were voiced for ‘de-regulation’ and ‘de-bureaucratization’. It was simply deemed bad manners to talk of the poor. Atal Bihari Vajpayee fitted in rather well in this new calculus, even as his comrade, Lal Krishna Advani went about presiding over demolition’s of mosques, when he was otherwise not busy inciting frenzied crowds to go after the Muslims.
The business communities were simply becoming too nervous about recurrent demands for empowerment from the Mayawatis and the Kanshi Rams. India was deemed to be in the grip of a crisis of governability. There was too much disorder for the business leaders’ taste. Someone finally decided to buy peace by putting the rioters in charge of the police stations.
Once Advani declared that Vajpayee would be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, the BJP of Vajpayee became the business community’s preferred instrument of control. An opinion poll, on the eve of the 1998 elections, found Vajpayee enjoying a ‘A+’ rating among 55% of the CEOs of the country. Corporate India had found its man.
Areasonable judgement about the political economy of chaos and disorder that emerged out of the clash of Mandal, masjid/mandir and market, noted: ‘The response of the upper castes (which constitute between 20 to 25% of the population), including sections of the traditionally stoic business and commercial elites, has been to gravitate towards the formerly obscure pro-Hindu national BJP, whose commitment to "good governance" and "traditional values", not to mention its goal of transferring India into an ascetic and disciplined Hindu nation-state, has struck a particular chord with the "besieged" upper castes and the propertied classes, especially in the Hindi-speaking heartland.’2
While the Indian state was deliberately challenged and weakened and the political class was sought to be de-legitimized, a post-economic reforms middle class was evolving into a pan-Indian reality. Without the evolution of a pan-Indian middle class, the business leadership by itself would have been unable to create the magic halo around Vajpayee. And it was this pan-Indian middle class that opted to repose faith in Vajpayee as the only viable leader capable of pushing their agenda of greed and selfishness; that provided the requisite cadres, ideas, energy and innovation for the success of the ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ campaign even beyond the Hindi-speaking heartland.
While estimates of the size of the ‘Indian middle class’ have tended to be exaggerated (though of late an element of sobriety has crept in), what has not received requisite appreciation is the evidence of a homogeneity in lifestyle preferences and prejudices. Two factors – both products of the explosion and penetration of television, and later of the cable revolution – have contributed to this pan-Indianness. First, the advertising community invented a new, all-comprehensive India as the staging arena for a giant market. It is possible to argue that the MNCs are looking at India with unblinkered eyes, that the MNC’s advertisers are not bothered with caste antagonism and regional animosities, with memories of historic slights and other backward-looking grievances.
Instead, the advertisers for MNCs, used as they are to different languages and cultural sensitivities, brought to their job in India a new proclivity to regional tastes and tapped into local passions to garner respectability for their products. Advertising gurus began telling their juniors to be equally attuned to rural tastes and preferences. A survey of marketing requirement of the new brands summed up the homogenizing impact of television, especially satellite, to small towns like Guwahati, Baroda, Ludhiana, Indore, Quilon, among others: ‘With satellite TV shovelling hi-life images down small-town throats, suddenly the attitudinal gap between metros and small towns India is disappearing.’
And, second, the hitherto enamoured of regional cultural mores and traditions, the middle classes in the metro cities and other urban areas, began seeking aspirations from the same source of moral and cultural values: the West. The pan-Indianness of the middle classes stems from a homogeneous craving for status and respectability, an acceptability from global company provided by a globalized economy. As Shobha De puts it, ‘This is the first generation of global kids with international reference points.’ Emboldened by his new global company and global brand names, the new pan-Indian middle class man is unapologetic about his lifestyle.
Asurvey of status symbols of the adult male concluded: ‘He belongs to a tribe that is unique in its aggressive pursuit of trappings of success. He has done two things very effectively. One, buried the collective guilt of a manuvadi past. Two, made the most of a growing economy to get a bank balance full of New Money. He has earned, not inherited it – which he takes as a moral license to flaunt success. His tribe is growing fast.’ There is no stopping now for this culturally assertive new middle class. So much so that one of India’s leading magazines even saluted, without any trace of disapproval, the use of cocaine by the rich. ‘The deceptive glamour drug is quickly becoming the with-it statement in Mumbai… earlier losers used drugs, now winners do coke to stay cool and stay ahead.’3
This hedonism is not confined to the megarich end of the band. The television medium has, it seems, been assigned the role of celebrating the lifestyle of the rich; teledramas are being scripted to garner acceptability for extramarital relationships, badla (vendetta), family feuds, business rivalries. Everyone in these televised dramas seems to have opulent homes, expensive clothes, elegant women, and not a care in the world; there is never any hint as to who is bringing the moolah home. Concern for the poor or respect for lower middle class aspirations and insecurities are conspicuously absent.
What is redeeming about the new middle class, especially its younger segment, is that despite its global connections, it remains nationally anchored. There is national self assurance to compete globally, to test one’s mettle in the global market and arena. A survey, for example, found 51% of young consumers in New Delhi and Mumbai actively supporting the swadeshi credo of ‘Be Indian, buy Indian.’
The designers of the ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ campaign have cleverly tapped into this mix of greed, globalism and nationalism. Once Vajpayee proclaimed that ‘I dream of a strong and prosperous India,’ it was possible to market him to even unfamiliar parts and constituencies in the country. The cockiness of the new generation was sought to be converted into a national outlook.
For example, Vajpayee’s finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, said in December 1998: ‘Nuclear tests were swadeshi because they made India powerful. Now, India must be a powerful economic nation to match its military might, and the only way you can become an economic power is by being able to test your strengths against others. Which means going out into the world and competing or letting the world come in and compete. It is not from hiding from the world, but by going out and meeting the world that we can compete.... After the nuclear tests, to think that we will go the East India Co. way or that transnationals will come in and take over, or that they will exercise undue influence, that foreign investments should be resisted – these are all concepts which are not valid any more.’4
This cockiness – with Vajpayee as its national symbol – got consecrated in Kargil. The conflict produced a remarkable synergy between Corporate India, Media India and Mass India. A cursory glance at the various ‘internet’ polls conducted by newspapers and television – and which were deemed to be reflective of the national mood – revealed an unapologetic itch for militarization, for glorification of the war machine, for a corporate agenda and against democratic dissent and discussion. For example, 77% wanted India to cross the Line of Control to achieve the goal of evicting infiltrators from Kargil; 66% were against a special session of the Rajya Sabha (as favoured by Opposition parties and the President of India) to debate the Kargil issue; 74% thought the Opposition did not play a constructive role; 91% approved of Vajpayee’s decision to decline Clinton’s invitation for talks in Washington; 65% disapproved of the President’s opposition to the ‘telecom package’ and so on.5
If the Kargil conflict revealed the connected internet generation’s nationalistic chauvinism, its craving for a spot of bullyism, intolerance for democracy and contempt for accountability, it also revealed how easy it was for a tiny elite to work up the entire country towards a particular mood.6 More than anything, the Kargil conflict was the new middle class’ finest hour. And it was this mood that was reworked to produce a bare majority for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance in the 1999 general election.
Emboldened by their two recent successes – the selling of the Kargil conflict, and setting the terms of political debate in the 1999 general election – the masterminds behind the ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ campaign have hijacked the new government. Since 13 October 1999 when the new Vajpayee government took oath of office, it has behaved as if it has to only worry about the chambers of commerce; the prime minister and his ministers have travelled to the gathering of businessmen and entrepreneurs to make ‘pro-growth’ announcements. A Confederation of Indian Industry facts-heet, dated 4 December 1999, simply noted: ‘Government policy decisions have remained in line with "second-generation reforms", and several steps that have been taken represent unpopular, but necessary, moves.’
Atal Bihari Vajpayee has now been truly appropriated by the pan-Indian middle class, even though the evidence suggests that the size of the ‘middle class’ may not be as large as was estimated in the early 1990s. Nor did the 1999 election produce evidence of any overwhelming popular support for ‘Hamara Vajpayee’. Yet, national policy-making has been taken over by corporate India and its apologists in the electronic and print media. This appropriation of a disproportionate share in the decision-making and the consequent de-legitimization of the ‘pro-poor’ concerns constitutes the final success of the ‘Hamara Vajpayee’ campaign.
1. 20 December 1988.
2. Shailendra Sharma, Development and Democracy in India, Lynn-Reinner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 1999, pp. 9-10.
3. A&M, 9 May 1997.
4. Interview to Business Today, 22 January 1999.
5. These are cited from The Times of India internet polls during the Kargil conflict.
6. See Harish Khare, ‘After the Kargil Cup Fever’, The Hindu, 14 July 1999; and, ‘Beyond the War-drummers’ Agenda’, The Hindu, 28 July 1999.