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February 5, 1998


The Rediff Election Special/Shalabh Kumar

Secularism and the middle-class

Is the middle-class non-secular?

As a part of the much-maligned Hindu middle-class of India, I have often asked myself this question. Every politician and most columnists, come election time, talk of the non-secular nature of the middle-class because of which it is a solid vote bank for the Bharatiya Janata Party, and against the secular forces as represented by the Congress and the constituents of the United Front. The argument is built on the following logic -- the BJP is a pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim party. The middle-class has, over the last few elections, voted for the BJP. Ergo, the middle-class is anti-Muslim and, hence, non-secular.

That the logic is simplistic, is an understatement. More importantly, it is wrong because it is based on a total lack of understanding of what the middle-class is. The middle-class is a creation of a number of economic and social inputs -- primary among them are education and jobs. Each contributes to the thinking and behaviour of the class.

Education distinguishes the thinking of the middle-class from the other classes. To call education merely a process of acquisition of qualifications for a job is a grave injustice. It is, ultimately, what moulds us into thinking individuals, giving us the faculties to receive and process information, to be aware of our surroundings and to be able to take decisions based on our own conclusions.

A job, irrespective of its nature, provides every individual with security for life's basic necessities. It also, as a consequence, brings worry about the future, as one is more likely to worry about tomorrow when today is provided for.

By all reckoning, the middle-class should be the most progressive section of society. Why should the middle-class in India, then, be anti-Muslim or anti any other group, a behaviour which is essentially regressive? This could be true only if the Muslims posed a significant threat to the mostly Hindu middle-class. Do they?

To understand that, we must understand what the main concerns of the middle class are. With the immediate worry of basic necessities taken care of, the middle-class mostly worries about the future -- safeguarding what has already been achieved and progressing upwards in the ladder of life. Secure jobs, education for the children and a safety net for old age are the core concerns.

Every class poses a threat to jobs in a job-scarce economy. Reservation creates job pressure but the threat in these cases is from different castes within the Hindu community, more than from Muslims. In fact, given the average economic and educational status of Muslims in India, one could argue that they pose the least threat to the jobs of the Hindu middle-class.

Exactly the same argument could be made about education. Given limited availability, competition for what is considered 'good' education is severe. The threat from Muslims? Nothing more than what their numbers would lead one to expect.

A similar argument could be made for most middle-class concerns. If the middle-class feels insecure, that's because we belong to a poor country with limited economic opportunities. Is the threat mostly from Muslims? Definitely not.

There is, of course, a history of conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The middle-class has been a part of this conflict, but never really the sole cause or the leaders of it. It would be simplistic to assume that the middle-class has suddenly now donned the mantle of the protectors of the Hindu religion -- one, because material benefits continue to be the overriding concern of the class and two, because it does not fit in with either the historic or the expected behaviour of the class.

By all accounts, the middle-class has no reason to be anti-Muslim. That leaves really only one issue to be resolved -- why does the middle-class then support the BJP, despite of the rest of the politicians crying themselves hoarse about the threat it poses to the secular nature of the country. There are two parts to the answer.

The first is the fact that education and awareness gives the middle-class a better understanding of the role of secularism in our political life. It understands that secularism has, for a long time, been only a vote-catching mechanism for politicians -- the Congress and the likes of Mulayam Yadav and Laloo Yadav use it to get the votes of the Muslims.

As long as the Muslims in the country remain relatively backward, the fear psychosis (or secularism under threat, in political lingo) can be used to make them vote for these so-called 'secular' parties. It is, in fact, in the interest of these parties to keep the Muslims uneducated and unaware so that they can strengthen their hold on their votes. This partly explains why the farce of secularism has worked for so long on the Muslims. The middle-class, expectedly, has seen through this fraud and remains unmoved by it.

The arithmetic of our population prevents any party from coming to power solely on the Muslim vote. That brings me to the second, and more important, part of the answer to why the middle-class votes for the BJP. The 'secular' parties, in recent times, have used a political strategy with the other classes of the society quite similar to the one used with the Muslims.

The fact that a large part of the population is uneducated and mostly backward is, in fact, a crucial element of this political strategy. It is because of this that these parties can capture the votes of these people on essentially fraudulent platforms. The fear psychosis is used in different forms. If, for the Muslims, it was the threat from the Hindus; for the lower castes it is the threat from the ruling upper castes, for the jobless from those having jobs, for the 'noble' poor from the 'looting' rich, etc.

In doing so, these parties have launched a frontal assault on the middle-class. Since its size is small, the parties can afford to ignore it. They cannot, however, afford to let the middle-class grow because that would be the death knell for their entire political strategy. In essence, the political strategy is based on keeping most of the population poor, uneducated and backward. It is the tragedy of India that the strategy has worked -- most of the country's populace remains uneducated and backward, perpetuating the rule of these unscrupulous political manipulators.

Self-protection drives the middle-class to the only party which does not directly threaten it. Thus, the BJP gets the votes of the middle-class, not because it is a superior alternative, but because it does not threaten the middle-class under the guise of 'secularism'. If the BJP comes to power, it should realise that the best way to ensure that it remains politically strong and relevant is to focus on economic and social development. As the middle-class grows, so will its support base, while the other political parties can continue harping on the irrelevant issue of secularism.

Shalabh Kumar, an IIT-Delhi/IIM-Calcutta alumnus, is currently based in Boston on an international assignment.


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