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Driven by a loathing of the old urban elite, this powerful, aspirational group is looking to change public policy entirely
What makes Shashi Tharoor an oddity in Indian politics? That’s an easy one to answer: he’s the ultimate representative of the Indian elite, educated at St Stephen’s, followed by the super-elite Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US. That led, almost automatically, to a dazzlingly successful career at the United Nations.

But that’s where the story changes track. Unlike his contemporaries at St Stephen’s and other such elite institutions, Tharoor jumped into the mudbath of Indian politics without a second thought. Most amazingly, he’s thrived even though he speaks English with an accent that’s almost too good to be true. He’s been made fun of for using complex words that have sent his listeners racing to their online dictionaries but turned even that into an amusing joke. What’s more, on his third outing at the polls, he’s won by over 100,000 votes.

Tharoor is almost the perfect representative of what essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra calls, “a metropolitan ruling class of such godlike aloofness”. This elite, using its intelligence and English-speaking skills, has gone out and conquered corporations around the world. It’s made its mark particularly in Silicon Valley and the tech giants that are themselves taking over the globe and other corporate behemoths like Pepsi.

But this urban elite has shied away from politics, opting instead in the early days to control the country and leave its imprint on government policy by serving in elite services like the Indian Administrative Service. In recent decades, though, this group has avoided joining the IAS as working in the bureaucracy has become a difficult and often dirty business with even senior-most officials pushed around by politicians who don’t hesitate to flex their muscles and use their powers to demean government officers who are at their beck and call. Now, if Mishra’s right, this middle-class is losing both its ability to influence policies and its grip on power.

Mishra argued recently in The New York Times that Narendra Modi is the representative of a highly ambitious class that aims to oust the much-hated English-speaking elite. He says Modi is “infusing India’s public sphere with a riotously popular loathing of the country’s old urban elites.”

Class battle
So are we, as Mishra argues, witnessing a class battle in which a powerful new group is seizing the levers of power and which will use its new-found strength to fashion different policies and narratives that will oust an old effete upper-class? Are concepts like secularism about to be tossed out of the window because they represent ideas imposed by an arrogant upper-class?

Is hatred for an English-speaking elite the reason for constant attacks on a long-dead Jawaharlal Nehru who, it could be argued, was the ultimate representative of such a class? Could it also be Modi’s appeal fails to find wider support in South India because these antipathies have less resonance?

Mishra recounts the struggle he faced as a student who was not from an elite background at a provincial university. He claims he was doubly disadvantaged and faced an almost impossible task to maintain, “sustained academic excellence, but also a wrenching cultural and psychological makeover in the image of the self-assured English-speaking metropolitan.”

It could be argued, though, that Mishra’s own example destroys the very argument he is making. After all, Mishra might have struggled but he has mastered the once disliked language so thoroughly that he has built an international career from his writings. Mishra isn’t the only one to seize the opportunities on offer in a rapidly changing world.

India’s middle-class is still sufficiently fluid and, as opportunities increase, jobs are being created and many from relatively humble backgrounds are rising to greater heights and prominence. In fact, they’re taking exactly the same path many members of the English-speaking elite once did.

A battle between classes and ways of life is not unusual in the world’s newer nations that have emerged in the post-colonial world. In Iran, a high-living elite was opposed by older groups like the mullahs who’d been pushed to one side in the new world where the mosque was no longer a fulcrum of power. The result was the 1979 revolution, which resulted in a total seizure of authority by an older class that had been sidelined till then.

It could be argued that a similar battle is underway in other Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan where the mullahs are attempting to take power by espousing increasingly rigid views about religion.

The middle class
In one important way, India has always been different from other nations in what was once called the Third World. India has a strong and ever-growing middle class. In next door Pakistan, a tiny elite still controls all the levers of power. It was the same story in other countries like Turkey or even Indonesia. There were the rich and the poor and very little in between.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, India’s rising middle class was relatively impoverished and had to use its wits to get ahead in the world. Former GE chairman Jack Welch, who’s always lavished praise on the Indian middle-class, said some years ago, “When I first went to India in 1989, I went there for low cost. What I found there was low-cost and high brains.”

But the traditional Indian elite has scrupulously steered away from politics. Instead of taking part in public life, for the last 50 years, it’s reached out for greater riches and headed for foreign shores. Check out any Indian ‘elite’ family and you’re sure to find that half the next generation is spread out in different corners of the globe.

By abandoning the world of politics, though, have they left the field to newer classes who are looking for more than to be co-opted and become part of a power structure? Will this new insurgent class seek to change the narrative entirely so that they can place themselves at the very top of a new system with very different ideas? Could other members of the older elite emulate Tharoor and enter the political arena, serving as pillars of resistance to dismantling India’s long-standing secular fabric? Or is Tharoor an outlier and the battle for rationalism, secularism and science already lost?

Paran Balakrishnan*

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