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Home >Opinion >Online-views >Class vs aspiration: The subtext of India’s new political fault line

Over the last few months an interesting narrative has emerged as the two principal rivals in Indian politics, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, mark out their respective political territories ahead of what promises to be an epic clash next year.

Gandhi has, unambiguously, and on several occasions, stressed his party’s commitment to the entitlement revolution that it has fostered since 2006 with the launch of the rural job guarantee scheme. The latest addition to its political armoury of entitlements is the food security law. Addressing a political rally in Aligarh on 9 October, Gandhi said, “Dilli mein hum adhikar ki sarkar chalate hain. Shiksha ka adhikar, rozgar ka adhikar, bhojan ka adhikar, (We run a government of rights in Delhi, the right to education, right to work, and right to food)."

On the other hand, Modi has chosen a narrative that seeks to tap the aspirations of the young. Addressing a rally in Delhi, his audience predominantly made up of young people, he said, “Country wants bigger dreams. We must dream that when India completes 75 years of its independence, nobody should be worried about food, education and access to better heathcare. Tribals and people in villages will not have to fight for their rights. The right of the people should come to their doorstep."

Clearly, both the politicians are looking to communicate their own unique messages to potential voters. The subtext of the diametrically opposing ideological stance is very obvious: class versus aspiration.

Gandhi is being true to the ideology of the Congress party. Beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru, then with Indira Gandhi, and, more recently, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the party has positioned itself as the champion of the poor.

Given that the party has been in power for most of the last six decades, it only suggests that this mantra has worked very well for it—especially in the 2004 general election when it upset the otherwise firmly ensconced BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The big question is whether this message continues to be relevant. I believe that there is a constituency for which it is. Take the recently passed food security law that guarantees 5kg of rice, wheat and coarse grains at a subsidized price of 3, 2 and 1 per kg, respectively, to two-thirds of the population, or nearly 800 million people. The universal support it received from Parliamentarians across parties highlights its political significance.

And why not?

Indeed, it is an entitlement whose impact will likely be very significant. The improvements effected, under the oversight of the apex court, in the public distribution system (PDS) have led to an increase in consumers of cereals from 23% households in 2004-05 to 44.5% in 2011-12—clearly, given the option the people will exercise it.

Still, several factors could dent the political potential of an entitlement promise. For one, the country is materially far better off than it was even a decade back; the level of poverty in 2011-12 was estimated at 22%, as compared with 37.2% of the population in 2004-05. Information on household assets provided in Census 2011 reveals that materially the country has traded up—those who were walking are now cycling; those who were cycling, now use a scooter or a motorcycle; and those who had a scooter or motorcycle, now drive around in a car.

Second, first-time voters are less likely to be swayed by the promise of entitlements; instead, it is their aspirations that they would want realized. The age data released by the Census reveals that first-time voters, between the ages of 18 and 23, add up to 149.36 million—about one-fifth of the total electorate of the 725 million estimated by the Election Commission of India.

Third, the one sure way Gen X believes that its aspirations can be realized is through jobs. Now that is something on which the UPA has very little credibility. Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the country managed to generate a total of one million new jobs; in 2010-11 and 2011-12, it created 14 million jobs. Effectively, over a seven-year period, it has created 15 million jobs. In contrast, between 1999-2000 and 2003-04, some 58 million jobs were created (coincidentally, under the tenure of the BJP-led NDA).

Taken together, the three factors suggest that attempts to address the poor by promising entitlements may not be as successful as earlier. It will definitely guarantee some electoral advantage—but this will diminish as the voter demography becomes rurban (rural plus urban).

On the other hand, the message of aspiration that Modi is beginning to shape his campaign around is something that has a greater chance of appeal to young people. Not only does it feed into the anti-incumbency sentiment pervading the nation, it also presents an alternative (albeit, without any specifics at this point).

It is still far too early to say which of the two rivals will carry the day. But it can be safely said that new battle lines have been drawn in Indian politics.

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