What do words like “social justice” and “inclusive India” mean to a man running a roadside eatery?
The elderly man running “Sethia’s restaurant” at Bhiwadi in Rajasthan’s Alwar district was openly scornful. Sethia’s special vegetarian thalis were delicious. But business was down, there were not that many customers and his little restaurant in this industrial hub was not doing too well, he said. The very idea of the Congress Party’s “Nyay”, or the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Minimum Income Scheme), worried him, he said. He was brutally frank explaining why he felt so. “I have four cooks. I pay them between Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 a month for a 10 to 11-hour working day. If they start getting Rs 6,000 a month as part of some minimum income scheme, why would they work for me? What would be their incentive? They will sit at home. Where will I get cooks?”
Sethia’s antipathy towards social protection schemes was not because they may be fiscally imprudent as many economists argue, but because they threatened to disrupt his business. Sethia did not see anything wrong in what he did or how he thought. He had struggled hard, he said, and did not see why others should get a free pass. Sethia craved for a “strong leader”. He said had there been someone like “Indira Gandhi or Sanjay Gandhi”, there would have been an equal fight, leaving no doubt about his political preferences.
Should those of us who call ourselves “liberals” be worried? Or is this yet another telling marker of the huge chasm between the talking points among the urban intelligentsia and the dog-eat-dog world of people like Sethia?
The question becomes important if there is to be a counter-narrative to the macho, muscular, winner-takes-call paradigm that is being packaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues as the only exemplar of “strong leadership” in election-bound India. There are millions of people like Sethia in this country. They are not heartless. But words like social justice and inclusive growth mean nothing to them unless they are unpacked in a language and idiom that they can relate to.
It is not hard to see the reasons for the appeal of the “strong man”, the “quick fix”, the magic bullet, especially in times of uncertainty and social transition. Those who are in a position of relative privilege view schemes which offer social protection to those below them with great suspicion. They see them as signs of weakness. They think something that is theirs is being snatched away from them. But those who are on the margins and feel crushed have a different perspective.
At Rewasan village in Haryana’s Nuh district, I met a bunch of young men who were enthusiastic about the Congress Party and its poll slogans promising inclusiveness. Nuh, earlier called Mewat, is one of the most backward parts of India on many development parameters. In 2018, the Central government included Nuh in its list of “aspirational districts”. If you believe the official narrative, things are improving in Nuh. But men I met at Rewasan had a different story. They felt whatever little they had was being snatched away from them and they were being pushed towards the precipice. Most of them worked as drivers. They told me they were out of work because their licences had not been renewed in recent times and no new licences were being issued. There was not much other work around and they had fallen back on the little patches of land they had. All in all, it was a miserable existence and they were looking for social protection schemes.
Then there were people who would prefer not to speak about anything they see as even remotely controversial. I travelled through many of the areas where mob lynchings had taken place; where Muslims had been beaten up, even killed, by self-styled cow protectors. But such issues did not surface in the conversations of many people that I met. Everything was fine, they said.
Had these people slipped into casual majoritarianism without even realising that they had done so? In many instances, I found that while at the individual level, many of these people were perfectly pleasant, they were completely apathetic to what happens to those in less advantageous positions. “Lynchings? Yes, I have heard about them. But no one I know has suffered. I really don’t know much about these issues,” a beauty parlour owner told me. She did not want to be drawn into a discussion on the subject.
None of this is unique to this poll season or even to this country. Most people anywhere in the world prefer to live within their comfort zones, and are not interested in exploring the world beyond. Most people prefer to shrug off unpleasant news they hear if it does not affect them directly. And yes, most people like echo chambers.
The key question — can we afford to remain this way in these hyper-polarised times? Can we afford to turn away from everything grim and gruesome and ugly happening around us simply because “we” have not been touched yet? What can happen in the long run if we toss those who are already at the edge over the cliff? What can happen if we ignore their seething anger?
In the 2014 election campaign, one of the charges that PM candidate Narendra Modi made was that the previous Congress-led government was into what the BJP calls “minority appeasement”. That is not a charge anyone can lay against the government that is completing its term now. But has the pendulum swung too far the other way, through rhetoric that is exclusionary rather than inclusive, alongside lynchings, cow vigilantism and the overt and covert support given to such activities by BJP ministers at the Centre and in the states, as well as its party leaders? The minorities certainly think so. Many among the majority do not.
But whichever government comes to power by the end of next month, can it function optimally if the minorities are at best sullen and cowed? For years, Prime Minister Modi has been talking of good governance and development for everyone. If these are to work, all sections of Indian society have to be on board willingly. In the long run, fear cannot be the key.