Basket of Deplorables, by Branefartz
“A basket of deplorables”, Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters in a speech during the 2016 US Presidential campaign. “They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.”
Donald Trump’s supporters weaponised her comment, happily called themselves deplorable, and forced her into apologies that didn’t quite work. In her book, ‘What Happened’, Mrs. Clinton reflected that this remark may have been a factor in her loss.
Irrespective, calling a large segment of her fellow nationals ‘deplorable’ opened Clinton up to the charge of being elitist. Political philosopher Michael Sandell has often pointed out that this condescension of the elite creates a sense of grievance on which populists feed.
As evidence, we had Donald Trump saying, “I love the poorly educated”, after he won the Nevada Primaries in 2016.
And the following year, in an election speech in Nawabganj, our Prime Minister Mr. Modi said “Hard work is more powerful than Harvard.”
This was in response to the Nobel Prize winner - I guess that qualifies as elite - Prof Amartya Sen’s criticism that demonetisation was “a despotic action that has struck at the root of (the) economy based on trust.”
Modi’s humble origins have been a large part of his political appeal, and he highlighted this image in the same Nawabganj speech, “On the one hand are those who talk of what people at Harvard say, and on the other is a poor man’s son, who through his hard work, is trying to improve the economy.”
A broader thrust of the BJP’s messaging has been that they represent a pushback against the elite forces that have held power for too long. “The next hundred years are ours”, is a common refrain you hear from the most ardent supporters of the BJP’s strident nationalism. In his essay, ‘Lunch With a Bigot’, Amitava Kumar describes this aggression as being “born through its own sense that it is in a pitched battle against those who have held power for too long.”
The catch-phrase for those who represent this old power is ‘Lutyen’s Elite’, the Congress Party and its baba-log, who inhabited the colonial bungalows of central Delhi, who inherited privilege and a sense of entitlement, rather than having earned it by hard work, or more relevant in the context of politics, electoral success. These charges are well-deserved, and any system must periodically leach itself of those who command power without delivering performance. The Congress Party has proved singularly incapable of doing so, and has called upon itself its increasing political irrelevance.
My question though, is about the Sell-By date of the anti-elitist platform. Lutyen’s Delhi now houses the BJPs movers and shakers, and they have aggressively moved to transform it to their own vision of grandeur - a larger Parliament House, a grander home for the Prime Minister, manicured lawns that exclude the common man. They have wrested control of that most emblematic institution of Lutyen’s elite, the Delhi Gymkhana Club, and celebrated their Gujarat election victory with a dinner party at its Centennial Lawns.
Elitism is finally about power and impunity, and the BJP government has both in ample measure. The Home Minister’s son is the unquestioned boss of the richest cricket body in the world, and the Parliament’s microphones are shut down when opposition members wish to make speeches of protest. Inconvenient journalists are hounded with defamation cases, income tax raids, or jailed under UAPA, which requires no specific charge.
India’s elite today are unquestionably the BJP top brass, its courtiers, the commentators who herald its every move, and the business people whose expansion plans hew closely to Modi’s vision of India. At some point, the anti-elitist platform will begin to lose credibility.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that the demise of this platform will spell an electoral setback for the current dispensation. In their identity politics, enabled by the force multiplier of money, they seem to have a massive momentum, which is undisturbed by the reality of a shaky economy and increasing unemployment.
But the BJP’s charge of elitism reminds me of this joke from Soviet days - the Communist Party Chairman’s mother comes to visit him in the Kremlin, and is treated to all the trappings of power - caviar and champagne served by gloved waiters in a dining room draped in silk and lit by chandeliers; a screening of her favourite film, War and Peace in his private theatre, and, finally, an evening by the fireplace in his countryside dacha. On the drive back to Moscow, he asks her,
“Mama, why you look so unhappy? Aren’t you proud of all I have?”
“I am. But I worry - what happens if the Communists come back?”
It's quite remarkable how the populist, anti-elitist politician has simultaneously risen to power across the world. There must be some common patterns/trends to explain this shift.