Lessons from the results of the recent assembly elections

Lessons from the results of the recent assembly elections

Politicians who move away from exploiting social faultlines like caste to addressing aspirations will be successful.

Indians still live in villages, but the rural non-farming sector is now huge, almost half the entire rural economy. A lot of rural migrants are also coming to cities. Putting all that together, we find the average Indian in a rural setting is not really rural anymore in the sense that is commonly understood. He is rural-urban. The rural Indian has come out of his shell.

Earlier in public life, people interacted keeping in mind their social identities and functioned within those identities. People had a mud wall around their identity. Now that mud wall is in disrepair, people are scaling it all the time. It is because the rural economy is not what it was once. Agriculture is not the mainstay anymore. So everybody who is looking at his or her future is looking at education, upward mobility, even horizontal mobility. Every time a person makes even a horizontal move, a little hope bubbles up that tomorrow will be different from today.

Old forms of farming do not work anymore. Now, what you find is a great surge in education. Literacy rates are climbing. What is interesting is how many poor parents are sending their children to private schools. Let me quote one figure: 51 per cent of urban children and 21 per cent of rural children go to private schools. In 1980, only two per cent of children went to private schools. There is a huge change because there is aspiration in the air.

21% of rural children now go to private schools

The past was stable and poor. You could repeat lives from generation to generation. People do not want to do that anymore. There is a change in aspiration, which politicians have still not got a handle on. They still talk of old cleavages in society, which were more or less workable. I am not saying that people are becoming more wise or open-minded; they might still carry all kinds of prejudices. The point is that they cannot exercise them on the ground. If you are going to buy railway tickets or even if you live in a particular locality, in a basti, you are going to rub shoulders with people whose names you do not know.

Winds of change
  • The average Indian in a rural setting is not really rural anymore
  • The past was stable and poor. People do not want that anymore.
  • Politicians still talk of the old cleavages in our society.
  • We talk of felt needs. We should talk of felt aspirations.

Aspiring Akhilesh

  • You can see the village in him, there is also the city in him
  • He is streets ahead of Rahul Gandhi
Let us take Akhilesh Yadav, who is being largely credited for the Samajwadi Party's remarkable success in the Uttar Pradesh assembly poll. I find he represents an aspiration in himself. He is not a complete product yet. He is yet to become a finished, polished individual. He has the qualifications to be one. He needs the room to grow into one and this is what people are looking at. Perhaps Akhilesh is doing a good job at pretending to be a model of an aspiring individual, but I think it is something which is closer to his natural being as well. He has the aspiration that his father Mulayam Singh Yadav could never tap. His father was a politician in the old fashioned social cleavage mould. Akhilesh has his father's political genes. You can see there is the village in him, there is also the city in him. Because of this combination, he inspires aspiration.

{table}Many people have been pitching Rahul (Gandhi) against Akhilesh, quite unfairly, because Akhilesh is streets ahead. In another context, Rahul has already arrived. He is already a finished product whereas Akhilesh is like us, aspiring. Or he is a little ahead of us. His clock is running a little faster. And that is the secret of Akhilesh's charisma. That is why people find him attractive. Rahul is too much of a finished product. It is like the Hindi films. People like to see characters on screen they can identify with. People see their leader as someone who is like them, but a little ahead. This was also Mayawati's appeal, before she completely blew it by going back to that cleavage mould. When she won an absolute majority in the 2007 UP assembly elections, she was like Akhilesh Yadav, she was the aspirational model. She talked about development. She talked about improving the lot of people. She did not use the word 'reservation' even once in her speeches in 2007 when everybody else was doing so.

Aspiration is important. I am saying this because in the absence of everything else, identity is the default option. But there could be something else. Increasingly to be successful, politicians will have to talk in terms of paying attention to aspirations. We talk about the 'felt needs' of  people. You will find 'felt needs' a very top-down approach. It is time we talked about felt aspirations. You may think this is my need, but that is not what I aspire to. That is why the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme did not make any difference for the people in these elections. It was just a felt need. The big move for intellectuals will be to look at issues in terms of felt aspirations, not felt needs.

I do not know if a time will come when politicians will be able to think about society as a whole. When that happens, the big change will occur. For that you will need an extraordinary concatenation of events that will bring forward a statesman.

The author is a sociologist and former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
As told to Sanjiv Shankaran