NEW YORK - Last week, India embarked on what has repeatedly been hailed as the biggest electoral exercise in history. But the bigger grinding noise seemed to come from hundreds of electoral pundits as they cranked up the machinery of received ideas. India’s future, these portentous commentators declared, would be decided by the winner of the three-way clash between Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal. Or the older battle between secularism and Hindu nationalism. Or the one between free-market capitalism and socialism.
But from where I stood one evening in the parliamentary constituency of Gurgaon, 60 km south of New Delhi, the ambitious editorialists and smooth-tongued television pundits seemed oblivious to the deeper drama of this election. In nearby Dharuhera lies one of the auspicious sites of India’s economic liberalization, and the fault line between the rural and the urban that is redefining Indian politics.
Rising real estate prices in Gurgaon, the corporate hub that enjoys the third-highest per-capita income in the country, sent speculators and industrialists flooding into the once-rural area of Dharuhera. The biggest local landowner transformed himself into a real estate speculator. Factories employed cheap labor from nearby villages, releasing their low-caste residents from the curse of feudal bondage. As we drove down the road from New Delhi, a shopping mall, with a Benetton outlet, announced Dharuhera’s imminent arrival in the world of high-end consumerism.
Yet that arrival seems forever postponed, as in Gurgaon itself, whose glittering hotels and shopping malls appear perennially under siege from dug-up roads, chaotic traffic and open drains. On closer inspection, the shopping mall, an air-conditioned haven of concrete and glass, turned out to have more security guards than customers. Dharuhera, where three-wheelers blaring pop music stood waiting to take laborers to their rural homes, still awaits basic infrastructure. Dust blew from the half-built and unlit road that the wheels of heavy vehicles had churned into corrugated ribbons. Stone slabs unevenly covered the open drains flowing before small grocery and vegetable shops. Mangy dogs burrowed into mounds of dried sewage.
If pre-liberalization India, poor and isolated, was paralyzed by the cruelties of class and caste, the new globalized India of billionaires has built its own oppressive hierarchies. Those who were already well-off, such as the region’s feudal overlords, have benefited most from a freer market. On the other hand, a nearby motorcycle factory has faced labor unrest over the management’s decision to hire contract workers at near-subsistence wages.
Into this casual squalor, the motorcade of Yogendra Yadav, one of the leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party, suddenly arrived. The AAP’s anti-corruption campaign had propelled it past established parties into a brief stint in power in New Delhi late last year. AAP candidates promise to clean up the Augean stables of Indian politics and business.
Unusually among India’s politicians, Yadav is a distinguished thinker who is closely associated with grass-roots movements across the country. I had last seen him at an academic seminar in New York University; he had now a politician’s catlike alertness and energy. His local dialect was impeccable; he moved nimbly over the imperfectly covered drains, pressing flesh wherever he found it. Unlike other intellectuals in politics, he did not seem the victim of a clumsy and doomed reinvention. And he seemed to have convinced a few people with a message that stressed infrastructure-building and equitable growth. Three shopkeepers assured me he was “sweeping” the election.
At the same time, a few relatively well-dressed men at the bus stop held themselves from the campaign commotion, confessing they were voting for the “flower” — the electoral symbol of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The infinitesimal sample could reveal nothing of value to the pollster. What was more remarkable was that none of the men spoke of the election in terms of ideology or values. Their demands sprang from their daily experience of inadequacy and humiliation: the lack of decently paid jobs, roads, sanitation, education and health facilities.
Just a couple of elections ago, caste loyalties would have predetermined voting preferences in the region. But these men had moved out of the old world and were seeking, with much anguish, to enter the promised new one; they were unlikely to be seduced by expedient appeals to sectarian passions.
And so in the weeks after this election — the first to reveal the electoral power of the urbanized villager — the stock market may rise, and foreign investors might be lured back into India. But these signs, always superficial, of improved socioeconomic health will be dangerously misleading.
A great rage and discontent is blowing across India’s landscape of thwarted modernization. Whoever rides this angry tiger into the country’s highest office, whether free marketeer or social welfarist, secularist or Hindu chauvinist, will have to pacify it quickly.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist.