India 2020: The Brahminic Backlash

As India grows richer, a threat to its democracy is becoming apparent. The Indian upper classes, as Devesh Kapur has memorably illustrated, whose earlier generations mostly left for greener pastures overseas or withdrew into gated communities of modern Delhi, may want to come back. This is a tension which the current discourse on Indian diaspora may not capture. The diaspora almost gave up the country, because it was poor and offered few opportunities, but also because democracy challenged the position of the traditional elite in the society. However, India's emergence as an economic powerhouse and its various opportunities are now engaging this diaspora, now people with money, with the country yet again. And, this, startlingly, may hinder democracy rather than spurring it.

Kapur contrasted India and Pakistan, and noted that the flight of India's skilled elite allowed Indian democracy to prosper, whereas Pakistan's land-based elite couldn't go, and actively blocked the country's movement towards democracy. This is a simple, but powerful theory, empirically supported, and I would suspect this thinking has somewhat informed the Indian government's love-hate relationship with its diaspora. This may be one of the reasons why allowing dual citizenship is so difficult for the Indian government, though the non-residents are wooed to make investments in India. India treats diaspora as it would treat any other investor - love their money but loath their practices - and this may have come from this deep schism that lays beneath the creation of the modern day Indian diaspora (as opposed to the ones created by the Raj).
The diaspora also solidly stands behind the 'development' agenda, as personified, of late, by Narendra Modi, wherein economic development takes precedence over democratic discourse. Mr Modi actively engaged the diaspora, and in it, he sees active supporters and sympathizers of his kind of governance. His support base has grown over the years, and Gujrat prospered with diaspora investment and closer links with the advanced economies through the diaspora. Recently, this seemed to have become a more inter-community affair, with diaspora Indians from non-Gujrati background rooting out for Mr Modi. They see in him an attractive politician who can win their country back for them.

Mr Modi is indeed suave, far smarter than the other diaspora darling, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. Mr Naidu, to be fair, had a far worse hand than Mr Modi, a poor state fighting deep-rooted Maoist insurgency as opposed to Mr Modi's generally prosperous and enterprising Gujrat. If there was to be any challenge to Mr Modi's power from its minority Muslim community (rich as they are in certain areas), he fired a decisive warning shot at them through the riots early in his career and has managed to put them in place. He has also effectively maintained a 'professional' image, clean, efficient, ruthless, something that upper class diaspora Indians love to see. They have started dreaming of the day Mr Modi becomes the Prime Minister of India, and they can start winning back the position they, and their parents, 'deserve' in the society.

This may indeed not happen for years to come. Indian Democracy is messy, but it may not be as fragile as it seems. It took Indian leaders a long time to reach where they are now: In a sense, Gandhi opened the door for everyone, backward classes, peasants, and the democracy was built on that platform. Nehru did his bit too, by promoting universal suffrage and through this, actively marginalized all the extreme opinions, Hindu nationalism and communism alike. It would take time to undo such longstanding transformation of the society.

However, as India has become economically attractive, a Brahminic Backlash may be in the making. Several opportunities may open for the exiled elite at the same time: The ability to participate in economic life, which has already happened, may now be supplemented with greater powers with media, education and eventually politics, with the liberalization of different sectors and eventual expansion of diaspora rights. This is indeed no justification for protectionism - India must not assume that its democracy is fragile - but it is important to solidify the democratic institutions in the country, which will help to co-opt both the disenfranchised in India as well as the non-resident brahmins. If this isn't done, the inevitable economic logic of liberalization will eventually unleash the power of non-resident communities into Indian political landscape. If democracy failed to deliver, it will surely be transformed.


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