June 5, 2014 | by Gurcharan Das Print

If Indians won their political freedom in August 1947 and their economic freedom in July 1991, they attained dignity in May 2014. This is the significance of Narendra Modi’s landslide victory. The hopes and dreams of an aspiring new middle class have been affirmed for the first time in India’s history. Modi has made millions believe that their future is open, not predetermined, and can be altered by their own actions. In a fine book, Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey explains that the same thing happened during the great transformation of the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the industrial revolution created a middle class that changed the master narrative of western societies.

The typical voter who elected Modi was not a Hindu nationalist. He was a young middle-of-road person who had recently migrated from a village to a small town. He got his first job and his first cellphone, and aspired to a life better than his father's. Modi, the stocky self-made son of a station tea-serving boy (chai-walla), inspired him with his message of development and transparent governance, making him forget his caste, religion, and village. The young man became convinced that his battle was not against other Indians but against a state that would not give him a birth certificate without paying a bribe.

The chai-walla’s son assuaged this young man’s other Indian middle-class insecurities. Our young aspirant discovered that he did not have to speak English to get ahead. “If the chai-walla can aspire to lead our nation without English, there is nothing wrong if I am uncomfortable in it,” he thought. “I too can be modern in my mother tongue.”

[caption id="attachment_633" align="alignleft" width="245"] Dashashwamedh ghat on the Ganges, Varanasi.
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When he witnessed Modi perform aarti, a Hindu ritual of worship, on television in a riveting display at the Dashashwamedh Ghat by the Ganges in Varanasi, he felt deeply moved. Suddenly he did not feel ashamed of being Hindu. The “secular” English-speaking intelligentsia had heaped contempt on his “superstitious” ways and had made him feel inferior and inadequate. During his long campaign of political theatre, Modi decolonized his mind and thus bestowed dignity on him.

Modi mentioned the word “development” 500 times for each time he mentioned Hindutva, the movement of Hindu nationalism, according to a computer analysis of his speeches by Walter Andersen, a former U.S. State Department official. For a young person who belongs to the post-reform generation and who has risen through his own initiative and hard work, “development” is a code word for opportunity in the competitive marketplace that Adam Smith called the “natural system of liberty.” This system flourishes in Gujarat, and not surprisingly that state ranks first among all Indian states in the Freedom Index (PDF). The government in a natural system of liberty helps create an environment that allows free individuals to pursue their interests peacefully in an open, transparent market. After that, an “invisible hand” helps to gradually lift people into a dignified middle-class life, raising living standards all around.

Underlying dignity is the freedom that reforms bring when economic decisions move from the offices of politicians and bureaucrats to the marketplace. When Modi said that we should make development a jan andolan, a mass movement, he legitimized rules-based capitalism (in contrast to crony capitalism). In this respect he is like Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, who made their people believe in the market. It was the job that a reformer like Manmohan Singh was supposed to perform. But he didn’t even succeed in selling economic reforms to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party. Modi should learn from Singh’s failure and convert the RSS, a Hindu nationalist group, to his development program, marginalizing its Hindutva agenda.

McCloskey explains that the same thing happened in the 19th-century West, when the narrative of middle-class aspirations for a better life triumphed over all other narratives as people became comfortable with market institutions.

Unlike the mood of diminished expectations in the West, India is in an age of rising expectations. Having attained hard-fought dignity, the aspiring voter is filled with self-confidence after electing Modi. But he is also impatient and unforgiving. If Modi does not deliver on his promises for development and transparent governance, he will not be shy about booting Modi out at the next election. The ball is in Narendra Modi’s court.

Former CEO of Procter & Gamble India and later Managing Director, Procter & Gamble Worldwide. Author of India Unbound and The Difficulty of Being Good. Columnist for Times of India, Dainik Bhaskar, Eenadu, and other papers and guest writer for Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Newsweek. Learn More about Gurcharan Das >