Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, considered one of the most important postcolonial intellectuals, wrote a definitive essay in 1983 called “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It had this resonating sentence: “Let us now move to consider the margins (one can just as well say the silent, silenced centre) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat”.
It is impossible to ignore the reference to the “silent, silenced centre” and its echoes in India’s election results 2019 where chatter about the silent voter—or the voter who votes quietly without any show of her allegiance but with full consciousness of her choice—has been a constant.
The election result giving a historic second term to the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must mark a transformation in our understanding of the Indian public for one simple reason—these results have been driven by some of the poorest voters from some of the poorest parts in the country in an election that saw the highest voter turnout in independent India’s electoral history—67.11%. In democracy, the more the voter turnout in elections, the better it is. This election is therefore historic by that measure, too.
Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh—these states contributed much to the swell in the turnout. All these states, barring Bengal, are low-income states—home to the poorest Indians, places were both jobs and income are patchy. In these states, the number of applicants for government jobs outstrips the number of vacancies. The situation is severe in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India with around 200 million people.
These, therefore, were also the places most affected by two critical economic decisions of the Narendra Modi government: demonetisation (banning high-denomination notes to curb black money), and the hiccupy rollout of the Goods and Services Tax, which hurt many small businesses.
It must be understood that the results have come despite these setbacks and a wide-spread agrarian crisis.
But the poor in India are also the major beneficiaries of government funds to build more than 90 million toilets in one of the biggest efforts to curb open defecation in human history. In a country plagued by malnutrition, and where, in the last decade, data set after data set has shown open defecation as a major cause for contamination of water and food leading to diarrhoea, the impact of such a scheme for millions of poor people has barely been understood.
These are people who face the brunt of indoor air pollution from wood-fired stoves. It is estimated that 1.3 million in India die every year because of this. People in said states have received 70 million free cooking gas connections from the government. Almost all the beneficiaries of this scheme were women, and in these elections more women voted than ever before.
As the price of data fell, and then kept falling (by 93% in the last three years) to become one of the cheapest in the world, alongside the falling price of smartphones, it is the Indian subaltern whose mobile phone usage brought about viral images of even the poorest vegetable vendors carrying a mobile phone, and even using data on it. Data usage in the country soared by 69% in 2018, according to a Nokia study.
New digital financial transaction platforms have pushed online transactions to more than 620 million (value of around Rs 1 trillion or $15 billion) by the end of 2018.
The people using this technology have not only often been poor, but young, too. About 8% of India is over 60 years of age and 30% are 14 years or below. Around 62.5% of Indians are aged between 15 and 59 years, the working age, and this spread is likely to ensure that India will have a demographic advantage to 2055.
This is why the 2019 elections in India have been dominated by Twitter (Prime Minister Modi is India’s most influential Twitter user) and even more significantly TikTok.
Also, this is a country which as recently as the summer of 2012 had power blackouts that affected 400 million—mostly in its poorest parts. Now it is almost entirely electrified.
But these are mere numbers. They are not the story. The story is the link that connects all of these, it is the beginning of the latest chapter of that rising sense of aspiration that began in 1991 when India opened its economy to the world. Between 1991 and 2016, per capita income in India rose by 1,388% from Rs 6,270 to Rs 93,293.
The data only shows us rise in consumption of various kinds in per capita GDP in the world’s fastest growing country.
But it cannot show us the more granular rise in ‘per capita hope’. This rise in per capita hope has now raised—as it always does in a post-colonial country—questions of identity. Till yesterday, Indians were asking, “What do we buy?” Today they are asking, “Who am I?”
For as long as these questions were only limited to the so-called middle class, they rolled around in echo chambers; but now they have done that one thing economists dream of, they have trickled down.
The chorus of this question has loosened many of the old caste handcuffs as citizens learn as individuals and not merely in transactional groups. Yesterday’s ‘Dalit voter’ becomes today’s ‘nationalist voter’ when the national identity subsumes the caste or even ethnic identity.
This chorus is not located in only one part of the country. Modi’s BJP has won big in north, south, east and west—from Karnataka and Telangana to Uttarakhand, sweeping both Bihar and Gujarat.
A few months ago, I wrote about the end of the Khan Market Consensus meaning a time when the centre for influencer power would shift from the capital Delhi (Khan Market is a swish bazaar in the heart of Delhi) prized and financial Mumbai, to fast-growing towns and cities in the rest of India. The dominance of this consensus has now ended.
For a long time pundits spoke of the divide between an elite, metropolitan India versus a rural, gauche Bharat. This election result has bridged that gap forever (Modi, for instance, swept almost all parliamentary seats in Delhi for the second time in a row after his first 2014 victory).
“Certain varieties of the Indian elite are at best native informants for first-world intellectuals interested in the voice of the Other,” wrote Spivak in her essay. But the Indian subaltern does not need the Indian elite to speak for them anymore, no, not even to ‘first-world intellectuals’. They can speak for themselves.
The subaltern in India has spoken. She is no longer a silent voter.