Supreme Court's verdict on religion, caste, race will affect BJP less than its political rivals

Contrary to popular belief, Monday's landmark Supreme Court judgement deeming vote-seeking in the name of religion, caste, race and community or language illegal may affect the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) less than its political rivals. And in the larger scheme of things, the verdict may actually matter less even to those political parties who are heavily tilted towards caste or identity-based equations because a burgeoning, aspirational middle class is slowly changing the rules of India's electoral game.

That is not to say that netas won't try to circumvent the seven-judge Constitution Bench ruling that has come just ahead of the assembly elections in five states. And even as the verdict was being delivered, Aam Admi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal tweeted this out while campaigning in Punjab:

Electoral outcomes on many states are still largely decided on the basis of faith or identity. However, the impact of the judgement on electoral politics would now be far less than it would have been, say, in 1995 when the apex court headed by former Cheif Justice of India JS Verma ruled that Hinduism wasn't a religion but a "way of life". The three-judge bench had then kept references to Hindutva or Hinduism outside the ambit of election law — Section 123 (3) of the People’s Representation Act, 1951, that expressly prohibits candidates or his agents from canvassing for votes on the grounds of religion, race, caste and community or language.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

As The Economic Times points out, whereas the 1995 ruling presented a restrictive interpretation of the term "his religion", Chief Justice TS Thakur and three others (justices MB Lokur, SA Bobde and LN Rao) in the 4:3 verdict delivered a broader explanation on Monday, ruling that it meant the religion and caste of all including voters, candidates and their agents, etc, as opposed to the "minority view" of dissenting judges UU Lalit, AK Goel and DY Chandrachud.

Though the dissenting judges were of the view that the decision was tantamount to "judicial redrafting of the law" and reduces "democracy to an abstraction", the bench ultimately came to a conclusion that "the relationship between man and god is an individual choice. The state is forbidden to have allegiance to such an activity". The seven-judge Bench also added that "religion has no role in the electoral process, which is a secular activity... Mixing state with religion is not constitutionally permissible," according to a report in Hindustan Times.

The verdict was immediately interpreted as one that would affect the BJP more than others owing to its "Hindu nationalist" image and political rivals were quick to point out that the BJP's grand plans of rekindling the Ram Mandir fire in Ayodhya just ahead of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election have been dealt a debilitating blow.

This is way too simplistic and an errant interpretation. For one, when it comes to polarising voters around castes, faith and communities, there is little to choose in India among the so-called secular or non-secular parties. On the national stage, if the BJP had been guilty of using Ram Mandir as an emotive plank for electoral gains, the Congress has been equally cynical in its minority-appeasement ploy, regularly schmoozing with Muslim religious figureheads ahead of elections. The Gandhi scion's stunts of staying overnight at Dalit hutments are now guilty of overuse.

The regional outfits are no better. In West Bengal, minority appeasement formed the cornerstone of CPI(M)'s three-decade rule — a ploy that has become institutionalised under poriborton-usherer Mamata Banerjee. In a development that deserved widespread condemnation but barely scratched the national consciousness, the Trinamool Congress government recently got a rap on the knuckles when the Calcutta High Court slammed the state for curbing the immersion of Durga Puja idols as its clashed with Muharram.

On 8 October, a high court order delivered by Justice Dipankar Datta said: "There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the State government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification.”

In Punjab, the Aam Admi Party — a neo-Left outfit that promised to clean up Indian politics only to later fall back on reinforcing its ills — has dived headlong into the politics of faith and sacrilege, and in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati has launched a desperate drive to woo Muslims and formulate a Dalit-Muslim combination to cross the poll hurdle. If anything, parties like Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) are more honest in their identity-based formulations and their politics is devoid of the hypocrisy that is characteristic of the so-called secular outfits such as the Congress or the Trinamool Congress.

But while these hurdles exist, there is an unmistakable move towards a more aspirational brand of politics that saw the rise of Narendra Modi in 2014. During his mega rally on Monday in Lucknow, the Prime Minister repeatedly harped on development as BJP's sole poll plank and issued a fervent appeal to the electorate to rise above all caste formulations. It is a far cry from the politics of mandal and kamandals and presents a refreshing picture of the changing face of electoral politics. If he succeeds, it will be a further reinforcement of the force that is gaining the neo-middle class wind.