SC bars parties from seeking votes on religion: Can politics stay separate from identity issues?

Can politics insulate itself from society?

No way.

Can democracy work in India without giving groups — particularly those at the bottom of the social pyramid — the opportunity to bargain for a better deal by mobilising the crowd around identity? The answer, again, is no. That is the reason the Supreme Court’s decision forbidding parties to seek votes in the name of caste, religion and language is a bit difficult to agree with.

Supreme Court Of India. AFP

Supreme Court Of India. AFP

On the face of it, today’s ruling is a sound one. It addresses the matter of the divisive potential of identity politics and the consequent tension in society. There’s no denying the fact that identity based politics has, mostly, pitted people against each other and that it has been perverse to some degree. But scratch beneath the surface and it is a much more complex story.

Looking at it from an elitist perspective, it is easy to dismiss caste and other identities in our social and economic lives. But the fact remains that most of India rests on and is defined by these identities. It would be ideal if people could grow out of these but it is these very identities that give them the bargaining strength in a democracy and the opportunity to draw equal with others. You cannot just wish them away, particularly since politics at the practical level is all about addressing and capitalising on the grievances of people. It’s a give and take arrangement.

All politics around identity may not be healthy. But that is not true of all cases. Participating in politics or using politics to further their goal is a normal activity in any democracy. Take for example caste politics. It revolves around a superior goal, which is social justice. There’s nothing wrong in social groups mobilising and haggling hard for a better deal. Politics of caste in India has been empowering and liberating the lower echelons of the socio-economic hierarchy. There’s still a very long way to go for complete caste equality in the country but politics is the only route it can take.

On the other hand, the problem with the politics of religion is that it serves no higher purpose. Status quoist to a large extent, it has no goal to uplift individuals or groups within it. Political mobilisation among Muslim has not resulted in the improvement of existential conditions of the community. Similarly, among Hindus it is only aimed at consolidation of the community with limited motive. Maybe religious politics is still a work in progress. It will take some time to mature.

Whatever the case may be, there’s no way politics can separate itself from society. It is neither advisable nor practical. It is not practical because politicians are a crafty lot. They usually avoid the trap of appealing directly to identities. And they are capable of talking in hints. Moreover, they can easily outsource their communal or caste agenda to several groups and stay clear of trouble from courts. It is a better idea to let leaders cater to their potential voters but warn them strongly against resorting to violent and offensive language.

It must be understood that democracy is about making pragmatic choices. People make their choices based on the consideration of what they think is best for themselves. Their decision is driven by self-interest. To presume that they would be guided only by blind considerations of caste and other factors is just underestimating their ability to reason. The Indian voter has always been sharp. Look at the way they voted over the years, thrown out governments or retained them. The elitist view that the common man is stupid, emotional and impressionable just does not hold.

Finally, politics is often problematic, but it is its own solution too.

Updated Date: Jan 02, 2017 18:04 PM

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